A group of local clergy and religious faithful took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri on Thursday evening, joining a mass of peaceful protestors to vent frustration over the fatal shooting of an unarmed teen on August 9.
Sporting clerical collars and brandishing signs inscribed with slogans such as “We are praying with our feet” and “End police brutality,” pastors and priests filed in with hundreds of other Ferguson residents to decry the killing of Michael Brown. Brown, an 18-year-old African American high school graduate from Ferguson, was killed this past weekend after a local police officer allegedly shot him several times — even though Brown was reportedly unarmed.
“We came with a Bible in one hand, and a protest sign in the other,” Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ, told the marchers.
The action by faith leaders came about after the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition held an “emergency meeting” on Thursday to discuss ways to address the growing crisis of violence in Ferguson. When Brown’s tragic death sparked spontaneous demonstrations by Ferguson residents earlier this week, a frighteningly militarized police force responded by pelting the protestors with smoke bombs, tear gas canisters, and rubber bullets. Among various other disturbing encounters, the rash of violence included an incident where a local pastor was shot in the abdomen with a rubber bullet while peacefully chanting “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
In response, the group of area faith leaders, which is said to have included at least two clergy members who were arrested while protesting earlier this week, agreed the best way to help diffuse the tension was to join the marchers in the streets.
“The point of nonviolent action is not to claim an enemy and defeat that enemy,” Very Rev. Michael Kinman, Dean of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis, told ThinkProgress ahead of the protest. “The point is to win hearts, and we believe there is gospel truth in that voice of the young people from Ferguson. We’re not doing this against the police, we’re doing this for the police.”
Participants said the initial feel of the march was emotional, but distinctly less heated than the explosion-ridden clashes of the previous four evenings. Police officers wore their normal uniforms and chatted with marchers on Thursday, at times smiling at participants as they passed by. Clergy who attended the march said they hoped their presence would help stifle some of the latent anger among residents, and many carried bags of food and water to give to families who live apartment complexes that have been blocked off by police during the protests.
“I think the role of the faith community is always reconciliation,” Kinman said. “Reconciliation is at the heart of our call … Whenever an event like this happens, we have to ask ourselves: who would Jesus be standing with?”
The march is the latest in a series of attempts by the Ferguson faith community to strike a balance between quelling violent unrest and holding local police and political leaders accountable for their actions. On Tuesday night, Blackmon hosted a public forum at her church to discuss the controversy, gathering more than 400 faith leaders and local citizens to voice their grievances and ask questions of community leaders such as Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson and Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.
“We are here to stop the bleeding in our streets,” Blackmon told attendees at the forum. “We are here to take our communities back. We are here to take our children back. We are here to take our voices back. And this time, we will not go away.”
The call for peaceful responses to Brown’s death was echoed earlier this week by Rev. Al Sharpton, who ventured to Ferguson on Tuesday to visit the felled teenager’s grief-stricken parents and urge locals to embrace nonviolence. Shapton also joined Brown’s family in hosting a rally and prayer service at The Greater St. Mark Family Church on Tuesday night, calling on angry protestors to leave the streets and enter the sanctuary to vent their frustration peacefully. The assembled crowd flooded the pews of the church, signing hymns and holding their hands aloft in a way not all that dissimilar to worshippers at revival. But in addition to shouts of alleluia, the impromptu congregation chanted what has quickly become the mantra of the grassroots protest movement in Ferguson: “Hands up, don’t shoot!”
“In order to establish peace, you must have fair justice for everyone,” Sharpton said at a press conference before the rally. He added to his comments later that evening, encouraging locals to embark on a sustained campaign of nonviolent resistance, saying, “We’ve got to have a long term strategy — we can’t be mad for two weeks.”
Most of the faith-led efforts to ease the unrest in Ferguson, which is 65 percent African American, have been spearheaded by predominantly African American churches. But local white clergy are also lending a hand, hoping their actions can help break down longstanding racial tensions in the process. Rev. Kinman, who is white, directly addressed the death of Brown in his sermon this past Sunday, invoking the story of Jesus walking on water and charging his congregation to respond to the crisis with righteous indignation.
“We do not have all the facts of this case, but we do have facts,” he said. “We have the fact that there are too many guns on our streets and too many mothers and grandmothers mourning their children … We have the fact that for far too many black children and families, the police are not the ones you run to for protection but are ones you flee from in fear.”
“St. Louis is waiting for someone to … step out of the boat and show us … the greatness of which we are truly capable. Show us that this storm, of whom Michael Brown is only the latest victim, is not more powerful than God and God’s people.”