#Ferguson, the church, and a call to unity

hands up
Full disclosure: I’m a white male.

I lived in, and attended school in Ferguson, Missouri, and as a result have a deep love for that beautiful city.

One blogger recently wrote, “I keep hearing that “violence erupted” in Ferguson, Missouri after a police officer shot an unarmed black man. This headline is a bit misleading, seeing as how Ferguson is one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden towns in America, so violence is already in a perpetual state of “eruption.”

This is not the Ferguson I know.

The Ferguson I know is beautiful brick houses, delicious food, ethnic diversity, a local farmers market and a unique cultural ability to shop and rub elbows with those who look different than you, speak differently than you, and were raised differently than you.

This has created a community stew that is unique and beautiful.

Experiences may vary.

While I grew up in Ferguson, I also realize that I didn’t experience the same Ferguson that others experienced.

Never did I experience racial profiling.

Never did I experience harassment.

Understanding this, when I watch these riots, and hear the story of Mike Brown and how he was fatally shot by a police officer, from an experiential standpoint I simply cannot relate with the pain and experiential hardships of those who live in Ferguson and the country at large.

I can’t relate because the color of my skin sheltered me from this difficult reality.mourning

White like me

These days, I am the pastor of a church in Northern California which has taken me far from the neighborhoods of my youth. These brick-built neighborhoods, however, still own significant real estate in my heart. This hold has kept me glued to my computer watching live feeds, reading twitter trends and reading Facebook posts in search of news.

It is what I’ve read that breaks my heart.

I watch as fellow white people dismissively cite “black-on-black” violence to downplay the issue of police brutality and profiling.

I watch as Dr. King quotes are passed, from white person to white person, as a protest to the rage those in Ferguson feel.

I watched as white people cite twitter posts which talk of “looting” white neighborhoods as if they’re the cultural expectation and norm.

I watch, and am brutally reminded that the senseless death of a 18 year old young man has re-opened the wounds of racial division in our country, and we Caucasians have no idea how to handle the discussion of race in America.

As a result, I want to share a few [incomplete] thoughts and words with my Caucasian brothers and sisters:

1. The riots and burning buildings do not represent the African American community in Ferguson:

Yesterday, I watched press conferences led by African-American leaders (local pastors and councilmen, as well as national NAACP leaders) calling out their own community; asking them to protest, but to do so respectfully and non-violently.

These leaders called for community care and respect. They called for a renewed dedication from mothers and fathers to instill family values in their children. They called for the police department to create more accountability.

These passionate speeches resonated with the depth and brilliance of Dr. King. These were speeches that went unreported, and discussed.

2. If you’re having conversation about the Ferguson protests with only white people, you need to expand your cultural circles or stay silent.

As much as we might try to disagree, the reality is that we cannot learn the struggles and pain of others when we are unwilling to enter into their world and listen. We’ve been afforded a cultural leg-up, and as a result, must accept that not all reality is our reality.

So, to share our reflections on another culture, we’ll only be spreading misinformation…and that will only serve to further divide. It will never help. Only harm.

3. If you are a church leader

I plead with you to find a way to use these moments of pain and suffering to begin the process of reconciliation and unification between African-Americans and Caucasians in Ferguson and St. Louis as a whole.

Pastor of an all-white church? Find a neighboring all-black church, give them a call, and ask how you might love and support them during these moments.

Serve. Love. Support. No conditions.

Fight the temptation to stay inside your church walls.

While the city of Ferguson bleeds, the church has a beautifully unique opportunity to model reconciliation and love and to do so inter-racially and inter-culturally.

The church must lead on the issue of cultural reconciliation. Pastors, it’s on us…so embrace this opportunity! It may not be given again.

4. Refuse to racially stereotype

Our African-American brothers and sisters are not the sum of the stories our news and media share.Police Shooting-Missouri

They are a beautiful people, many deeply committed to Christ. They love their family. They love their children. They are passionate about life, art, and their culture.

They are no different than you and I.

Our brothers and sisters have however experienced generational pain and cultural/systemic exclusion which is completely, and altogether foreign to us in the white/middle class majority.

Understanding this, we must unapologetically refuse to discount them as “those angry black people.” Even if they are angry, we must remember that anger is a natural response to the experience that something is not right, or that some injustice has been committed. When we come across someone who is angry, instead of discounting their emotions, we must question along-side of them and seek understanding.

We must ask permission to enter into their world, learn about their lives, and seek out ways in which we might find unity and support for one another.

Ours cities will never heal if we’re not first willing to listen, mourn and empathize together.

*Edits made to correct Mike Browns age, and a statement dealing with the rioters.
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13 thoughts on “#Ferguson, the church, and a call to unity

  1. Michael,

    While I appreciate the sentiments in your blog on Ferguson, I respectfully have to disagree with many of your conclusions. I came to the realization several years ago that the major divisions in our society aren’t along racial lines – but are along worldview lines; the foundations of how one views the world.

    As a 53-year-old lifelong St. Louisan white male, any disconnectedness or separation I feel with black America has always been due to worldview – not skin pigmentation.

    All civilized people – especially Christians – desire reconciliation and empathize with a family’s loss. Intelligent whites are fully capable of understanding the feelings and thoughts of blacks – both current and historical. Simply because we personally disagree with some of the perspectives doesn’t mean we’re incapable of understanding them.

    The empathy of a family’s loss gets more challenging when the events turn into a circus – ranging from uncivilized lawless behavior that has required strong police intervention to opportunists whose power and income have historically derived from creating divisions among races. ‘Unity and reconciliation’ is typically the last thing they desire.

    If you haven’t already, Michael, I would recommend reading the book ‘White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement’ by Shelby Steele. I first read this book in 2008 and couldn’t put it down. Dr. Steele nails it on every page.

