Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County, on August 9, 2014, and especially since the November 24 announcement that the grand jury would not indict the police officer who shot him, the nation has been awash with anger and fear. Protests and calls for justice have amplified, most of them peaceful but some spilling over into destruction. Many people are insisting on concrete action and social change to meet the challenges and racial inequities of today; others, perhaps believing those inequities no longer real or relevant, resist such action along with the protests and call instead for healing. In the aftermath of these messy events and the political divisions they have highlighted, we invited a range of clergy and religious leaders in the St. Louis region to offer responses such as they have offered their own congregations. We asked: How are you and your faith community responding to these recent events? What does your religion call you to do during this time? Not everyone responded, but many did, despite the considerable duress they all face in this trying moment.
We present the following assorted reflections to our readers, which embody a spectrum of religious views and thoughtful approaches to the current situation in St. Louis and the nation. They are not representative of all viewpoints, but if there is a unified message to be found here, it is that these local faith leaders want unity for all people. It is a vision that will only be achieved when each person is treated with the same measure of fairness, justice, and human dignity as every other.
Rev. Rodney T. Francis, Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church
“Wake Up Everybody” was a popular anti-war song performed by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass as the lead vocalist. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, the song was a critique of our country’s seemingly apathetic stance toward the war’s impact on the domestic social disorder and unrest of the day. The song was a clarion call for change:
Wake up everybody, no more sleepin’ in bed
No more backward thinkin’ time for thinkin’ ahead
The world has changed so very much from what it used to be
So there is so much hatred war an’ poverty
Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way
Maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say
‘Cause they’re the ones who’s coming up and the world is in their hands
When you teach the children, teach ’em the very best you can
The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me
Given the unrest in Ferguson and urban communities around the country, the song could not be more prophetic. The international coverage has awakened many to the reality that there is a subculture of poor and disenfranchised young people of color who are disenchanted with the current state of affairs. These young people and their allies have proven they are willing to march, protest, disrupt, confront, agitate, loot, burn and stake their very lives on calling for change. One can debate the merits of their methods in expressing themselves and their frustration, but what is not debatable is their effectiveness. Since engaging their varied forms of protests, many have miraculously awakened. The governor has appointed the first African American to a cabinet level position in his administration, created a new Office of Community Engagement led by two African Americans, allocated funds for a youth summer jobs program to hire 2,000 low-income youth and convened a special Ferguson Commission. The Regional Chamber of Commerce and local corporations have offered to create job opportunities for disaffected youth. The U.S. Justice Department continues a regional investigation into unfair police and municipal practices, and national news outlets interrupted their regular programming to carry remarks from President Obama. Finally, the chain of global protests have drawn crowds into the thousands in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Dallas, Boston, Atlanta, and London. Right or wrong, justifiable or not, if the intent was to wake everybody up, I’d say they have succeeded.
The world won’t get no better
If we just let it be
The world won’t get no better
We gotta change it, yeah, just you and me
Excerpt from a sermon using Nehemiah 2:17 as its foundational text, preached on August 24, 2014, at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis, MO.
Rev. Seán Charles Martin, president of Aquinas Institute of Theology;
Fr. Léobardo Almazán, OP, assistant professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology
“No justice, no peace,” the crowd chants. “Justice for Mike Brown,” the sign proclaims. To some people, the demand for justice looks like a threat; to others, it represents an outcry against oppression. As Catholic theologians, we recognize that the desire for God and the desire for justice are integrally intertwined. More than 2,700 years ago, the prophet Micah saw the necessity of justice in the life of the believer: “And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
Catholic thinking on justice emerges from contemplating the Scriptures, of course, but it also develops from a sustained reflection on the nature of human beings, especially as we live out our lives as social creatures. Using language that is meant to appeal beyond denominational identity to include those of different religions or even no religion, Catholic teaching holds that a just society is one in which the common good can flourish, one in which people are able to participate in the life of their communities, and one in which the goods of society are accessible to all. Justice, in Catholic thought, is founded upon twin convictions: (1) that every human life possesses dignity, worth, and value; and (2) that society thrives when the rights of every human person are acknowledged and protected.
On August 18, 2014, President Barack Obama delivered a brief statement regarding the situation in Ferguson. First, he acknowledged the rights to speak freely, to assemble, and to cover the story in the press. Second, he reminded the nation, “Ours is a nation of laws: of citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them.” Third, he made an appeal to “our shared humanity that’s been laid bare by this moment.” Fourth, he invited all to build, and not tear down; to listen and not just to shout; to unite and understand each other, and not simply divide ourselves from one another. The president concluded by saying, “And that’s how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.”
From a Catholic perspective, President Obama is calling the entire nation, the people of St. Louis, and those living in the Ferguson area to remember three fundamental truths: we all share a common humanity. As sons and daughters of God, we all have the same worth and we are all entitled to the same basic acknowledgement and respect for our human dignity and our human rights. Many commentators have remarked that the situation in Ferguson did not start on August 9, 2014, with the death of Michael Brown. Instead, the violent reaction grew from something larger, from years of imposed racial profiling, discrimination and resultant poverty, from mistrust, indifference, and scorn.
