In May 1970 four unarmed college students were shot to death by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. The iconic image from that horrific episode is a photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a fourteen-year-old girl, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller on a university road. Its details—the mundane particularities of green lawns and academic buildings juxtaposed to students walking and standing around randomly, enveloped in a moment of collective disbelief and shock around the fact of a dead body—evoke both the startling specter of mortality and the terrifying suddenness with which tragedy can intrude on the business of ordinary life. Bodies ground us. At once unrelentingly specific and yet universal, flesh and blood keep us undeniably tied to the forces of life and death that we can’t escape. During the Civil War, the body of abolitionist John Brown, martyred for his attempt to foment a slave insurrection in 1859, gave birth to a song sung by Union soldiers and eventually transformed into a nationalist theme, the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And the body—first crucified, then resurrected—forms the core of the message for Christian believers, who celebrate both the particularity of the incarnation, of God in Jesus, and celebrate the universal message of salvation that Christ’s triumph over death offers them.
So, too, the mental picture of Michael Brown’s body on Canfield Drive in Ferguson has been evoked, memorialized, and etched into the minds of people within and beyond the limits of that small town over the last few weeks. The blood that escaped from Brown’s lifeless body as it lay for four hours in the road has now been replaced by rose petals, posters, balloons, and stuffed animals. But the memory of that body endures and has, indeed, been invoked as a powerful symbol in these days of frustration and sorrow. For some protesters and residents, it represents an enduring history of black bodies enslaved, lynched, and shot down senselessly, a struggle that continues. For others, it offers the hope of a renewed movement to combat injustice.
For the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, bodies are the business of the Christian church. She was already a formidably busy woman, working both as a pastor and a nurse, both professions in which intensive care for others plays a prominent role. But she has been on the run since Michael Brown’s shooting: less than five miles from Canfield Drive, Christ the King has served as a community gathering place for residents and their supporters. The church has hosted several packed meetings, and has collected goods for the residents of the Canfield Drive neighborhood who have been terrified by nights of unrest. Rev. Blackmon has counseled congregants and local residents, she has run to the grocery store for mothers stranded by the suspension of bus services, she has organized food distribution, and she is now planning a candlelight vigil for one evening and a session with Elder Bernice King, of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violence and Social Change, for the next. She attends to the bodies that remain, helping them both to commemorate the dead and to move on and work for a better way.
She is not the only shepherd of black bodies in Ferguson and beyond. Clergy and their community supporters in social work and mental health care have been meeting on a regular basis, organizing voter registration, food drives, career counseling, childcare, and even finding alternate housing for residents affected by tear gas. Karen Anderson and Tommie Pierson, two other local pastors, among numerous others, have been equally consumed in caring for bodies. To be sure, there are plenty of visitors—media, ministers, politicians, and others—who have claimed Michael Brown’s body for larger purposes: as a symptom of pressing social ills, of state sanctioned control of African Americans, of enduring economic structures that prevent social mobility. And white ministers locally have also been involved in protests, support, and community workshops to educate local Christians about the history of a city that they may never have heard.
All this is critically important, Blackmon reminds us. Christians need to advocate for peace, for justice, and for healing. But being in her presence for even a short amount of time reminds you that her focus starts with the body and its immediate needs. She is unrelentingly particular in her approach. The first week after Brown’s death, she preached a guest sermon in Kansas City, taking as her theme “The Blood Did It.” In her address she spoke about the body in Ferguson, relating it both to her own role as a mother of three children and as an African American who shared a history of distrust of the legal system. And she connected it to the blood of Jesus and the unity of believers made possible by his sacrifice. This week, her message back at her home church ranged widely, circling around Michael Brown’s death. Her main focus was on the interconnection of people: “We are not alone,” she insisted. Not the protesters, not the looters, not the police, not the Brown family. We need one another to get through this and to move on.
The essayist Rebecca Solnit has written persuasively about the need to use the past, to learn from it, but to move into the future with hope: “The past guides us; the future needs us.” So much of what has been written about Ferguson lingers on the anger and frustration, and keeps people trapped in cycles of recrimination. And there is plenty of anger to go around. Many folks, mostly whites who are sick of hearing about their complicity in racist institutions and structures, just want everyone to get over the past and move on. For African Americans, and for others who were inescapably shaped by the racial injustices of the last century, the past has been a touchstone as well as a burden, providing hope and solace along with grief. It’s a body that they can’t give up, but need to use to move forward.
But if anyone will help us find a way forward, it is the Traci Blackmon’s of this world. Traditionally there has been a division within black churches, between those who saw their main mission as advocating for political change and social justice, and those who provided food and solace, ministering to bodies but not seeking to reform structural impediments to full equality. The black churches around Ferguson reveal a very different, and more hopeful strategy. Heal the bodies, be present with bodies, resurrect the deadened bodies, and you can help them change the world.
At the conclusion of the service yesterday morning at Christ the King, the Rev. Blackmon invited those who wanted to join the church to come forward. She was met there by a young mother from the Canfield Green apartments who will join the church soon. In her introduction of the new member, Blackmon quipped that some people have said the role of the pastor is to give voice to the voiceless: “I don’t believe that there is anyone without a voice. There are only people without an audience.” Her role, as she sees it, is to find the audience, to let the residents of Ferguson speak up, participate, vote, and bring their own voices to life.
Such a strategy may bring social order, she asserts. But peace may not be the ideal outcome, as she says, “We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.” Maybe she is implying that only death brings peace, while life offers something more complicated but more vital. A movement, not a memorial. Many clergy in St. Louis, both black and white, are hoping that communal resurrection will come from the tomb of Canfield Drive.
Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.