This Missouri pastor is working to ‘reclaim the language of faith’

Rev. Traci Blackmon. (CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

This is the third in a series of profiles examining leaders of what is often called the Religious Left, detailing their origins, beliefs, and tactics. Find the first two here.

When Rev. Traci Blackmon took the stage in mid-October at the Prophetic Resistance Summit in Indianapolis, Indiana, she was technically slated to give a “keynote address,” a phrase that brings to mind Powerpoint presentations and break-out sessions. But what she actually delivered to 350-odd clergy was, well, a sermon.

The Missouri native, well known for her skills as a preacher, did not disappoint. Over the course of 25 minutes, her voice cracked with passion as she invoked the biblical story of Moses, using the instance of God speaking through a burning bush as a metaphor to explain the world’s many ills. But Blackmon, a pivotal spiritual voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, did not speak in generalities. She listed the tragedies impacting communities of color by name.

“Bushes were burning in Ferguson long before Michael Brown was killed!” Blackmon shouted. “Bushes were burning in Baltimore before Freddie Gray died! Bushes were burning in Florida before Trayvon Martin! Bushes were burning in New York before Eric Garner was killed on the street corner! Bushes were burning…in Flint before the water was contaminated, in Charlottesville before the white supremacists marched, in Palestine before the wall! Bushes were burning in the U.S. before Donald Trump became president!”

Sitting in an empty conference room down the hall a few minutes later, the rising star in the faith-based “resistance” movement gave off a noticeably different vibe. Some preachers are exhausted by fiery sermons, but Blackmon looked hardly fazed. She was calm, but not tired; serious, but quick to laugh.

Yet her intensity remained, albeit in a more distilled form. And when asked why she came to speak at the conference, she once again rooted her answer in a specific person.

“In 2014, when Michael Brown Jr. was killed…” she began, repeating the name of the Ferguson, Missouri teenager killed by police in 2014.

The use of his full name—including the “Jr.”—is common for Blackmon, who often insists on recounting vivid personal details. This is especially true when she speaks about Black Lives Matter or Ferguson, the incident that thrust her into the national spotlight. Although national-level faith leaders often stick to the broad strokes of policy or high-minded platitudes, the small-town pastor has a habit of highlighting individual people in specific places impacted by particular events or policies.

It’s a glimpse inside the often hyper-local, people-first approach Blackmon brings to advocacy—one that she’s increasingly bringing to the national stage.

Traci Blackmon at the Prophetic Resistance Summit. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins)

A lifelong dedication to justice

For Blackmon, encounters with inequality and difference came early. While growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, she said reflection on her race wasn’t so much a choice as a fact of life.

“I integrated many classrooms,” she said, explaining that much of her early education was spent in private schools. “I transferred from all-black classrooms to all-white classrooms in fourth grade—not by my own volition, as my parents made that choice. I often reflect back on the fact that I didn’t even have another black classmate until I got to college. I never had another black teacher until I got to seminary.”

She added: “Justice work has always had to be a part of my being, [such as] earning to speak for myself and speak up in such environments. Although they weren’t necessarily overtly hostile environments…there was certainly an awareness of my blackness, and my otherness in those places.”

“There was certainly an awareness of my blackness, and my otherness in those places.”

Blackmon carried these experiences into adulthood, where awareness of those on the margins became a constant of her multifaceted career. She wasn’t always a minister, for instance: Blackmon racked up more than 25 years of health care experience working as a registered nurse focusing on cardiac care. But even as she aided the sick on the hospital floors, she looked for ways to expand the circle of those she served. Blackmon said she sat on the diversity team of the largest health care system in St. Louis, and launched ambitious projects designed to provide services to those who need it most.

“I began, developed, and utilized a mobile health care van for the hospital that targeted neighborhoods that were under-insured and uninsured,” she said. “Unfortunately, in our cities and communities, that always intersects with race—class always intersects with race.”

This work eventually took on an overtly spiritual flair. Blackmon, who is ordained in both the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the United Church of Christ (UCC), served the AME for several years before becoming pastor of Christ the King Church in Florissant, Missouri, a UCC church. She was the first female pastor in the congregation’s more than 150-year history, and preached a broad vision of “church.”

“My commitment to that neighborhood as a pastor of a church is, and in leading my people, was: if we’re going to be in a neighborhood, we’re going to be a neighbor,” she said. “So a part of that commitment was we began offering space in our church for start-up businesses.”

Christ the King was soon home to robotics groups and girls’ mentoring programs. But Blackmon said her most impactful community outreach initiative was her congregation’s response to a local surge in gun violence. Unlike other worship communities that would only perform funerals for church members, Blackmon offered up her sanctuary to anyone who needed space for a service to honor their dead—regardless of whether they were member of her church. Or any church.

“You could bring in your preacher,” she said. “They just [often] didn’t have a place. If they didn’t have a pastor, then I would do it.”

Rev. Traci Blackmon uses a megaphone to talk to a large group of demonstrators Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (CREDIT: AP/Jeff Roberson)

From healing bodies in hospitals to healing souls in the streets

Blackmon’s funeral policy proved to be a powerful witness to the surrounding community, and ultimately connected her to a pivotal moment in her life and ministry: The killing of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri.

In August 2013, Blackmon said she performed a funeral for a 21-year-old woman killed in a drive-by shooting in St. Louis when a bullet intended for her fiancé struck her skull as she held her nine-month-old child. A friend of the woman named Sierra attended the funeral, and—despite swearing off organized religion when she was 14, following an alleged incident of sexual abuse within a church—was moved by Blackmon’s ministry. She never made a habit of attending services at Christ the King, but asked for the pastor’s card after the service just in case.