We are all called to contribute to the common good in a spirit of solidarity. The president’s call “to build, to listen, to understand, and to unite” finds its source on the biblical emphasis to live in a covenantal relationship with God and neighbor. After all, human dignity can only be realized and protected if we live in true and lasting solidarity with our brothers and sisters. This solidarity calls us to “eradicate racism and address the extreme poverty and disease plaguing so much of the world,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In light of recent events in Ferguson, it seems appropriate to assess the extent to which we have become a true community of persons. How much and how truly have we been interested in the extent of the suffering of our African American brothers and sisters living in Ferguson? The wound caused by poverty, racism, and violence will be healed only by greater solidarity. Addressing these issues in a spirit of solidarity is the only sure way to true justice and lasting peace.
We are all called to contribute to the common good, in accord with the principle of subsidiarity. This means that each and every individual, organization or institution has an appropriate role in promoting justice and peace. Government leaders, both national and local, should seek to promote communication, cooperation, and peaceful resolution in close collaboration with other community groups (parishes, congregations, synagogues and mosques, neighborhood associations, civic clubs, and the like). Law enforcement agencies charged with protecting citizens and preventing unlawful activity must enforce the law while, at the same time, respecting the human dignity and rights of all. Finally, people of good will of all races are expected to be informed, to participate, to promote unity, harmony, and concord.
Ultimately, the Catholic Church finds in the dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God the firm foundation for the promotion of peace. All of us, regardless of race, language, color or creed, have the same basic needs, the same fundamental rights, and the same responsibilities to work for the common good. From a Catholic perspective, this is “how we bring about justice, and that’s how we bring about peace.”
Rabbi Susan Talve, Central Reform Congregation
Standing on the steps of the Old Court House in St. Louis the night before the funeral of Michael Brown, many who had been on the front line of the protests stopped marching and chanting and prayed quietly for his family and for the families of so many black men who have been shot by police. In that very place where Dred Scott sued for his freedom and was denied his citizenship and his humanity by our legal system in 1857, we remembered that the next morning, Michael would not be a cause, but the son of a family who would have to bury their child. We stood in silence standing on the very ground that witnessed the Dred Scott case, feeling the legacy of slavery and wondering if the exposure of the disparities of Ferguson had to happen here to redeem the shame of that decision so many generations ago.
Standing with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy I thought of how the story of Abraham, Sara, and Hagar tried to teach us that if we were willing to sacrifice the child of Hagar, (Ha-ger, the “other,” in Hebrew,) then, in the next moment we would find ourselves sacrificing our own children. Michael Brown’s death and his mother’s grief touched a nerve that shot across the racial, geographic, and economic divides of our region. Enough of us got the message that a threat to our children anywhere is a threat to our children everywhere. The gun violence was crossing the divide and it was time for us to do more than talk.
The past three months have challenged us to “walk the walk” as a congregation. As a community that embraces Jews of color and has always been committed to challenging the injustices of racism in St. Louis, we could not stand idly by as Michael Brown’s death forced people of faith to confront the reality that there are two Fergusons, and two Americas.
As the story unfolds, it is clear that we cannot let the narrative be reduced to an oversimplified battle between police and protesters. We have police officers in our congregation and our families, yet we must not be afraid to demand accountability from law enforcement that practices racial profiling and provocation and has done so for many years. This is a historical moment that has the potential to grow a movement that pushes the demands for civil rights further in this country. Our core values of being a justice-seeking congregation guide us and challenge us to be part of the next chapter in this nations civil rights struggle.
So, I stand with the protesters because the death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for me and many others who were ready to say enough to the profiling of young black men and women by the police in St. Louis and beyond.
I stand with the protesters because they have their fingers on the pulse for change and are demanding the entire St. Louis community to step out of our comfort zones day and night.
I stand with the protesters because in our liturgy we say that every life matters and their lives should not be more at risk because they are black and brown women and men.
I stand with the protesters because they are calling for a serious confrontation with institutional racism and I believe that we all need to do this work.
I stand with the protesters because many of them are our children, the children of the baby boom, and we taught them to expect more from their lives than to keep their heads down in fear because of the color of their skin.
I stand with the protesters because they are drawing from the experiences of other communities like Oakland, California, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in order to lead a successful campaign for social and political change.
I stand with the protesters because even in the face of the failure of the legal and justice systems to be fair and unbiased they remain committed to non-violent civil disobedience that provides ways for many who are frustrated and angry to express themselves.
I stand with the protesters because I have seen them do their best to identify and de-escalate those who would use violence and those who would use the protests for their own agendas.
I stand with the protesters because they are each individual whole worlds of potential. They are graduate students and nurses and mothers and they are kind and smart and have seen their brothers and sisters dying around them for too long and shaken their heads in silence. Now it’s time to show up, time to care, time to be an ally.
I stand with the protesters because I believe that they are our future leaders.
I stand with the protesters because they have brought us out of our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, and into the street to pray with our feet. As Jews who believe that our purpose is tikkun olam, we are required to recognize the brokenness before we can repair the damage.
I stand with the protestors because one day we will look back remembering how things were and celebrating how we changed them for the better and I want to be able to say that we were part of the solution and not part of the problem.
These are a few of the changes the protesters are asking for:
- Civilian Oversight Board for Police for the City and the County.
- Legislation that limits the practice of profiling by police.
- Body cameras that are working, turned on and visible name tags on all officers.
- Departments that reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods they serve.
- An end to departmental practices that measure a police officers performance by the number of stops and arrests.
