My mom was born not far from Ferguson, Missouri, outside St. Louis. I often asked her what life there was like as a child in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She didn’t enjoy telling her stories of pain and struggle. The Great Depression, for one thing, took a severe toll all across the United States, and it was tough to endure, hard to survive. Thriving was not what most families or communities aspired to achieve. But my mom, a white Scots-Irish-American, had access to resources her black African-American neighbors lacked. Though she was abandoned to an orphanage as a child and life was difficult for her, she did have options. She did not end up on the street, for example, fending for herself when her family could no longer support her when times were tough. But when I think more deeply about her experience, she also did not bear the pain and injustice of color. Eventually after high school she would take a train East to a new future and a job in Washington, D.C.. Many of the neighbors she left behind were stuck where they were, many working on the railroad in towns like Ferguson. A lifetime has passed since then. But how far have we travelled?
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri what progress they have witnessed?
According to the Associate Press, hundreds converged on Ferguson, Missouri to march for Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a white police officer three weeks ago. I join with countless voices across the country to express grief and outrage, praying that Michael Brown’s family and community experience God’s presence and power. Michael Brown’s death has fueled a national conversation about police tactics and racism, which the rally’s organizers pledged to continue. Read more. The Presbyterian Church’s national leadership has offered prayers and liturgy, urgent calls for more than judicial remedies to the killing of African American boys and men, confronting racism, asserting that faith communities can and should play a larger role in calling for justice and leading difficult conversations about race. Michael Brown’s mom and dad, their families and community, bear an unimaginable pain, but they do not grieve alone. Whatever may come of the ongoing investigation, one thing is certain: some residents in the community have expressed hope that Ferguson will persevere and make a comeback. It is especially painful to recall that Michael Brown’s death at the hands of law enforcement is not an isolated incident. Only a year ago, Trayvon Martin suffered the same injustices from abuse of power, privilege, and racism and his life ended in a similar way to Michael Brown’s, a black man shot by a white man. Read my post, Creating a New Future.
I am grateful for many Presbyterians closer on the ground to Ferguson that have become engaged, like my colleague Landon Whitsitt’s call that we can do more, and that part of doing more is showing up when he urged Presbyterians to walk with neighbors in Ferguson. We need to demonstrate, not just articulate, our solidarity with those who suffer. Being present in the public square is not only an obligation every churches should fulfill, it is an mandate to earn once again the right to be heard which many churches have taken for granted in communities all across America. We speak, but we are not heard. We pray, but we are not present. We act, but we have little impact.
The city can't be blessed if the church is under a dome, isolated from the community.
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri who they trust.
When church buildings dot the landscape while communities remain persistently underserved and unsafe, something is not right. When community systems of injustice, power, and privilege deliver disproportionate access to political, judicial, educational, financial, spiritual, social, and employment resources, neighborhoods and families suffer. A church building located in the neighborhood but under the dome is not the same thing as a faith community of neighbors actively present with the neighborhood. If you had to choose, would it be better to have fewer church buildings or more faithful neighbors building healthier communities? Is community impact your mission?
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri what they think matters.
Communities experience varying cycles of health and wellness, and there’s lots of success stories of individuals who succeed. We celebrate each individual’s victory, but who is championing the right of entire communities to be safe and prosperous? The church should be that champion.
What will it take for worshipping communities to come out from under a dome of isolation to be the Spirit's fresh incarnation?
Our cities and towns and farms deserve better. They deserve to be places where our boys and girls fill the public parks, laughing and playing—a good city to grow up in (Zechariah 5:8). What is the church doing to correct persistent systems of injustice, power, privilege, and racism that continue to take its toll on communities and congregations all across America? We can't be effective under glass.
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri what the church is doing.
When an exiled people were told long ago how to be a good neighbor while living in a strange country, they were to work for the peace and prosperity of the country they were in. If they did that, if they worked to improve the health and vitality of the greater community, they would also find their own peace and prosperity (Jeremiah 29:7). This reciprocity of mutual respect, the principle of one serving the many, is a deeply held value for those who draw their spiritual nourishment from sacred scriptures. Healthy communities depend on systems of reciprocity to thrive. Reciprocal behaviors are empowering and life-giving as one transformed life becomes a transformational agent resourcing the transformation of a neighborhood. Reciprocity can be revolutionary. See published article, Reciprocity in Action. But when communities persistently suffer injustice and personal and institutional self-interest become a substitute for a reciprocity of respect, citizens will take a stand to make it right. At least they should.
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri what they want.
Political pundits note the lack of public, national Democratic Party response to Ferguson, according to the New York Times. While the lack of a serious engagement from national politicians on issues of racism, poverty, privilege, power, and injustice in Ferguson is bad enough, I am even more disappointed that churches have lacked impact on these critical issues.
I am confident that every Presbyterian desires peace and justice for all. Praying is good. Showing up is better. But how can a church show up when its ministries are under a dome, their mission under glass, visible, yet out of touch? We have been persistently disconnected for so long, sometimes for years, even decades, from public community engagement, the muscle-memory of our congregations poses a difficult challenge to overcome.
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri who shows up.
Presbyterians are involved, (and want to be more involved like nearby Florissant Presbyterian Church’s Pastor DeVaughan is urging her congregation to do something more). But it is our Methodist friends that seem to be the most engaged in Ferguson. Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church recognized that connected churches have the most impact as he lifted up a “few significant points of engagement and offerings of ministry” Read more.. The [National Public Radio interview, Ferguson Pastor: This Is Not A Race Issue; This Is A Human Issue with the Rev. Willis Johnson, a Ferguson pastor, represents how a community-connected congregation can have enormous impact because they have earned the right to be heard every day of the year, not just on Sundays. Part of the issue underlying an apparent lack of church engagement in the public square, especially on matters of justice and community health and wellness, is that our congregations remain disconnected from their immediate communities. While we appropriately affirm the practice of good discipleship, we seem to ignore the practice of what I refer to as good neighborship.
Ask the people of Ferguson, Missouri what means the most to them: living next door to a disciple, or a neighbor? How can Ferguson's, and other town's, future be different?
Your church can lift the dome and earn the right to be heard.
Sure, you may feel at times like a victim to your past, doing familiar (if not anachronistic) ministries. You need not remain under the dome of isolation. Don't be seen but not heard; in sight, but out of mind. You and your leadership team can choose the struggle to connect in ways that matter most to your community. Its not easy, but if you practice good neighborship, when the next opportunity or tragedy appears you could be poised with an authentic and prophetic way to make a huge difference. Many congregations seem to think their job is worship on Sundays. Don't be that church! Remember local witness and mission are inseparable components of Reformed worship. Ferguson, Missouri, and every other community, deserves to be heard.
To offer Ferguson hope, we don't want churches doomed under the dome.
I wish my mom had had different stories to tell. But your town's stories are being written today. Earn the right to make a difference as co-creators of new stories of hope and justice that bless every neighbor in your community.