“We came with a Bible in one hand, and a protest sign in the other.”

The two reconnected almost exactly a year later, when Sierra returned to her home in Canfield Green Apartments after a breakfast outing with her children. As she approached her door, she and her children walked past the bloodied, uncovered body of Michael Brown, still lying in the streets after he was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson.

“Her 7-year-old son Jordan saw Michael laying there and began to cry, and scream, and ask ‘Who hurt Mike Mike?’” Blackmon said. “She didn’t have answers for him. So she went into her house and found my card that she had kept for a year…and she said to me: ‘You don’t know it, but since that day you’ve been my pastor. And I need my pastor to come to Canfield.’”

Blackmon did, in fact, come to Canfield, saying she was “responding as a pastor to someone who was calling and asking for my services.” She quickly emerged as one of the few visible faith leaders in what became the Ferguson Uprising protest movement, which helped nationalize the growing Black Lives Matter movement.

Her role was unusual. Many faith leaders have acknowledged that unlike other campaigns for racial equality, the Black Lives Matter movement is often spearheaded by young activists instead of black clergy. Yet Blackmon stood out as an early exception, speaking at rallies and hosting forums with other faith leaders at her church to discuss Brown’s death with local police officials.

“We came with a Bible in one hand, and a protest sign in the other,” Blackmon told marchers who joined her at the time.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks as Pastor Traci Blackmon, left, listens, during a campaign stop at Christ the King United Church of Christ, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Florissant, Mo. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

A national presence, but a local heart

Blackmon’s advocacy in Ferguson magnified her profile in faith circles and beyond. Within months, she was named a member of the Ferguson Commission, a group appointed by Missouri Governor to conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.” The next year Ebony listed her as one of their Power 100, and she was selected as part of a 14-person delegation to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis’ staff.

The fame also enhanced her political clout. When then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton rolled through Missouri in 2016, she spoke at a public forum on race at Blackmon’s church, where panelists invited by the pastor presented their work to Clinton. The “public” part was key: Blackmon turned down a request by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for a private meeting.

“I’m not going to partake in closed-door meetings with political candidates,” Blackmon said of her decision. “I do not speak for all black people; I do not speak for the black community collectively. Whatever kind of influence I have, I want to use it to open the door so that everyone can be at the table.”

Hillary Clinton with Traci Blackmon in 2015. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Her advocacy-oriented stance came in handy following the election of Donald Trump, which set in motion a series of events that thrust Blackmon into the center of the “resistance” movement.

When torch-wielding white supremacists first arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, to chant racist slogans as they surrounded a statue of Thomas Jefferson, Blackmon was across the street with faith leaders preaching a sermon that condemned racism. She remained in the embattled city through the next day as white nationalists continued to descend on the town, live-streaming her counter-protest against bigotry that sometimes put her in harms way: in one dramatic incident, she was whisked away in the middle of an MSNBC interview when the situation around her suddenly became too dangerous.

Traci Blackmon speaks alongside William Barber and others while protesting the GOP-led effort to repeal the ACA in 2017. (CREDIT: FACEBOOK/FAITH IN PUBLIC LIFE)

She was also a highlight of several faith-led protests in Washington, D.C. decrying Trump’s various policy proposals. She and seven other clergy were taken into custody in April while staging a pray-in protest at the Senate building to condemn the president’s budget proposal. Undaunted, she returned three months later to stand against GOP-led efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and was one of several other faith leaders arrested for protesting outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office.

“I get a little annoyed when people say ‘She came up in Ferguson!’ No, you just listened in Ferguson!”

In many ways, Blackmon appreciates her newfound status as a national voice, especially after years of advocacy that sometimes felt like it fell on deaf ears.

“I get a little annoyed when people say ‘She came up in Ferguson!’ No, you just listened in Ferguson!” she told ThinkProgress.

But for all the attention she garners, Blackmon said she struggles with the increasing distance between her work and her congregation. She pointed to the recent surge in activism back in Ferguson, bemoaning that she often wasn’t there to march with her people.

“To be honest with you, I’m still wrestling with that,” she told ThinkProgress. “I have some grief over that, because it comes at great cost. I am still a local pastor … But I’m not involved in the same way, because I’m not present in the same way.”

Traci Blackmon (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins)

An uncertain future

The role of “church” is paramount for Blackmon, who insisted she is “always in the streets as a representative of the church.” She acknowledged her role as faith advocate isn’t necessarily surprising given her theological background, saying of her famously liberal denomination, “If you go any further left than the United Church of Christ, you’re gonna fall of the edge.”

But her tone became serious when she spoke of her enhanced role in the UCC, which elected her this summer to be executive minister of their national-level Justice and Witness Ministries.

“I believe that the church, the institutionalized church, has to undergo a complete deconstruction, and a re-imagining of what God is intending,” she said. “The streets are a side-effect of my call.”

“I’m not preaching a progressive gospel, I’m not preaching a Social Gospel—I’m preaching the Gospel.”

And while she agrees her work implicitly rebukes the words and actions of the Religious Right, she stopped short of describing herself as the “Religious Left.”

“We have to reclaim the language of faith,” she said. “We have to stop defining ourselves by those who are misappropriating faith. We have to be more vocal about who we are, and what we stand for … So I am not ‘Religious Left,’ I’m not ‘Religious Right’—I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ. I’m not preaching a progressive gospel, I’m not preaching a Social Gospel—I’m preaching the Gospel.”

Her life’s ambition and struggle, it seems, is discerning where that Gospel should be preached the loudest: at the local level, the national level, or all of the above.

In a world with so many burning bushes, it can be hard to choose.

“I just really want to make sure I’m where God wants me to be,” she said.