- The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission resulting in reparations for police brutality victims.
- Consolidation of county police departments.
- Cultural diversity training for law enforcement departments.
This is very challenging and complicated work. This movement has also unleashed a strain of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It has been messy, and being white and Jewish has not made it easy to show up. But, I will continue to stand with the protesters because this is my home and I have to believe that our vision of spreading our Sukkat Shalom, our shelter of peace where the streets are safe for all of our children, is possible.
Rev. Shaun Ellison Jones, assistant pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church-Christian Complex
The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” I wholeheartedly believe we live in a hypocritical country. The United States was formed through acts of civil disobedience by a minority that felt oppressed by an unjust majority. From the Boston Tea Party to the First and Second Continental Congress, every child is taught to cherish what is now deemed as a fight for freedom by those America calls its founding fathers. We celebrate these protesters with monuments and museums, songs, and even federal holidays because of their courage to challenge what they believed to be an unjust and oppressive system.
Yet, when brown and black youth in Ferguson exhibit the same courage to challenge oppressive systems like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Paul Revere, they are arrested and told to be quiet. While our founding fathers used guns and swords to challenge the system, Ferguson protesters only use their mouths, feet, signs, and social media. Yet many of us have not honored them as patriots invoking their constitutional rights. Instead they have been labeled agitators and thugs. Why is it considered rowdy and violent to stand up and proclaim that “Black Lives Matter”? Why are black and brown protesters demonized for keeping the issue of police brutality and “death for walking while black” in the media, when all they are truly doing is having the courage to challenge?
As a follower of Christ, I believe it is the solemn duty of every believer to speak out against anyone or any system that oppresses or marginalizes a group of people. The Bible says in Proverbs 31:9: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Beloved, the Bible is replete with stories about individuals who had the courage to speak truth to power and tell them their “whole damn system was guilty as hell.” God commissioned Moses to liberate the Israelite slaves from Egypt and Pharaoh. Elijah told Ahab and Jezebel that it would not rain until the nation stopped worshipping false gods. Jesus stood up to up to corrupt religious leaders by throwing the moneychangers out of the temple because the house of prayer had become a temple of thieves.
In Daniel 3, there is a set of Jewish freedom fighters by the names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who had the courage to challenge an immoral and ungodly system. These three protesters exhibited character, conviction, and a willingness to accept the consequences of their actions. They stood in the face of corrupt officials and pending death by a fiery furnace and refused to obey what they deemed as an unjust decree. As we, in St. Louis and beyond, face an uphill battle to challenge and change our society we can look to their example and too find the courage to challenge.
Rosalynde Welch, Frontenac Ward
St. Louis Missouri Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
It was a bleak way to usher in what should have been a season of glad anticipation for the Lord’s birth. The city was divided along gnarled ethnic fault lines. Sharp economic inequality between poor and rich poisoned community relations. The legal system was in upheaval, and many had lost confidence in the rule of law to deliver justice. Citizens walked the streets fearful of violent eruptions. Conspiracy theories abounded.
This was not St. Louis in November 2014, though it could have been. It was an ancient city, described in the Book of Mormon, poised on a knife’s edge between the best of times and the worst of times. Into this tense scene would arrive an unlikely messenger, a member of a despised racial minority, who, with great courage, would call the troubled city to repentance and share the astonishing news that the Son of God would soon come into the world. In that dark moment, hope of deliverance from the intractable generational conflicts that plagued the city must have seemed like a madman’s fantasy.
Latter-day Saints seeking to make sense of the troubled situation that Ferguson has revealed, and seeking to discern own their role in our path forward, will find much to consider in the Book of Mormon. Like the Old Testament, to which it is closely related, the Book of Mormon is preoccupied with social justice: its prophets urge us to attend to the welfare of the poor and the suffering of the oppressed. Furthermore, it traces the inevitable decay of a racist culture with violent proclivities. It’s a sobering picture for its present-day readers.
And like the New Testament, to which it is similarly related, the Book of Mormon ultimately teaches that the Christian gospel redresses all racial, sexual, and political inequities with the power of Christ’s love. “[B]lack and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God.” As its expectation-defying narrative progresses, the divisions between black and white, righteous and wicked, are shown to be spiritually bankrupt. God’s Spirit is at work in people of every color, circumstance and persuasion. It’s an illuminating picture for its present-day readers.
The Book of Mormon addresses itself directly to the present day. It specifically invites its modern readers to “liken the scriptures” unto ourselves. That means us, St. Louisans in the aftermath of Ferguson. The book goes so far as to provide us with a historical example of the righteous society toward which we are instructed to work and pray. For a brief period, the conflict and upheaval that characterized this ancient civilization for centuries lifted, as night gives way to dawn. Modeled on Christian teachings, a peaceful and unified community emerged. They renounced their previous racist ideologies, economic inequality, and warlike violence. They embraced perfect equality, harmony, and understanding. “They were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.”
But this utopia was short-lived. Peace brought prosperity; prosperity brought pride, privilege, and complacence. Eventually the old divisions re-emerged. It’s heartbreaking to read. And it’s a warning that even the best-conceived reforms, the most inspiring idealisms, must be strengthened with ongoing commitment, work, and remembrance. The problems of St. Louis’s racist past are never only in the past: they are always just ahead in our future, if we lose touch with our deepest values and visions.
