This post is to let you walk through Sunday August 9th, 2015 with me. It is not a reflection on what I learned about about the BLM movement. That is still coming. But since I had the privilege and opportunity to be in Ferguson on the one year mark of Michael Brown’s death, I wanted to let you experience it with me, since what I saw changed me and it will help you get closer to the people that are leading this movement on the ground.
It’s already warm, and very humid as I and several friends/co-workers arrive at the Canfield apartments. Pastor Blackmon, a local pastor who has worked closely with the local activists has invited clergy to pray at the Michael Brown Jr. Memorial. There are stuffed animals in the middle of the streets, but otherwise it is a very ordinary street running between two apartment complexes. But it is also sacred, because the activists in this suburb ignited a national movement. It is a picture that the sacred and the ordinary often look exactly the same. The profound and mundane are intertwined.
As I look around the circle of about 90 people that are gathered. Half are Black clergy. The next largest group is white women clergy, many wearing collars and stoles representing mainline denominations. There is a small group of Jewish clergy. And then a mix of white men, a few local activists, a few people like myself who are visiting. There are queer leaders and activists.
I am painfully aware that I and my friend Amy are the only Asian Americans in the circle. There are no Asian American clergy or pastors here.
I am aware that there are very few evangelicals present.
We spend 20 minutes praying.
When we are done most people linger for a while looking at the memorial, greeting each other.
I hear someone say this in passing “Everyone here is on the margins. On the margins of the margins.” And that rings true. Women clergy are on the margins of the church. Black people are on the margins of our society. Even more, trans and queer black people are further on the margins. And this feels like church. A version of the Kingdom that isn’t full of fear, always drawing lines and pushing people out.
Rather dramatically and fittingly, thunder starts rolling over us, and giant drops of rain drench us as we walk back to the car.
Half our group is participating in a silent march in Ferguson, with members of Michael Brown Jr.’s family and the family members of other shooting victims from around the country. You can read Sean’s reflections on the experience here. We arrive at Christ the King church which is pastored by Pastor Traci Blackmon. Out front there are 179 crosses, one for each person who has died in a shooting death in St. Louis in the last year. I heard her preach yesterday at the Black Scholars event, and she was amazing. I was looking forward to hearing her preach again and must confess I was disappointed when I saw another name on the church sign.
The choir began singing and everyone was wearing a shirt that read
Black lives matter
Black love matters
Black votes matter
Black church matters
This encouraged me. Beginning with the week that Trayvon Martin was shot, I do not attend church, or only attend black churches after a shooting. I can not bear to be in a house of worship that does not even address the grief and pain that is happening in our country.
A place that claims to worship Jesus, who was a victim of police brutality, but does not talk about police bruitality today. A place that claims to worship Jesus, who died with a racial slur hanging over his head, but does not talk about the value of black lives. I can not sit in fellowship there. To claim to worship Jesus, but ignore the systemic oppression and violence against His people. It is a sin. I can not sing songs in that place.
So to enter a sanctuary, where every member of the choir is wearing a shirt that affirms Black lives. I am already ushered into the Lords presence.
Then the sermon by Dr. John Dorhauer. What can I say about a white man who absolutely shocked me by preaching on white privilege in the deepest, most radical, and relevant way I have ever heard. Who exegeted and expounded on the image of the lion laying down with the lamb in ways I had never considered or imagined. He did so without guilt, apology, or centering himself in the narrative. It is the sermon I have longed to hear, and frankly hoped to hear in my own organization, but never have. Brother John, as we started calling him, spoke to my heart, soul, and mind in a profound way.
Here are some quotes.
- There is only one pathway forward according Isaiah 11, and it is the one chosen by the lamb
- The lion’s only task- to ask the lamb what it wants and what it requires so that it will willingly choose to lay down with the lion.
- White privilege must be laid down at the feet of the lamb.
- The lion must give up its memory. Its nostalgia for its own power.
We end with a chant that I hear again that evening. A rally cry. A woman stands in front of the group and says- repeat after me. She yells-
It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love each other and support each other
We have nothing to lose but out chains
And she yells it a second time, at the tope of her voice, with tears coming down her cheeks.
IT IS OUR DUTY TO FIGHT FOR OUR FREEDOM!
IT IS OUR DUTY TO WIN!
WE MUST LOVE AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER!
WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!
I am breathless by the time she is done. There is so much passion and commitment in the room. I am humbled. My heart is laid out before these everyday people that are on the streets daily, laboring for a new civil rights movement. And their complete commitment and devotion is inspiring and humbling. I really had no idea, the depth of commitment of the local activists.
We arrive at Greater St. Marks to hear Cornel West. The evening is opened by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou. (photo below) He is one of the clergy that has been leading on the ground in Ferguson. He begins with a song
I hear my neighbor crying, I can’t breathe….
We’re calling out the violence of the racist police
We ain’t gonna stop until our people are free
Its a powerful opening. He then gives an opening word and introduces Dr. Cornel West.
Cornel West gets up and it is electric. He is passionate. He opens with, “I’m not gonna take much time, cause the focus has to be on what’s happening on the streets. I’m not here to talk. I’m here to go to jail. ” He ends by calling the church out of hypocrisy and mediocrity and back to the prophetic.
When he is done I am breathless. It was a very short speech. I’ve never wanted to chant someone back on stage to make them keep talking. And he was true to his word. This is Rev. Sekou and Dr. Cornel West about to be arrested the following morning. They were at the St. Louis DOJ calling for expanded police reform.
After Dr. West a panel of amazing activists was sitting on the stage
- Rahiel Tesgamariam- follow her on Urban Cusp @urbancusp
- Rev. Starsky Wilson from St. Johns Church
- Bree Newson- who removed the confederate flag from the South Carolina State house @breenewsome
- Michael McBride- a Bay Area pastor that has been leading out on the west coast @pastormycmac
- Rev. Leah
- Pastor Blackmon- local clergy that is leading on the ground @pastortraci
Here they are after the event.
Please look up these leaders and learn about them and follow them on twitter. They are critical voices to this movement and the ones you should be learning from. If you say you care about this movement, then you must take initiative to self educate. You can watch the entire event here.
More than what they said- which was insightful. There was something powerful about seeing this group of Black leaders, women and men, queer and straight, clergy and artists- leading and speaking unapoligetically as Black people. It made me realize that in the majority of contexts I am in, Black voices and leadership are not centered. But more than that, Black people are not thriving, they are not in a healthy environment.
Even in my own organization, which claims to hold a value for multi-ethnicity, Black leader must always cater to the feelings of the dominant culture. Their voices and perspectives are never centered. Even when black staff gather on their own, it is to respond to something the organization has or hasn’t done, or to figure out how to survive an organization that is not about their flourishing. I have an entire post dedicated to this topic coming, so I won’t expound on this. But the contrast was marked.
The room was an electrifying contrast to almost any other space I have been in. It was unapologetic and it was church in the truest sense. Unafraid. Not trying to push people out. Fighting for justice.
I and my friends turned to each other when it was over. “I’m ruined for normal life.” “How am I going to go back?” We just kept repeating these questions to each other.
We left to grab dinner, but the restaurant we stopped in on had already closed its kitchen. Word that things were getting rowdy on the streets had spread, and they were getting ready to close. Unfortunately, things took a turn and shots were fired between two groups of people who appear unconnected to the protests. There was an officer involved shooting of an armed man later in the evening.
We ended up at the Waffle House across the streets from the hotel, emotionally hung over from all we had seen and experienced in one short day. Beyond words. Feeling changed forever.
If you want to hear more voices, check out the hashtags #FaithInFerguson and #FergusonTaughtMe.