Prior to my travelling to St. Louis November 17-19, our Yearly Meeting approved a minute releasing me to speak on our behalf in the event that the decision about an indictment of the officer who shot Michael Brown was released while I was there. As it happened, that decision came a week later, after I returned. Today I’m hearing rage, sadness, confusion, fear and more from Friends in our community as we see those same feelings expressed in Ferguson and the media. This story shares what I experienced in PYM and in St. Louis last week and then asks for your stories from your meeting and your life.
The minute from Interim Meeting released me to speak. What I found was that the opportunities that were present were not about my speaking for us. They were about my listening for us. I stepped onto the plane, into the National Council of Churches meetings, across the street from where Michael Brown was shot, feeling that I was doing so on behalf of PYM and with Divine guidance. I wrote this report on my return as an account of the ministry I received in a community that is on fire with the pain of living in a racist culture and with the desire for justice and a just world.
The Experience of Local Faith Communities in Ferguson
On Monday afternoon at the National Council of Churches meeting I was attending, pastors and lay persons from Ferguson spoke of their experience. Again and again the pastors spoke of the need for churches to be present in the community. They urged everyone present to “get outside your walls and know the people in your urban core”. They gave the message that if we are there before bad things happen, the community will know they can look to us for care and leadership.
Many of their stories were about their experience since Michael Brown was killed: meeting young people who felt abandoned by the church; being awestruck by the 800+ young adults who demonstrated at St Louis University resulting in a dialogue with the school’s president who has since made significant changes; finding themselves on the “front lines” of representing the community; living with a sense of challenge for living up to the call to be leaders in building a just world.
There were also conflicting expressions about what is possible in the future. One pastor spoke of the power that young adults and youth were striving to live into and her dream of buying a house in the neighborhood that would be used as a base for organizing and training. On the other hand another person said, in anticipation of the decision from the grand jury on indicting Officer Darren Wilson, “It’s going to fly off the chain in Ferguson, regardless of the decision. Doors will close because the looting will be so bad.”
Through a friend in the meeting, I reached out to St. Louis Friends Meeting. Within a day I’d heard from five or six local Friends who have held a concern for their neighboring city of Ferguson. It was like connecting with distant cousins I’d never met. They gave me their cell phone numbers, reports about what was happening in Ferguson and updates about what was happening in their lives during the week. They were all watching and waiting for the decision about indictment while also working, caring for children, preparing for imminent retirement, volunteering (the meeting opens its doors to homeless people 2 nights a week when the temp drops below 20), coping with illness. The communications were a clear illustration that while I was in St. Louis the events of Ferguson were the primary concern for me; for people who live there the events unfolding in the region are part of the experience of their lives.
St. Louis Meeting, after some hard work in meeting for worship for business, decided to serve as a location for providing support to people who go to jail as a result of nonviolent action and at least one Friend is trained to staff the Jail Support Hotline when the decision is released. The decision to open the meeting in this way was a hard one as a nearby coffee house had received serious threats of violence after they offered their space as a safe house for protesters. One Friend wrote to me “the tension here is palpable if one does not hide one’s head in the sand.”
I wasn’t able to connect with the American Friends Service Committee staff person who is working in St. Louis, but Friends can read his story on the AFSC website. AFSC has also posted a statement in response to the decision not to indict
The Role Distant Faith Communities Play in Ferguson
Throughout the few days I was in St. Louis I held the question of what is the role that our meetings have to play. I listened to the St. Louis Friends and to the pastors and to the National Council of Churches board for answers.
“Make your church a valuable place in the neighborhood.” The pastors who serve in the Ferguson region spoke over and over again about the importance of knowing the people in the neighborhood. They said, “We need to go into our neighborhoods deeper than we have before. Directly into living rooms and schools.” By being a known and valued place in the area and by knowing the people who live there, faith communities can be leaders and places of refuge when something like this happens. In reaction to the crisis they have come into closer relationship with their neighborhoods but they also learned that they want to proactively reach out now so that they remain relevant to those who live around them. One of them noted that it’s not the neighborhoods that keep people out of church, it’s the church itself which doesn’t reach out or doesn’t welcome people when they come. One person asked the panel what it would hope for from suburban faith communities and in particular white, suburban faith communities. The response was an invitation to go into the urban neighborhoods. Whether in partnership with a local congregation or not, we were told to get into the streets and get into relationship. We who don’t live near the specific troubles of Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown do live where there is racism, where there is violence and where there are people in need. Summing up their message of service and blessed community, one pastor said: Instead of talking about it and singing about it, be about it. We can address racism and injustice, we can be in relationship with our neighbors, we can be blessed community here where we live.
Another role for distant faith communities that I took away from my time in St. Louis with the National Council of Churches is one of accompaniment. Following the panel of pastors, another NCC board member commented to me that she was surprised by the hopelessness that one person in particular had shared (see the comment above that things are “going to fly off the chain”). As I talked with her about it, I saw that this pointed to one of the things that we who are far away might offer those in Ferguson: hope. We who have a more remote picture here in the mid-Atlantic region might share a perspective of hope, of faithfulness and of gratitude to help sustain those who are on streets, cold, talking with angry youth and suffering families in Ferguson.
When asked directly “what can we do for you?” Pastor Traci Blackmon had a concrete answer: Send hats, scarves and blankets. She said the protesters, mostly young adults, many from the neighborhood, were cold and they needed warm clothing. She then added, “since you are asking”, that she had a dream of a $20-30,000 house that could serve as a space for youth to live and train and learn more about how to effectively make change.
We Are Ferguson the Day Before the Shooting
“We are Ferguson the day before the shooting in Ferguson,” a Friend said in vocal ministry at Interim Meeting. The conditions that led to Michael Brown’s death are not unique to Ferguson Missouri. And the responses of the congregations of faith in Ferguson are not needed uniquely in their region. As the images of a city on fire and the reports of the people who live in Ferguson reach us, we can look at our own cities and neighborhoods. We can deepen our relationships with our neighbors. We can address the racism in our culture and in our lives. As I listened to the experience of Friends and pastors in St. Louis I heard the challenge to commit to transforming our neighborhoods, cities and world to being a place where the events of Ferguson won’t happen.
The PYM clerks and the Undoing Racism group in PYM are laying groundwork to support our community in this work. As those efforts come into focus we will share it widely. How is your own meeting and your own household engaged? Does your meeting know its neighbors? Is your meeting involved in work to address racism?
Let us know about what you are doing so that others may learn, be inspired and be challenged. Share your stories and experience so that we know how Friends are responding and we know how Spirit is moving. The Yearly Meeting is in the position of connecting and magnifying the work within our community – let us know what that work is.
Meetings and Friends may also email their experience to GeneralSecretary@pym.org