The anger and hurt coursing through the St. Louis suburb gives Christians the opportunity to speak grace and show love.
The morning after a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, pastor Rodrick Burton drove to New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, minutes from Ferguson, to pick up the church van and a few cleaning supplies. Congregants texted him asking how they could help, and he told them it was time to help their neighbors: cleaning up businesses damaged by the riots and helping transport people who felt unsafe out of the area in the church van.
At South City Church, worship and outreach coordinator Michelle Higgins kept soup warm and the church doors open for anyone—including protesters, off-duty police, fearful community members—to find a space for prayer and rest. The church was stocked with medics, sleeping bags, hot dinner, and prayer services, but some just needed a moment to sit in silence as the jury’s decision “spoke deep, deep hurt to their souls,” Higgins said. Other churches in the city similarly prepared for the aftermath of the grand jury decision by creating care centers.
Higgins, an African-American who has lived in St. Louis her whole life, said church members gathered around a computer speaker to hear last night’s announcement on the radio because the church’s internet stopped working. Higgins said when she heard Wilson would not be indicted, “all the blood rushed out of my body.” To her, the decision indicated the justice system valued some people more than others, she said.
Later that night, she and about 10 other Christians from nearby PCA churches joined a largely peaceful protest in South City, about 10 miles south of Ferguson. A predominately non-black crowd shut down Highway 44 and blocked a main intersection. During a lull in the momentum, a few opportunists set a garbage can on fire and vandalized buildings, but other protesters stopped most of the unruly behavior, she said. Law enforcement responded by tear gassing the entire crowd.
In Ferguson, protests became more destructive and violent, with the sound of gunshots and flames engulfing businesses. Burton, who also is African-American, believes the clergy at St. Louis churches should focus on the protesters’ “sin of retribution” rather than only pointing to the sin of the government.
While he doesn’t know what compelled Wilson to shoot, “I do know that Christ is consistent in that we are supposed to pray for our enemy and we are suppose to forgive. The clergy don’t even dare bring that sentiment forward to the table, and when they do, it’s from a position that we are more righteous than them.”
In the discussions and meetings he’s participated in during the last 100 days, Burton said he saw pastors egging on the “idolatry of protest.” The result: Many of the businesses destroyed in Ferguson during the riots belong to African-Americans. “If businesses don’t come back, the property value goes down, which means less money in the school district. Then they won’t be able to teach and educate kids,” continuing a cycle of poverty, he said.
Dawn Jones, who formerly lived just up the street from where Brown was shot, said she was “trying to scrape up the words” to explain how she felt. “I’m so disappointed and angry it scares me,” said Jones, an intern at South City Church. “My nephew is black and I’ll have kids one day who are black. If I have a son and he walks to the store, will he come home? It’s a hopelessness I’ve never experienced before. I’m constantly reminding myself that my hope is in Christ. It’s an all-day battle. ”
In the midst of all the tension, Higgins believes the church has the responsibility to “model the unity to which we are all bound, always striving to be that family you wish everyone else would be, and that means worshiping and repenting together.” At the multi-ethnic South City Church, leaders welcome everyone regardless of their views of the grand jury’s decision. “We’ve been repeating ‘God’s truth is greater than your opinion,’” Higgins said. And in the last few months, she’s seen the church start living more like a family.
Burton also sees the fruit that has come from such dark times, specifically the conversations about race in St. Louis that have been silenced for so long. Burton pointed out that for many churches, “most of the thoughtful contextualization for the mission field is rarely applied to brothers of color” in their own city. He finds it encouraging to see people discussing racial reconciliation in their congregations as well as in their homes with friends and family members.
Higgins stresses that Christians need to be present in order to provide ultimate answers: “When we clothe ourselves in the gospel and we walk into the midst of blocked highways and deep pain and heavy tragedy, just by being there we can communicate this profound theology that is the answer to all of their problems.”
— by Angela Lu