How Ferguson and Michael Brown helped me understand my baptismal vows
In August 2014, I tweeted that I wanted to go to Ferguson, Mo., in the immediate wake of Michael Brown’s death. Within a matter of minutes, a Twitter contact alerted me to a group organizing a bus ride from Washington, D.C., to Ferguson. After a few moments of contemplation, I decided to join that group on the long journey to Missouri. Why I tweeted that desire to visit Ferguson, I will never know. But I do have an idea of where the desire came from, beyond a sense of justice for and connection to the life of Michael Brown: my own baptism.
Nearly 16 years before Michael Brown was shot to death, I was baptized at Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Tex., with my younger brother. I was 8; he was 6. Planted within my heart that cool day in 1998 was God’s invitation to follow Jesus to the places and people most in need of care and attention. Often, those places can be found within. On other occasions, they can be found where, according to the Rev. Winnie Varghese, “The most vulnerable are becoming more vulnerable.” In 2014, that was Ferguson.
I felt that her sense of justice was connected to my baptismal identity.
When our group arrived, I met a black mother of two on West Florissant Avenue. “How long have you been protesting?” I asked her. “For two weeks.” “And how long do you plan on staying out here?” “Until justice is done,” she told me. In that moment, I felt that her sense of justice was connected to my baptismal identity, that my burial with Christ in his Incarnation and Paschal Mystery are a participation in a cosmic drama that comes to bear in the here and now, especially among people experiencing life’s many crucifixions and resurrections.
“Where might you expect to find the baptized?” asks Rowan Williams in Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. “In the neighbourhood of chaos,” he replies. “It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus—but Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need.”
Archbishop Williams’s assertion leads me to believe that my desire to visit Ferguson can be attributed to something more than an impulsive, 24-year-old frontal lobe; it can be attributed, at least in part,to a baptismal, sacramental impulse that acknowledges the holiness of the cosmos and the holiness of black lives; the holiness of the universe and the holiness of queer and transgender teenagers surviving sex work on the streets of our cities; and the holiness of the particularity of black people who hold within their bodies trans-Atlantic trauma. Baptism is not a “get out of jail free” card. It is the ticket that gets us in trouble in the first place.
Christian communities are at their best when they go to those places of deep pain and suffering, trauma and woundedness, confusion, chaos and catastrophe, bearing witness to the complexity of human experience. On the doorsteps of district attorneys, demanding, like that woman in Ferguson, that justice be done. On the streets of Flint, Mich., where widespread lead poisoning is the result of a racist system in which the bottom line is more important than public health. Where are the baptized? On those streets and doorsteps, in the lives of the neglected and abused, not necessarily leading but being led; not necessarily teaching but being taught. Where are the baptized? Show me where the waters of the Jordan River have been muddied and I will show you.