These lessons and many more for our moment are alive for Latter-day Saints in the pages of the Book of Mormon. Some of these lessons are relevant now; some will be relevant in the coming months and years. One episode seems particularly germane to our mood in St. Louis today. At perhaps the darkest moment in Book of Mormon history, the nation has been wrecked by a series of cataclysmic natural disasters that seem to act out all the human hatred, violence, and injustice that simmered at the surface of society for centuries. The morning after the destruction, shocked survivors wait in darkness, weeping with anguish and confusion and grief. Then a profound silence descends. After many hours, a voice materializes. It is a quietly compelling voice, but the words are incomprehensible. Again the voice comes, and again the crowd understands nothing. The voice comes a third time, and this time the people open their ears, their eyes, and their hearts. Finally they understand. Meaning dawns, and with it the darkness dissipates.
For stunned St. Louisans on the figurative “morning after” our own upheaval, we would do well to remember that after the anguish and the confusion and grief, a period of prayerful silence is in order. Meaning and light will dawn, but it will take time and desire. Not all voices are clear the first time. Listen. Listen again, and then again. And keep your heart turned toward heaven.
The Very Rev. Mike Kinman
Dean, Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal)
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In these days and nights, young women and men are appearing on the streets of Ferguson. And New York. And Oakland. And many other places. And they are proclaiming:
“Who are we? Mike Brown!”
“I’ve got my hands on my head. Please don’t shoot me dead.”
“Show me what democracy looks like. THIS is what democracy looks like.”
Like John the Baptist before them, they are contemptuous of the authorities—the civil authorities and the church authorities that have turned their backs on them.
Like John the Baptist before them, they are calling the people to repentance.
But unlike John the Baptist, many of the people of St. Louis and all America are not going out to them. Instead many if not most are calling them names like “thugs” and “criminals.” They are telling them to go home or to get jobs and go to school, not knowing that’s where many of them are spending their days.
In Matthew’s Gospel, John stands at the Jordan River and bids the people to come and repent? Why? Because “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Christ is coming, and we need to prepare to receive him. It is that Advent work of preparation, but really, it is the work we are about all year round.
John cries out to the gathering crowd: “Repent!” Now, we hear John’s voice and maybe our first thought is that he is calling us to fall on our faces and wail. We picture the wild-eyed man on the street corner crying, “Repent, the end is near!” The man who, like these young people in Ferguson, is so easy for us to turn into a caricature and dismiss.
John isn’t saying, “Repent, the end is near!” The word we read as “repent” is metanoia, which means a transformation. John is saying, “Change your life, the beginning is near!” And it’s not to individuals, John is saying you—plural—change your life, your common life together, the beginning is near. Turn—all of you—turn to a new direction, a new way of living. Get ready to receive new life.
In Matthew’s story, the people do just this. They don’t fall to their knees and wail or individually mumble a few pious words. The word Matthew uses for confess is ἐξομολογέω (ex-om-ol-og-eh’-o), which means “together, acknowledging openly and joyfully.” This is a loud, communal, joyful confession.
In order to be ready to receive Jesus, the people have to turn from being individuals with all the things that separate them to being one body. No them and us. Only we. And because this is an act of liberation. Because when we do this we become so much greater and richer than we are by ourselves, the people actually confessed their sins out loud and with joy.
John the Baptist is alive in the young women and men who are protesting on the streets of Ferguson every night. The call is the same. The question is—will we go out and see them. Will we heed the call to change our life, the life we all live together?
Will we as the church lead our people out to this new Jordan River? Will we lead our people into bearing fruit worthy of a common life changed? Or will we be the Pharisees and Sadducees? Will we, like them, claim the righteousness of our history as our security blanket? Will we deny that even now God is raising up from these streets children of Abraham, a new generation of Johns not to be baptized by us but to baptize us and to point us anew to Christ?
Isaiah and Matthew both spoke of an in-breaking—a moment in history where the people of God (and that’s all of us) are being invited to listen to a cry in the wilderness that a savior is coming. That the sufferings of the past can be over. That redemption from our sin is within our reach.
Ferguson can be that moment for us as a nation. The moment where we engage in that crucial act of discipleship that is reconciliation. Of self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life. This can be the moment where we acknowledge openly and even joyfully that our nation’s original sin of racism has bound us but that we will be bound no more. That we are willing to put the axe to the trees that sustain systems of white privilege and racial profiling, of oppressive policing and huge gaps of educational opportunity. That we are willing to be a tree that bears fruit worthy of a changed life.
That like the heavenly Jerusalem, we are willing to make the streets of Ferguson and all our cities’ streets flow with living water and with trees with leaves for the healing of the nations.
But it will only be this moment if we go out to these new Jordan Rivers and hear the voices that are out there. It will only be this moment, we will only be pointed to Christ if we listen deeply to the voices of young women and men of color, not just in Ferguson but in every city—and particularly if those among us who are white guard those voices and amplify them and interpret them for one another.
We are in a prolonged season of Advent, and really we have been there for a long time. These voices are not new. They have been crying out and crying out for awhile. But we are beginning to hear them now.
Will we go out and see them. Will we heed the call to change our life, the life we all live together?
Leah Gunning Francis, Ph.D., associate dean for contextual education and assistant professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary
We have gathered here today to express our outrage over the shooting death of Michael Brown that has been deemed a justifiable homicide.
