On Tuesday, I spent twelve hours in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ll let that sink in a second.
On Tuesday, I spent twelve hours in Ferguson, Missouri.
Myself, and a very good and close friend of mine, who is also a clergy colleague, Rev. Alan Dicken, pastor of Carthage Christian Church in Cincinnati, traveled to Ferguson together, arriving about sixteen hours after the decision was announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the death of Michael Brown.
Let me say before I lose anyone—that I was not there because I hate Darren Wilson and the police. Not in the least.
I was not there as a protester.
I was there because I truly felt and believed that God had called me to go and be a presence of peace and non-violence.
I want that to sink in too.
I was there because I truly felt and believed that God had called me to go and be a presence of peace and non-violence.
If you have ever been in my office, you know that I have a large poster of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I have read his writings extensively and all have had a significant influence on me.
King’s “Letter From A Birmingham City Jail” was perhaps the most influential. In that letter King wrote to pastors who had voiced their support of the civil rights movement, but then offered little support beyond a few words and promises to pray.
The words of that letter came flooding back to me, and they, along with the core values and deep faith I hold all implored me to go to Ferguson.
That, and so much more, implored me to go to Ferguson, Missouri, even in the midst of protests, riots, looting, and the burning of buildings.
I went and spent twelve hours in Ferguson, Missouri to be a presence of peace and non-violence in a place crying out for both— And going to places where people are crying out is what Dr. King modeled and it is what Isaiah and the other prophet’s modeled.
And believe it or not, Advent is that model as well—because in Advent we anticipate and prepare for the one who came because the people of God were crying out.
On Tuesday afternoon we drove through Ferguson, at least as much as was permissible. The National Guard had blocked off the road to where much the previous night’s rioting took place.
We drove past the Ferguson Police station where more National Guard stood, clad in riot gear and holding shields. It was an ominous sight.
We drove past businesses where people were cleaning broken glass, and boarding up broken windows. It was a disheartening sight.
We drove past the mass of news trucks, even catching a glimpse of Anderson Cooper from not too far away. It was a curious sight.
After making contact with other clergy in the area, we learned that there was a protest in downtown St. Louis, only about a ten minute drive from Ferguson.
We went to downtown St. Louis and, draped in our clergy stoles, we walked with protesters who were marching in the streets, crying out with voices that demanded they be heard.
All around were police clad in riot gear and holding sticks and shields, keeping a watchful presence.
The crowd of 800-1,000 protesters marched up a ramp of a major highway and stopped both east and west bound traffic.
The crowd made its stance for nearly a half hour, until the police issued multiple directives to disperse. Eventually, front line protesters were subjected to teargas, and the crowd marched back down the ramp, and then made its way to the steps of the city courthouse, near the iconic St. Louis arch.
In all it was all an effort to be heard. And what were they saying? Racism still exists.
A couple of hours later, we returned to Ferguson, and took up standing with folks gathered near the Ferguson Police Station.
Still wearing our clergy stoles many thanked us for being there. Several asked to take a picture with us, and expressed gratitude saying, “The clergy presence has been so important.”
That statement struck me because one, it seemed I was doing very little, and two, there were so very little clergy present—particularly in Ferguson.
It was actually a little boring—in fact, I texted some of you that very thing. BUT, boring, I thought, was good.
That, however, would change.
By ten o’clock the few clergy present were beckoned forward to the front of the now much larger and much more vocal crowd that had assembled in front of a much larger crowd of National Guardsmen and police.
The role of clergy was to be present between these two entities, and to be a presence of peace and non-violence.
One pastor had said to me earlier that he would say to the police near him, who were subject of hateful and harsh shouts, that the people were exercising their freedom of speech, and that he would then say to the shouting protesters to speak freely but not to act aggressively.
Suddenly I was in that role—standing just feet away from the police while being pressed in on by a crowd of protesters.
It was intense because the tension was palpable.
But in it all, even though it was a tense and chaotic situation—at no point was I scared. Rather I knew that where I was, was exactly where I was supposed to be.
God had put me in that place, and I was certain that God was going to continue to be present and faithful to me.
And God was. The evening took some more intense turns, but I was not near the intensity, although the aftermath of the intensity eventually, and quite literally, wafted down to us, and I got my first taste of teargas—albeit only residually.
A while later, Rev. Dicken and I felt we had done as much as we could do, and decided it was time to leave. And that ended our time in Ferguson.
There was and is, a lot of emotions in Ferguson, Missouri.
There are emotions of: anger, frustration, and yes even hate.
There are emotions of: grief, sadness, and disappointment.
There are emotions of: unrest, turmoil, and fear.
And all of this is present in much of the population of Ferguson, Missouri, because much of the population there believes that racism still exists.
Let me say, again, before I lose anyone—I am not saying that police officer Darren Wilson is a racist.
