Dear People of the Diocese of New Jersey,
"Weep with those who weep...." Romans 12:15
This has been a searing week in the news. In Nepal, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake devastated the country and has claimed more than 5,000 lives. This is a natural disaster, a so-called "act of God." No one can be blamed for this situation. All we human beings can do is respond with prayer and with hearts of compassion and love. We can give concrete expression to our compassion and care by making a contribution to Episcopal Relief & Development. Episcopal Relief & Development is working with ACT Alliance Nepal to provide food, clean water, shelter and other support services to those affected by this disaster. ACT Alliance represents a collection of ecumenical partners and other groups in coordination with the United Nations and other agencies to maximize the efficiency and impact of aid, mobilizing local networks to reach remote areas. Please make a contribution to Episcopal Relief & Development to support these relief efforts.
In Baltimore, Maryland, what began as peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the death and burial of Freddie Gray exploded into violence and vandalism when some, mostly teenage persons, in the community took advantage of the outrage over Gray's death and desecrated the funeral by creating mayhem in the streets. Gray had died of spinal injuries after being taken into custody by Baltimore Police. The turmoil following Gray's funeral included looting, arson, vandalism and acts of violence against police officers and fellow citizens. This was not a "natural disaster;" it was a human-caused tragedy. The behavior of the looters and rioters was despicable and has been roundly condemned by many, including members of the community where the rioting took place. This abhorrent behavior should not, however, distract us from the deeper problems and issues that lie beneath the surface in Baltimore and across our country.
As President Obama observed in the wake of the rioting in Baltimore, we as a nation, "have some soul searching to do." There are too many instances of people of color, mostly young black men, dying at the hands of police and security officers in circumstances where deadly force appears not to have been warranted. The arrest and incarceration rate of young men of color, again, mostly young black men, is hugely disproportionate and has resulted in a "new Jim Crow." Education disparities, an underground drug industry which preys on poor communities and fosters gang activity and violence, poverty, blighted inner cities, lost manufacturing - all of these contribute to the reality of a tale of two countries - one for the privileged, and mostly white, one for the poor and mostly people of color. In the end, this cannot be sustained. It is not good for any of us.
As troubling as many of the images coming out of Baltimore are, other images are powerful and moving: a young black child bringing bottles of water out to police officers dressed in riot gear; citizens forming a human chain and standing between the police and rioters to prevent a clash; local residents cleaning up the debris left behind by the rioters and vandals, especially at the local CVS which was set on fire.
As with many others, I was particularly captivated by the desperation of Toya Graham, who spotted her 16-year-old son among the looters and vandals in Baltimore this past week. The rioting had broken out, and schools had released students early. Toya Graham was worried about her son. She went to the area to find him. When she saw him, standing among the rioters, with a rock in his hand, she became infuriated and wailed into him. "I lost it," she later said. Yes, she did. But she got his attention, and got him away from the scene without his being hurt, arrested or perhaps even killed.
Some might not agree with Ms. Graham's parenting strategy. I understand it. She saw that her son was in mortal danger and she reacted viscerally. She loves her son, and by his reaction, her son loves and respects his mother. On Wednesday, Toya Graham was interviewed by Charlie Rose and Laura O'Donnell on CBS This Morning. She stated that she acted to save her son from the streets. After it was over, she said to her son, "How dare you do this!" adding later "You will not be throwing rocks and stones at police officers...Who's to say that at some point they're not going to have to come and protect me from something?"
In that last sentence, Ms. Graham summed up the entire dilemma. We need the police. They are here to "protect and serve" us - all of us. At any time, in any moment, any one of us may find ourselves in need of police help. It might be on the highway. It might be on the street. It might be when they show up on the scene first in a medical emergency. We have many upstanding law enforcement members in our churches in the Diocese of New Jersey. They are committed professionals who do their jobs well day in and day out. They are willing to risk their lives for the rest of us. We need to be thankful for their service.
We also need to recognize that there are law enforcement members who abuse the enormous privileges we as a society confer upon them when we give them a badge and a gun. Moreover, our system is inherently slanted against people in poor communities. In many of our poorer communities, police and citizens are in an antagonistic relationship and citizens feel as if they live under occupation. Studies of cities like Ferguson make it clear that racial bias is powerfully at work.
As a society, we need to engage in meaningful prayer, dialogue and action to address the systemic ills that perpetuate injustice, and especially racial injustice. We need real attention and commitment to community policing and relationship building between law enforcement and citizens - especially young citizens. We need to end the so-called "war on drugs" which has essentially been a war on young black and Hispanic men. We need to end the school to prison pipeline. Doing this will benefit society as a whole. It will improve the quality of life for all Americans.
Ignoring these problems and issues will not cause them to go away. People will continue to die needlessly, cities will continue to burn and we will live in a constant state of anxiety, fear and siege just as Baltimore is living in right now. There is a better way.
Our Baptismal Covenant demands that we strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being (Book of Common Prayer, p 305).
Yes, we as a nation need to do some soul searching, now, today.
Yours in Christ,
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
Bishop of New Jersey
 See Alexander, Michelle The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010, revised 2011).