In August, Governor Nixon was repeatedly asked to appoint a special prosecutor to present evidence to the grand jury. Elected officials, civil rights organizations, local clergy, and even the Brown family were among those making this request. State Senator Jamilah Nasheed presented an online petition with more than 100,000 signatures asking Prosecutor McCullough to recuse himself, but all requests were denied.
These requests were made because of a potential conflict of interest between the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ferguson Police Department. Many were rightly concerned about the integrity of the process, and demanded an unaffiliated party to oversee it.
Governor Nixon refused to appoint a special prosecutor. Attorney General Chris Kostner and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill supported this decision. U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay initially called for a special prosecutor but ultimately stood by Governor Nixon’s decision.
Now that the grand jury decided there is no probable cause for indictment and the evidence has been released, we are left with far more questions than answers. There were enough inconsistencies and missteps to warrant this case going to trial, as pointed out by Washington University Law Professor Mae Quinn.
As a result, we stand here today to ask Governor Nixon to now appoint a special prosecutor for a new grand jury. He has the legal right to do so, and we call on Senator McCaskill and Congressman Clay to support this action.
It should come as no surprise that mothers have galvanized to make this call. Throughout our country’s history, mothers have organized and worked together for the benefit of their children.
How different might our drinking laws be, and how many more lives lost if it were not for the tireless work of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)? What about the relentless efforts of Moms Demand Action and Mothers Against Gun Violence to stand up against the NRA and challenge our lawmakers to enact sensible gun laws that keep children safe?
Now it is time for this country to hear from Mothers of Black Boys and Girls, and our allies, as we stand together and say, “Stop Killing Our Children!” Too many of our children have died at the hands of those who were sworn to protect and serve them. Enough is enough!
We call for an end to racial profiling and police brutality.
We call for an end to policing policies that justify the use of lethal force upon unarmed people.
We want policing policies and practices that start with seeing our children as human beings first.
To be clear, Officer Wilson did not kill a gentle giant or Hulk Hogan. He killed a human being. An unarmed human being. Perhaps if our children can be seen as human beings first, they may have a better chance of being afforded the rights and privileges of one.
As calls for justice ring out around the world, we join those voices as we say “Never Again!”
This should never, ever, ever happen again to another one of our children.
And we will keep praying with our feet until there is no more blood in our streets!
This contribution was the opening speech given at the Mother’s March for Justice on November 29, 2014.
Mufti Asif Umar, imam at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis
“O mankind! Verily, We have created you from a single male and female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know one another. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Verily, God is All-Knowing, the Aware.” (Quran, 49:13)
There is a very famous saying that we all have heard at some point in our lives. The saying goes: “United we stand, divided we fall.” This small phrase conveys a grand message: the message of unity, the message of oneness, the message of working together. Unity is very important in any society, any group, and any organization in order to achieve the goals they have. This message is ever so important in our current time, especially with what has happened in Ferguson and with the grand jury decision.
Islam is a religion which commands and stresses unity, not only among Muslims but when working among non-Muslims as well. It is necessary to have a mutual respect for each other, to fulfill each other’s rights, to work together in a peaceful way. A hadith or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, which is a common saying in other faiths as well, is, “You must love for your brother what you love for yourself.”
In Islam, unity is so important that it’s included in many different things, even when a Muslim is worshipping God. For example, praying five times a day in a congregation is considered unity. Fasting together in the month of Ramadan, there’s unity in time. Getting together for the Hajj pilgrimage, there’s unity in time and place where the various steps are performed. These are all rights of God. So one is taught that there is unity even in worship.
But there is another aspect of religion, besides the rights of God, and that is fulfilling the rights of our fellow human beings.
God says in the Quran: “Hold fast onto the rope of God, all of you together, and do not become disunited” (Quran, 3:103). So we must regard all human beings as one body, and unity as the health of that body. We must identify those spiritual diseases that make the body sick so we know how to cure them; otherwise these diseases will lead to the body’s demise.
In chapter 49 of the Quran, entitled “The Rooms,” God mentions some of these spiritual diseases, such as mockery, defamation, slander, backbiting, and suspicion. All are causes of disunity among each other. In fact, they are so harmful that God compares backbiting to “consuming the flesh of one’s own dead brother,” an unthinkable act. Immediately following these verses, God also mentions the issues of racism and tribalism, which is the verse I posted in the beginning of the article. God created different races and tribes so that different people would recognize each other and learn from each other—not for people of different races to fight each other.
Islam is against all forms of racism and bigotry. Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another, or one color of skin is superior to another, or the people of one country are superior to another. Such beliefs were the characteristics of the idol worshippers in Makkah before the days of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad came and eradicated these beliefs. In Islam, Muslims believe all races are equal to God and the only characteristic that makes someone superior to another is righteousness.
In fact, the Prophet Muhammad said in his final sermon, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white—except by piety and good action.”
We must all stand together peacefully in support of one another wanting fairness, justice and equality for all, so that society can be the way God wants us to be. United.
Rev. Scott Stearman, Ph.D., senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church
Recently, I attended another meeting of clergy trying to grapple with how to be a positive force for good in our current city crisis. In a few trips to, and a few meetings about, “Ferguson” I’ve observed some things worthy of your consideration.