      • No, you don’t have to accept the rioters; I would assume most there who feel disenfranchised don’t accept the rioters either.

        As part of reconciliation, my first question to those in the area would be ‘do you feel disenfranchised – and why?’…..and then be a good listener.

        Ideally, reconciliation is a two-way street. I would have perspectives on all of this based upon my worldview, my upbringing, my faith in Christ, my wisdom accumulated over having lived 53 years; virtually all of it in the St. Louis area. Would they be heard? Would people care? Would an ‘outsider’ who lives in West County – approximately 30 minutes away – be told to just go away, that I simply couldn’t relate?

        Most of us have had experiences seared into our consciousness. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in University City, went to integrated schools through the 8th grade, was bussed to school in the 7th grade to an even more integrated environment. I’ve been a victim of minor crimes about a 1/2 dozen times throughout my life – and the aftermath of some of those experiences made indelible marks.

  2. Michael ,
    Some good thoughts but I can’t agree with your underlying assumptions. I’m sure there are wonderful Muslim people in Iraq. People the media has never broadcast there call for peace. Does that mean the followers of ISIS are just misunderstood and need a hug? If this type of behavior can be rationalized and sympithized at any level it can be at all levels. I already stand with anyone that wants peace regardless of their race. The racism much of the blak community holds today as much more to do with the ideology of the leaders they choose to listen to today. If those leaders were really concerned with the eviles of slavery we would hear much more about the atrocities occurring today from them.

      • Michael,
        I wasn’t making a comparison but a point. If you will, replace “the African American Community” with Iraq, a Iraqi town that ISIS has invaded for Ferguson and ISIS for the rioters and explain why the outrage and behavior of ISIS can’t be rationalized and sympathized with on the same supposed grounds as you give the rioters in Ferguson, or in LA 10 or so years ago when the rioters did seriously harm innocent people. I am not saying blacks have not suffered discrimination, they have. As both a Christian and just a human being I want justice and reconciliation caused by that injustice. Were I differ with you is the source of their rage today. You say it is the injustice they have suffered. There are people groups all over the world suffering that don’t act out in mass violence. What makes other groups turn to such radical behavior? Its the leaders they are listening to taking advantage of their pain. The leaders of ISIS preach hate and we see the results. Men such as Jessy Jackson and All Sharpden not to mention the NAACP do the same thing. Yet we have not heard them or their message of hate and division condemned. I to grew up in St. Louis, St. Ann to be exact, only a stones through from Ferguson. I’m old enough to remember the racial tensions of the late 60s and 70s in the area. I have heard for the last 30 years about the wrongs done to the blacks by the whites. I get it! We screwed up but what about the biblical teaching of forgiveness? What if the evilness of African American slavery was aloud so that a whole race of people would rise up against the evils of slavery today from the strength and courage experience builds? Isn’t God in the business of using evil for good? What good has come form this evil under the likes of Jackson and Sharpden? And yes, here I am comparing Jackson and Shapden to the leaders of ISIS. My concern about your article is that you imply there is some level of rationality and sympathy for the rioters behavior that whites should own. No one but the Jacksons of the world and the rioters themselves own this violence. This is the kind of teaching that gives evil people the opening they need to turn young idealistic people by playing on the guilt it creates. Reconciliation starts with honesty from both sides.

  3. Michael, I cut and paste below what you state, “I watched as white people cite twitter posts which talk of “looting” white neighborhoods as if they’re the cultural expectation and norm. (no white neighborhoods have been, nor will be “looted”…quite oppositely, the African American community is overwhelmingly calling for non-violence)

    I watch, and am brutally reminded that the senseless death of a 21 year old college student has re-opened the wounds of racial division in our country, and we Caucasians have no idea how to handle the discussion of race in America.”

    My reply: There has been looting in white neighborhoods. A Carnival Shoe store in south St. Louis was looted in the middle of the night Monday evening. As you know, this is no where close to Ferguson. But was a result of activities in ferguson. Also it has been stated that they should loot the ‘rich white neighborhoods.’

    And lastly, the young man who was killed, was 18 years old (not 21) and not yet in college.

    You also state that “Caucasians have no idea how to handle speaking of race in America”. This is a pretty broad and generalization of a statement and no one can speak for ALL Caucasions or African Americans.

    I have African American friends and colleagues and have bi-racial family members.

    We just cannot speak for others. Every person has their own thoughts, opinions, values, upbringing,

    Respectfully,
    WAC

    • Thanks for commenting, Mr Mason!

      In regards to Mike Brown’s age. Thank you for bringing that error to my attention. It has been corrected, as has the statement about rioting and looting. Looking at back on when this was written, I think it’s safe to say that nobody expected this to become what it is. All-in-all, police and rioters included, this has become quite a situation.

      I want to be careful to say that this isn’t a post assuming all people are the same, nor is it my attempt to paint with broad strokes. I know many white men and women in St. Louis who have spend this time listening and attempting to find ways to support, love and find unity with their African-American brothers. This post has come out of a sadness from what I’ve seen on social media from people who lack the perspective of those who are African American (or any minority, for that matter). As you, many have family and close friends who have been touched by this issue…but many have not. And this post, as simple, and incomplete as it is, is my attempt to bring about some sort of change among the white community in Ferguson, St. Louis, and abroad.

      Am I small in the grand scheme of things? Absolutely, but what do we have, if not our words, to shape and change the world we love!

      • I too, have been saddened by others’ reactions, both unnecessary comments and unnecessary actions. Our world is comprised of diversity and it’s unfortunate that everyone cannot live in harmony and help others. I pray justice will prevail for Mr. Brown’s family as well as peace and reconciliation between the citizens and authorities in Ferguson.

  4. Pingback: A pastor’s prayer for the Church in 2016 | Michael Palmer

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