I am not saying the police are racists.
I am saying that many believe racism still exists—and I am one of them who believe racism exists in our country and world.
That, I believe, is what is at the heart of what is happening in Ferguson—that racism exists and that the system of and for justice in our country is marred by of it.
Now some disagree with that.
But if we are going to have meaningful dialogue about this issue then we have to go to levels that are deeper than just asking and answering: “Was Michael Brown shot and killed in cold blood or was police officer Darren Wilson defending himself while serving and protecting the people of Ferguson?”
That question can be a starting place, but more questions must be asked because when we ask deeper questions, when we consider actions and decisions at a level beyond just black and white/yes or no, we get to the place of deeper understanding, a place of broader perspective, a place of greater presence—and it is in those places where a lot of people—God’s people— are saying racism still exists.
Some questions worth asking could be:
If the Grand Jury had completed their work and made their decision earlier in the afternoon, why was the announcement delayed, and not made until 8 p.m. that evening, long after dark?
Was it to prepare for what authorities believed would happen—rioting and looting? Ok, maybe.
But if that were the case, then where was the National Guard—the National Guard who had been sent to Ferguson by the Governor days before? Why weren’t they in place around the city and ready for what could possibly happen? They were in Ferguson but they were not deployed until after the announcement was made and protests, riots, and looting was already happening. Even the mayor of Ferguson is asking this question.
These were not my questions—they were the questions of the people who I spoke with while in Ferguson.
These questions, and others like them, were what they were asking.
They are fair questions to ask, but no answers have come.
Deeper questions about these issues need to be asked and discussed.
I know there are some who feel me going to Ferguson was a foolish and irresponsible thing. After all I am a husband and a father of two very young children.
But it was not a quick decision.
I had been following the events of Ferguson, Missouri since August.
Rev. Dicken, had been to Ferguson twice before, and shared his experiences with me.
It all weighed heavily on my heart—that there was a place where God’s children were crying out, saying; racism still exists in our world.
In the days leading up to the Grand Jury announcement I talked with Julie about me going. She was not thrilled about the idea, but she trusted me, and after several lengthy discussions she sent me with her blessings.
On Monday night I told the Elders and they too understood and supported me going—even though some felt that I shouldn’t for safety reasons.
I did ask myself, was I being irresponsible and foolish?
I asked myself, how would all of you feel about their pastor doing something so controversial where there are clearly two sides?
None of what I did was without constant consideration of such and so much more.
But here’s what I kept coming back to…
I went because I want to be able to raise my children with the model that you act when you are called.
I went because “going and doing” is what I preach, and I believe one should practice what they preach.
I went because I believe in the power of God’s Holy Spirit to transform lives.
I went because Jesus modeled such behavior, and I strive to be like Jesus in all that I say and do.
So if those things are foolish and irresponsible that’s fine with me because then I don’t want to be smart and responsible.
Now I get it—this isn’t very Christmasy is it?
It’s not a very peaceful thing to hear about people crying out on the first Sunday of Advent when we are focusing on peace.
But that is what the prophet Isaiah does—he meets us at the beginning of this cheery season, when we are all still excited/not yet overwhelmed, and inserts a cold, despairing word into our most wonderful time of the year.
But Isaiah’s words are about a people crying out because their lives are in a harsh and fragile place of exile where there is no peace, and they feel like God and others don’t hear them.
And that is exactly what people in Ferguson, Missouri our doing too.
They are children of God who are crying out because their lives, like those of the people with whom Isaiah was with, are in a harsh and fragile place of exile, and they feel like God and others don’t hear them.
I know—and I believe you know— that God hears them. But do we hear them? If we do, what are we doing about it? What can we do?
Those are exceedingly hard questions at so many levels—but I believe we must all be asking ourselves such questions, we must open ourselves up to God about such questions in our prayers and then see what God says, see what God would have us say, see what God would have us do.
For when we do, then we will begin to find the way of peace.
And so to continue to practice what I preach, to offer opportunities for deeper conversations, and to offer the chance to ask and consider hard questions, I invite you all to join me in doing so.
Tomorrow at 11 a.m. or on Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. you are invited to join me in the church library for such.
I will tell you more of my experience of Ferguson and then we can simply talk about what’s going on there and in us.
Theologian C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian faith is a thing of unspeakable joy. However, it does not begin with joy, but rather in despair. And it is no good trying to reach joy without first going through the despair.”
If we want to get to the peace, hope, joy, and love of Christmas, then asking ourselves tough, disparaging questions about how we get there is crucial— not how only we here in Stow, Ohio get there—but how we all can get there.
Because the peace of Jesus, that came to us at Christmas, and that comes to us every Christmas, is for all—not just some, not just the privileged, not just a particular race or culture.
The peace of Christ came for all.
And it is the call of those who know such and believe such, to work that such becomes a reality. Amen.