First, there is a reason Jesus appointed women as the first “evangelists.” In this present situation the effective voices right now are often women. Mothers, and female clergy, are on the front lines here. In the Metropolitan Congregations United clergy group, my friends Rev. Mary Gene Boteler of Second Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reformed Congregation, and Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ are key leaders providing leadership. I’m grateful to live at a moment when we no longer suppress these essential voices in and outside the church.
Second, we truly all do see through a glass darkly. As I have said, if I’ve learned anything over these last few years of dialogue about race it is that we see as much with our past experiences as with our present perceptions. We wear heavy glasses shaped by our past. Our past influences everything we see, or everything we ignore. It is vital that we seek to understand how another person’s lenses were formed, and that we be patient with those whose perspective is different than ours. This is part of what the great writer William Faulkner meant by his famous: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And when Jesus said to “love your enemy” he did so recognizing that most often our “enemy” is just another person with different glasses.
Third, as with so many things in life, the problem is not as much knowledge of the good, as willingness to do the good. I’m glad that the governor is appointing a commission to study the issues that have come to light in Ferguson. However, I do worry that sometimes our issue is primarily about political will, not needed knowledge. We know that free pre-K education pays huge economic and social dividends. We know that incarceration rates in the U.S. are off the charts because of a system that needs serious reform. We know that the secondary education system in many communities needs major funding and reform. One in three African American males born in 2001 will go to jail in their lifetime. That’s not simply poor decision-making. Between the 63105 (Clayton) and 63106 (North St. Louis) zip codes, there is an unfathomable 18-year difference in life span. Multiple causes are at root, but clearly it’s not simply about a few bad actors.
The last thing I’ll mention (although, there’s always much more to say) is that while no rational person wants violent protests, we people who make up the majority must recognize that non-violent protests are part of the way progress has been made in this country. Go back just a century and you’ll find progress made by laborers who were successful in instituting basic workplace protections, or women who successfully earned the right to vote, or the freedom riders and marchers who helped bring about the Civil Rights Act. Protests are annoying to those of us who, frankly, have little to gain. But the right to free expression is part of what makes our country great. It is how we’ve progressed so far in the liberties we now take for granted.
So in this regard pray for two groups who have been on the front lines since the announcement was made about the grand jury decision. The police, who are tasked with protecting our city from violence, and those clergy who will be working to “de-escalate” protests that get out of hand. The fact is we need the good work of good police and we need the work of protestors who will spur our state and city to do what needs to be done. And ask the question, not what would Jesus do, but what in this moment is Jesus doing, and what is my role in that?
Rev. Jacquelyn L. Foster, D.Min., pastor of Compton Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Compton Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) opened as a designated “24-Hour Safe Space” immediately following the grand jury announcement that there would be no indictment of Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old, black teenager Michael Brown.
Throughout the night people flowed into the building. Some were protesters who came to get warm, have something hot to drink, use the restroom, pick up a couple of those little hand-warmers, and go back out. Others were people who were not protesting, but came to be of support to each other, and to those who were protesting. Some sat together in the choir room where we had set up a TV to watch events unfold on the news. Others sat in the sanctuary praying, surrounded by candlelight and music. Some gathered in conversation. At one point a man with both Buddhist and Christian connections led a small group in “Turtle Island Prayer” with the deep tones of the Didgeridoo allowing people to express the emotions of pain and hope with their voices. And there were those who spent much of the evening out on the church lawn or on the sidewalk in front of the church blessing protesters on their way and encouraging them in peaceful protest.
At one point as I walked through the candlelit sanctuary, I saw a young woman sitting in the last pew in the back. She was praying and crying. I gently offered her care and then left her alone. One of our volunteers told me that this young woman, who was participating in the protest, had said, “Tonight I lost my church.” She felt that she could no longer connect spiritually with a community that could not hear the cry of her voice in protest. She felt abandoned by the church.
A little later a pastor from another congregation came in to pray and simply be in this space, in part because the congregation she serves was not responding, and she simply could not act as if what was happening in our city and nation is separate from the church. She, among others, needed to be in a church with others who were praying, talking, and caring through this moment in history.
I suspect that the young protester represents others who feel that they have “lost their church” in this time, and that the pastor represents others whose congregations are not ready to face, discuss, and take action on the issues of racial justice at hand. Their story is not uncommon. In fact, I could see the overwhelmed thankfulness in the eyes of those who found a few churches open in these days. Many thanked us profusely and with tears, for being open to them. Some asked “Why?” “How did you decide to do this?” Their questions, I believe, are not about the decision process; rather they are asking what we believe. How do we understand God? What does it mean to be Church?
These are the questions of the ages that we will never completely answer. Yet through the events of this great unfolding moment, I have seen a clarity in our congregation that is breathtaking.
The night after Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, I saw several of our church members stand vigil on a street corner here in our neighborhood to witness that this was about all of our communities and that God was with us. Others made it a point to go to Ferguson, simply to support the people there. Certainly our people did not shy away from reaching out to a family in our congregation who live right in the hot spot of Ferguson.
It was in September that our Stewardship and Outreach Ministry Group adapted “The Race Card Project” for use on three consecutive Sundays to facilitate conversation in the congregation on race. NPR’s Michele Norris started “The Race Card Project” in 2010 to encourage a wider conversation about race among her readers and listeners. On each Sunday, our congregation was asked to respond briefly in writing to a word. The first was “Race”, the second “Reconciliation,” and at last, the question of what this congregation can do to work on these hard issues and to be a reconciling community as we move forward.
