One year ago, on August 9, Michael Brown, Jr. was shot dead by Ferguson police. As his body lay on the hot pavement for four and a half hours, crowds of community members filled the streets, growing angry and confused. Faith leaders almost immediately became a central part of a movement that would ignite cities across the nation like wildfire, marching in the streets, getting arrested, and organizing rallies from the very birth of the protests.
This weekend, as Ferguson remembers Michael Brown and celebrates the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the church will once again be a pillar of support and strength for activists and community members, Keiller MacDuff, who organized an event for the Ferguson Uprising Commemoration Weekend, said. In panel discussions, documentary screenings, silent marches, civil disobedience demonstrations, and hip hop concerts, black faith leaders will be a strong and welcome presence.
Historically, churches in America across many denominations (Baptist, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, and more) — have been integral to social movements and organization. Perhaps the most famous example was the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the mobilizing power of black churches to connect leaders and push the nation forward.
Clergy have seen less prominence in the Black Lives Matter movement, but they still play an important role. Churches hold services and sermons about racial bias and inequality, and their leaders work outside the church too, participating in panels and civil disobedience demonstrations. Sometimes their actions even result in their arrest. “When you have ministers protesting on highways and getting arrested, that sends a message,” said Asher Kolieboi, activist and part-time Ferguson resident.
Clergy were repeatedly arrested from the start of the protests, including in a mass arrest at the police department in October. Members of the faith community were also there when the grand jury handed down the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, keeping the peace while leading spirituals in protest of the decision.
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou of the interfaith peace organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation was among those arrested by St. Louis police during demonstrations. Now, leaders like Rev. Sekou are using their faith to support the Ferguson and St. Louis communities in their activism efforts. “In a broader context, it is worth mentioning that Jesus was born to an unwed mother into an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world, and was executed by the state,” Sekou told ThinkProgress.
This comparison between the Biblical story and that of Michael Brown’s is not uncommon. Kolieboi agreed, saying, it is a “wonderful analogy and parallel, particularly for people who understand the historic and political importance of the murder.” They suggested that the similarities between both stories appealed to the faith of many communities, thus pushing them to act.
Throughout the tense racial atmosphere of recent years, many communities of color have clung to their faith. “People recognize that one of the byproducts of oppression is it crushes people spiritually,” Kolieboi said. “So in every single major action, there were clergy there for spiritual support.”
Following the killing, clergy directed efforts for healing, planning, and prayer. Then, there was civil disobedience, marches, and voter registration campaigns, all supported and promoted by black churches. The church provided a space removed from the violence against their community, Kolieboi said. Pastors led efforts to register voters and turn them out on Election Day in a campaign called “Souls to the Polls.” Rallies, educational, and outreach efforts brought Ferguson residents to the polls in higher numbers last year, according to clergy.
What’s next for clergy’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement remains to be seen, but it seems like their role will only grow outside the church’s walls. “There is a new church that has emerged,” Sekou said. “It is the sanctuary of the streets and the communion of protest.”
Rupali Srivastava is an intern with ThinkProgress.