At the St. John’s United Church of Christ in Ferguson, congregants clap their hands, sway to the pulsing beat of gospel music. On a snowy January morning, with the heating system on the blink (the day before, thieves tried to disassemble a roof top heating unit to sell for scrap metal), this racially mixed congregation fill the pews, spills out into the aisles and onto the altar.
St. John’s pastor, Rev. Starsky Wilson, is vice chair of the Ferguson Commission. The group was named by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to address the complex issues of poverty, lack of affordable housing and educational opportunity affecting Ferguson’s African American neighborhoods. The commission is tasked with moving this city forward from the turmoil that has marked it since a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager last August.
Wilson, whose office bookshelves are filled with the writings of Martin Luther King and other great leaders, says he is heartened by the way blacks and whites have begun to collaborate on solving some of Ferguson’s long-simmering problems. “Quite frankly, when you look out on the streets and protest lines, you see a very diverse community working together, acting together,” he says.
Wilson wants his congregation to be front and center to change. His church was one of the hosts for the “Black Lives Matter Freedom Riders” who came to Ferguson from 20 states last fall to lead peaceful demonstrations. Several St. John’s members attended trainings on techniques of non-violent protest.
Change needs to be sharp and swift, Wilson says. A first order of business: revamping community policing. “Police who are not of the community, coming into the community and having certain thoughts about who the people are,” Wilson says. “So more training on some of these things around the use of force and community relations I think would be helpful for our police and for our entire community.”
More oversight is also needed in the area of traffic stops in poorer neighborhoods where Wilson says police who issue tickets have acted as “revenue generators” for the city.
“People ask me, ‘When do you think the protests are going to stop?’” Wilson says. “My answer is that the protests will stop when reforms begin.” He says those who criticize the violence do not understand the depth of frustration the people have felt.
“The critique of someone else’s tactics based upon one’s own desired behavior or one’s own principles of behavior is the essence of privilege,” Wilson argues. “People say work through the system register to vote, run for office. These are all tactics that work really well for middle class people who are in mainstream America, but they don’t work well for 18-year-olds who are poor, who come out of an unaccredited school district in Ferguson, or the many Fergusons throughout the country.”
A key word these days is “dialogue.” Across town at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish, Father Robert Rosebrough has challenged his mostly white congregation to engage in a three-year process of what he calls “sacred conversations.” He says he wants his parishioners to “lean in and listen” to how African Americans experience their community.
“I’m asking them to risk and to share their vulnerability and to listen different,” Rosebrough says. “For example, have you ever been told you can’t live some place? Have you ever been told by your parents, here’s how you act before a policeman. All those kinds of conversations that we as Caucasians don’t ever face and need to hear the other side of the story.”
As a young seminarian, “Father Rosy,” as he’s known, marched in downtown St. Louis for civil rights. He says laws changed in the sixties, but not necessarily hearts.
“We have not seen each other as brothers and sisters, working and walking together as one family. We have segregation in St. Louis, especially by where you live. It’s like something we have not faced. So how do we undo our own hearts?”
Father Rosy sometimes refers to Ferguson as “the new Bethlehem,” a place where Dr. King’s dream of racial equality can finally reach completion.
Rev. Mike Trautman is pastor of another largely white congregation, First Presbyterian Church. Trautman says the turmoil after the shooting last summer and again this past fall, when a Grand Jury failed to indict the officer involved, was a wake-up call for members of his church. Many of them, he says, chose to live in Ferguson because of its diversity.
“The people who stayed here stayed because there was something gained from being in a racially mixed community,” Trautman says. Some in the congregation found it hard to understand the street violence that broke out.
“They were very sad about the whole experience,” he says. “They felt, you know, this was a situation that was handled by the police and it should be left to the police to determine how to go forth.”
But soon, Trautman says, “I began to reach out to my African American colleagues, because I needed to listen to their story. It was amazing to me to listen to how many of them are people of means, of education, who are treated like strangers in their own community.”
Trautman is a member of “One Ferguson,” an ad hoc community group formed since the shooting. Its members meet mainly for dialogue and sharing.
First Presbyterian has received dozens of expressions of support from Presbyterian churches across the country, Trautman says. A congregation in California sent a chain of 1,300 handmade paper cranes, symbols of peace. The cranes will be displayed permanently at First Presbyterian, wrapped around an evergreen tree, as a reminder of the need to come together as a community.
The church also received a $10,000 donation from a family in Atlanta. First Presbyterian donated a portion of the money to an organization that helps people struggling to pay for food and utilities, and sent another donation to a group that works with homeless families.
“All kinds of promises are made during times like this and we want to insure we really do become a different community. We don’t want to go back to the old normal,” Trautman says. “Here is a kind of living laboratory by which we try intentionally to work through toward that beloved community that Dr. King invited us to.”
Back at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Rev. Wilson says many more churches need to become involved. “Even with the faith leaders who are engaged, they still find themselves, we still find ourselves in the minority. And that’s for black and white churches, to be clear and to be fair,” he says.
Wilson notes that Catholic and Protestant churches alike “have much work to do to own that the human dignity and imprint of the image of God that we say is on all people is also on the young black men walking across the middle of the street. That’s our work.”
On a positive note, Wilson says he’s noticed that the congregations working for change are making an impression on young demonstrators who may previously have had no experience of church.
“I now hear young [from] people who are not of our churches, who may not like our churches, who may not believe the same things we believe … and I see in 140 characters or less on Twitter them speak about Jesus as this radical revolutionary cat who would be standing with them in protest.” That he says, gives him hope.
In his famous letter from Birmingham’s city jail, written in 1963 to a group of clergy members, Dr. King warned that a lack of tension doesn’t necessary mean a community is at peace. He equated true peace with the presence of justice. It is that true peace so many in Ferguson are now seeking.