On Wednesday, October 9, a group of adult leaders ranging in age from 30s to 70s was gathered at the church drinking coffee and tea as we responded to the cards on “Race” and “Reconciliation.” As we discussed the hard things and shared our pain and hope, little did we know that yet another young black man was shot and killed by a police officer. This time it was about four blocks from us and it was Vonderitt Myers, Jr. We had gone in the church to talk about race at 7:00 p.m., and by the time we came out another young man was dead and our neighborhood was spinning.
By the next night, we were hosting an ecumenical prayer service for Vonderitt Myers, Jr., and for the community in our sanctuary.
Whether marching or serving in Ferguson, or downtown, or South City, members and friends of this congregation have approached the issues with compassion for everyone involved. On Sundays we have prayed for the young men who were killed and their families, for police officers and their families, and for those who protest and for those who are fearful of the protest.
As tensions heightened, I witnessed a strong sense of calling among our elders as they, without hesitation, said “Yes” to the call of Metropolitan Congregations United to serve as a safe space. Then they and the congregation as a whole backed it with the commitment of their presence to hold this space as a place of comfort, prayer, care, and encouragement. We have been clear that “to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves,” required action in this time. The Church could not be silent. We had a role to play in helping to bring peace and the call for justice in our community. Even as individual elders (and their pastor!) expressed some concern, there was an abiding sense that our decisions must grounded in hope rather than fear. We are able to live and act in hope because we experience God in Jesus the Christ who “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). In God, we are already one people. It is our task to live into that oneness.
This congregation holds a deep commitment to the “radical hospitality of Jesus” which we see embodied in his repeated welcome, engagement, and offering of healing across the barriers that divided God’s people. This is what that hospitality has looked like in these days:
First, to serve as a “safe space” where people in the community were welcome, whether protesters or non-protesters, to pray and talk and simply feel safe in the presence of others. We would be open for at least the first consecutive 24 hours after the announcement and then as needed.
Second, to become a space where people who wanted to protest could be taught how to protest peacefully. Some would learn how to be legal observers. Some would learn how to care for those who needed help on the street. Protesters would gather before going out, so that they were connected with a purposeful group. For instance the first evening, we welcomed a large group of students from St. Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis, who came for training before hitting the streets.
Third, to become a site for meals to be prepared to care for those on the streets. In our space, volunteers have made everything from burritos to spaghetti to fried chicken, and then finally a huge Thanksgiving meal to be served in Ferguson, remembering the young black men who were not at the table.
Fourth, to serve as a site where protesters could receive care if they were suffering from pepper spray, tear gas, or other injuries. One great gift was the commitment by the staff of “Places for People” to have two mental health professionals with us from 8 p.m. to midnight each evening in case they were needed.
Hopefully, our work now is to help the church and the community we serve to learn to listen from the heart and to speak from the heart. Having trained with the Compassionate Listening Project, based in Seattle, I facilitate a Compassionate Listening Practice Group. We have used and taught this process within the congregation and have offered it in the wider community. We believe that we must learn to listen without judgment, to listen from the heart so that we may come to know the story of the other. Quaker Peacemaker and Mystic, Gene Knudsen Hoffman, who pioneered Compassionate Listening as a tool for deep understanding and reconciliation, often said: “The enemy is one whose story we have not yet heard.”
Surely the Church must be the community to help all God’s people hear each other’s stories and to become each other’s friends rather than enemies so that we may bring healing to our world. Because God so loved the world—all the world and all the people. And because we are the Church of Jesus the Christ, the one who embodied God’s compassion, mercy, justice, and love. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re open in these days.
Rev. Nora Jones, pastor at Samaritan United Methodist Church
Upon hearing the grand jury’s decision over the death of Mike Brown, I found myself angry, yet not surprised at the decision. I was overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment. I was sad over how the decision would affect the city, our children, and the world. I was sad how once again skin pigmentation is still a major problem in the world and that people still judge others by it. I was angry over how time after time peaceful protests were met with such aggressive policing. My spirit was uncomfortable with how St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough had demonized Mike Brown. Yes, as I watched the announcement, I was not surprised at the decision, or at my anger or grief.
As I thought back on the events of Mike Brown’s death, several things were revealed. First, the cities of Ferguson and St Louis and the world were changed by the use of social media; secondly, our understanding of how and when to protest evolved; and finally, on a personal level I too had been changed. My faith was changed, challenged, and stretched to new understanding of faithfulness.
I realized that the movement was changing quickly, which caused people to be more apprehensive about joining the initial protests, particularly during the night hours. Although I identified with the protesters, I was having difficulty embracing the nighttime protests because it did not fit my paradigm of a protest. In addition, my family begged me not to go out there, so I stayed at home. My heart was with the protesters, and trying to honor my family wishes. Yet God was compelling me to express my faith in a more visible manner that was less comfortable and safe. I was uncomfortable.
I attempted to walk a difficult path between God nudging me from my comfort zone and honoring my promise to my family. So I followed God into Ferguson during the day, where I could see those around me and those who stood with me. I was not afraid of the other African Americans around in the apartment, but the nighttime protests and the militarization of the police terrorized me. I was terrified of the teargas, of being beaten with batons, and of the pepper spray. I understood the protesters’ rage and anger but I did not condone their violence.
