Lessons From One Night In Ferguson

Last night Michael and I joined a group of clergy to pray and petition for justice on behalf of Michael Brown. We were already in the St. Louis area with our families for a few days of vacation and when word came about the clergy march the timing and location seemed too providential to ignore. I won’t go into the play-by-play of our evening, but the experience was unlike any I’ve had.

Ferguson

This morning I woke up thinking about some of the lessons I’m walking away with from our short time in Ferguson. My perspective is incredibly limited: I’m an outsider who spent a few hours in a place where others have lived their entire lives. Even so, I want to hold onto some of my experiences, despite how incomplete they are.

The Anger Is Real

It seemed that many of the protestors, like us, where from places other than Ferguson. Yet there were some locals too and it was their response that most caught my attention. In addition to the anger about Michael Brown’s death, there was also a barely contained rage about the way their city had been occupied by the police for over a week. All around were flashing lights, blocked streets, and check points. The protests from these citizens were not a show for the cameras but rage from an occupied people.

The Tension Between Symbolic Actions And Local Solutions

Ferguson has become a symbol for the ever-present oppression experienced by many Americans. Many of the young people we interacted with last night had come from around the country to protest. They were certainly concerned with Michael Brown’s death, but their perspective was broader- systems and policies were within their sights. I thinks this is OK and probably necessary, but at some point local leadership will need to gather the local stakeholders to determine Ferguson’s strategy going forward. Hopefully the symbolic actions can be a catalyst for local voices to articulate particular strategies for this city. It would be a shame if the big picture perspective – as important as it is – were to drown out those who will live in Ferguson long after the media leave.

Michael Brown, Ferguson

Chanting Is Easier Than Praying

Michael and I were under the impression that there would be organized times of prayer as we marched in Ferguson. This never happened. Honestly, it would have been hard. The noise, flashing lights, and adrenaline made it far easier to chant loudly – No justice, no peace! Hands up. Don’t Shoot! – than to pray quietly. I wondered though, driving home, what it would have been like had small groups of clergy stopped occasionally during the march to join hands a pray. I wonder if some of the besieged citizens would have welcomed prayer. I wonder whether the omnipresent police would have relaxed, even a little bit. I don’t know, but it was an important reminder that prayer is the Christian’s first choice, always, regardless of how chaotic the surroundings.

Police Intimidation Is The Worst

There were plenty of kind police officers whom we interacted with last night. But this didn’t change some important facts: some of our fellow marchers had been harassed and arrested earlier in the week; everywhere you looked were men (I don’t remember seeing a single woman officer) with guns, clubs, and intimidating vehicles; we were not aloud to stop moving and any time we did there was an officer who would quickly urge us to move. Michael and I began to breathe more easily as we walked away from Ferguson around midnight and the guns and gazes of the law enforcers receded behind us. I cannot imagine living under the constant threat of intimidation, whether on this grand scale or with the constant question each time I saw a police officer. I can’t imagine it, but there are many who can.

Ferguson

There is plenty that we experienced last night that will take some time to process. Despite the chaos and intimidation, I’m very glad we went. It is important that Christians show up to places like Ferguson – including such places in our own neighborhoods that will never get this attention – and bear witness. We bear witness to any way the image of God is debased in people anywhere. And, equally important, we bear witness to God’s presence and movement in the places others have deemed God-forsaken.

4 comments

  1. Languages of the Heart by Bruce Smith

    There is really no substitute for seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling this firsthand. Glad God positioned you to be present in this time and place. I’m still listening, and hopefully learning. Trying to connect the dots between injustice here and elsewhere. Thanks, David.

  2. Pingback: Thinking about Ferguson and Unconcious Racial Bias | Professor Considine
  3. Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth)

    Thanks for sharing your observations. I’ve also noticed in actions and protests that chanting is easier than prayer. I sometimes wonder if what is needed in these situations from Christians and Christian Clergy is what was observed in the Ukraine a standing between, a marking out an other space than the ones marked in the conflict, even when that conflict is so clearly between oppressed and oppressor. I don’t know if that is what is needed but I’ve often felt my spiritual presence and action both as a Christian and as a Christian pastor was drowned out by good but differing spirituality in the protest or action itself.

    As for keeping the local issue of Ferguson’s need to move forward and come to just resolution is key, I do though wonder if the local issues are resolvable without the recognition that what is happening in Ferguson isn’t just about Ferguson and Missouri. Some how both the local and national need to be kept in view somehow. In addition to the danger of us forgetting Ferguson after this all dies down is that when it does that many will see it as only a local aberration, only that group, those particular cops are racists, and not face that this reflects a larger and continuing reality of our nation as a whole.

    Thank you for your witness here. And encouragement to both to keep Ferguson as a local and not jsut symbolic reality, and to be aware and connect the dots to see how the patterns and system are at work in our own neighborhoods, and to be a witnessing presence in our own local.

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