As a young seminarian in the 1960s, the Rev. Robert Rosebrough marched for civil rights. For most of his 46 years as a priest, he has worked in inner-city parishes. His parish, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is in Ferguson, Mo., a short distance from where a white police officer shot an unarmed African American teenager last August.
The shooting sparked weeks of sometimes violent protests and exposed a wide divide between the community, which is largely African American, and its police force, which is overwhelmingly white. Violence erupted once again in Ferguson as the city learned of the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Many were anticipating the worst. Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Nov. 17.
Since Brown’s death, “Father Rosy,” as he is known, has been a prominent pastoral voice in that troubled city.
“It’s time to complete what the civil rights movement started,” Father Rosebrough says. The protests that rocked Ferguson do not reflect just one city’s problems, he says. Nor were they about a single shooting. “Ferguson’s problems are about changing a culture of violence in America,” Father Rosebrough says.
In the time since Brown died, there have been more than a hundred shootings in St. Louis County, including an incident in which a 19-year-old was gunned down outside the day care center his mother operates. Some of the violence was gang-related. Some of it was random, according to Father Rosebrough.
“People have said to me, ‘I feel sorry for you dealing with all that’s happening in Ferguson.” And I say, ‘Feel sorry for yourself. If you see this as only a Ferguson problem, you’re in denial.’” Beneath the surface of the Ferguson unrest, he believes, is a “national call for justice and a change of heart against racism in our society.”
Father Rosebrough, who is 71, began that call with prayer. His parish of 950 families is a few miles from where Brown was killed. After public protests turned violent, he and his parishioners started praying the rosary daily at a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary outside the church. He says they prayed for Ferguson’s police, protestors and public officials—in short, for healing.
Singing, “It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer,” Father Rosebrough led a prayer procession earlier this month from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish to Ferguson’s City Hall. It drew 250 people, including the mayor. “It was a peaceful protest, so the only coverage we received was in the Archdiocese of St. Louis magazine,” he laments.
He says action now needs to follow prayer. That’s why he has begun an effort called “Lean In.” He describes its mission as “lean forward and listen.”
“Lean In” will provide a structure for blacks and whites, police and community members, to meet, socialize and discuss issues together on a regular basis, Father Rosebrough says. “It’s a way of inviting people to have their stories told.
“One of our parishioners said, ‘Why did it take Michael Brown’s death to make this happen?’ All of us are guilty of not seeing things sooner,” he says.
Some of Father Rosebrough’s white parishioners have complained about his public actions since the shooting. They say his efforts could be construed as being “anti-police.”
“I’ve had people say things to me, like, ‘Those protesters, if they would just get jobs they wouldn’t be doing these things,’” Father Rosebrough recalls. He says he listens politely to the comments, then asks, “What is Jesus doing right now in our community?”
He remains a realist, however, and believes it will take years, not months for change to be felt and is taking the long view. He says it will probably take a generation for the city to reap the benefits of efforts like “Lean In” to create dialogue. “The children now in school, they are the ones who are watching history being formed.”