I quickly identified the systematic causes that brought us to this moment and recognized the implicated racism that lead us to this day. During the night, Ferguson became a different city and it was dangerous, and it was too far from honoring my promise to my family. Still God kept nudging my spirit to be a part of God’s visible presence in the middle of the chaos.
My involvement in Ferguson started with praying at the site where Michael Brown was killed. I listened, prayed, and wept with others. I listened to young African Americans stories of loss and faith. I listened to stories from individuals who were afraid of living in Ferguson, due to aggressive policing policies. I listened to a woman who saw the whole incident between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson, yet she was too afraid to testify because she feared retaliation of the police. I went to Ferguson in the mornings and late afternoon to listen, to pray and to weep for loss and the world.
Due to the cancellation of classes in the Ferguson School District, I found myself joining other clergywomen in providing a safe shelter for displaced children at the Methodist church. I listened to others and together we prayed for them and the world. It was hard to absorb the children’s fears and I attempted to alleviate the anxiousness on their faces. The children and teenagers became burned in the darkness of my closed eyelids. Often when I try to close my eyes to sleep now, I see the faces of those children instead. Each day we gathered, we heard questions of faith, asking why of God. The children who we shared hours with in Ferguson were grieving not only the loss of a community safety, but also for their futures. As the week ended, I found myself longing to do more but what more looked like was unclear to me.
But with certainty I knew my spirit was changing and God was enlarging me, urging me to pursue sustainable change for Ferguson. Acting on God’s widening of my faith I found myself attending clergy meetings and volunteering for more and more activities. Every opportunity I spoke to others about the importance of understanding the issues of racism and white privilege in our world.
I understood it was difficult for some individuals to believe Ferguson’s problems had anything to do with who they were or where they lived. I challenged people inside and outside the church with Scriptural passages of how we are called to love as God so loved and to be our brother and sisters’ keepers. The conversations not only challenged others but also changed me and my resolve to work on behalf of justice. I prayed and lamented over our human depravity more frequently, and I was more committed to be a part of the solution for pursuing equality.
Each new opportunity broadened my horizons to be more prophetic. Slowly God was dissolving my fears and my need to be comfortable. As God removed my paralysis of fear, I found myself enlisting my colleagues and people from my parish to cook meals for the children and volunteer too. I told people there are more ways one can serve than just to protest on the street. One could make a difference in life of a child in your own neighborhood. One could participate by praying for the city, the police, the protesters and peacekeepers. One could start by inviting others to have a conversation about racism and white privilege.
I preached and I cajoled individuals about how it is within our power to make a difference in others. As the days passed, I knew God was calling us out of the safety of our churches to work alongside of the young adults in the streets. Moment by moment, God pushed others, as well as myself to try new ways of being in the world. Again, I must remind you, that this new level of faith that God was pouring into my spirit felt uncomfortable, awkward and strange—similar to learning a new language.
However, what I love about God is that God longs to transform all of us, in how we think, act, and believe even in our uncomfortable-ness. God longs to change our understandings of what is comfortable and safe. God wants to challenge us to be more faithful and to trust God’s spirit to lead us. God did this for me by using the most common things in my life—strangers, friends, and the events in Ferguson. God desires every individual’s faith to be stretched farther than he or she believes is possible. I know this broadening of our faith is not just for clergy but also for anyone who is willing to follow where God leads.
The next step of enlarging the elasticity of my faith came through an urgent text message received from a colleague. The text stated they needed more clergy who could serve as peacekeepers in Ferguson as soon as possible. What if I die? Surely there was another who was more prepared than I. There must be someone, anyone, who knew how to speak the right words to the police and young adults to keep the peace. Someone who possessed the tools to dismantle the structures of racism.
As I mentally wrestled with doing the right thing, the words of one of my favorite theologians, the German pastor Martin Niemöller, rang in my heart. The words grew louder, obliterating my need to be safe. I found myself changing clothes and putting on my clergy collar. I called my mother and told her that I love her. I went out into the night. I went out into the night with my fears of being tear-gassed, or pepper-sprayed. I went out with my uncomfortable-ness and awkward feelings. I went out in power, confidently assured that God was with me. I went out ill-equipped but equipped by God to pursue justice and love for all of God’s people. I went out to where God was leading me and I went out saying to myself Niemöller’s quote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Nights, days, and months have passed since my first visit to the nighttime protests, and today I find my comfort still being challenged. But I go with God believing I will be alright and I urge all God’s people to do the same. After the grand jury announcement, we opened Samaritan United Methodist Church’s doors for people who needed to find a safe shelter, to worship, to pray and lament and to discuss our racial relations.
Today, I find myself weary of humanity’s inability to see injustice but I still persevere in hope. Praying that somewhere and somehow the world’s Martin Niemöllers will show up with their urgent message for us to act on behalf of injustices. I am hopeful that one day we will have a sustainable and just future that encompasses all ethnicities, and genders, as well as housing, employment and affordable healthcare for everyone.
So, when you are facing a crisis that is causing you to stretch your faith, lean in toward greater trust in God. Remember to pray first and then to act. And just know that not everyone is called to be a protester on the street but there are millions of ways you can fight for justice. Finally, I pray you stay open to God’s broadening of your spirit and faith and recognize that each of us can make a difference. Open yourself up to new possibilities.
Remember that it is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.