The reaction to this picture -- and to the clergy presence last night -- has been predictably varied. My actions and those of my fellow clergy have been called both "brave" and "self indulgent." Even protestors there last night had different views of our presence there. One person said, "The clergy response here is definitely out here for good PR and photo ops" while another said, "The clergy are trying to keep the peace..." and "I think God led them out here."
Since Mike Brown was killed more than 50 days ago, I have been praying, thinking, listening, studying and carefully considering both my role and the role of Christ Church Cathedral in responding to the unfolding events. I know that pictures like this are open to broad interpretation, so when I do things like go down as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and stand with the protestors in Ferguson, I want to be as transparent as possible about what I did, why I did it and how it fits into the larger call I believe God has for us.
And that means there are other pictures you need to see as well. Pictures like this one:
This is the picture we need to see. It is the picture of strong and courageous, young and brilliant leadership that is emerging in Ferguson and north of Delmar all over St. Louis. As I share with you what led me to South Florissant last night and why I did what I did there, I invite you to look not at my picture but hers. I invite you not only to ask if I stood with her well last night, but if you might be in your own way called to stand with her as well.
Last night was my third night with the protesters in Ferguson since Michael Brown was killed. I come down only when I am specifically asked to come as a clergy peacekeeper to stand with the young people who are protesting. That is because while there is much about my call to respond to the life Ferguson is revealing that is still not clear to me, a few things are clear:
*It is clear to me that the call of the church as ambassadors of Christ given the ministry of reconciliation is to stand in the breach ... in this case to stand in that in-between space between the powerless who are crying out and those in power who both need to hear that voice and have the power to suppress it.
*It is clear to me that the call of the priest is to gather the people around the presence of Christ and to invite all to lay our lives on the table with it. We all have the potential in different times and places of being that voice of Christ. Right now, that voice is coming from the young people in Ferguson who are crying out that their lives matter, that they deserve to be treated as full images of God, and that they are beautiful and powerful despite many others' claims to the contrary.
*It is clear to me that for the vast majority of youth, the church has become irrelevant because they believe the church has abandoned them and wants only to preach to them. It is clear to me that we as the church need to be present with the youth -- not just in Ferguson but everywhere -- and where we hear them preaching the Gospel, to be their guardian and their megaphone.
Last night, I was asked to come down to be a clergy peacekeeper and stand with the young people. This was deemed necessary because of the confrontations with police that had happened in the past few days. I arrived at 9 pm and left around 1:15 am. During that time, I and 10-15 other clergy (including fellow Episcopal priests Rebecca Ragland and Jon Stratton) marched with the protesters, talked with them (doing much more listening than talking) and stood with them.
When the protesters assembled in the middle of the street in front of the Ferguson Police Department, Several of us organized a few people to direct traffic so that drivers could still get up and down S. Florissant. Our goal was to give the police as little reason as possible to move on the protesters.
When the police began to line up and order the protesters to disperse, many of the clergy formed a line in front of them shielding them. It was clear this was an act of civil disobedience because it was willfully violating the ordinance against gathering in the street. I did not join this group because I did not feel called to break that law.
Instead, I did what I did feel called to do, which is be a peaceful presence -- and for me that means prayer. A few other clergy felt similarly called ,so instead of going into the street, we first stood and then knelt on the sidewalk (a legal place for us to be) and prayed. I can only say what I prayed for, and that is I prayed for God's spirit not just of peace but of wisdom and compassion to descend on all of us. I prayed for the protesters and I prayed for the police. I prayed for the spirit of fear and mistrust to leave.
The remarkable thing is what happened next, and that is these amazing young people moved forward and joined us ... literally getting our backs as we were praying for them. There was a standoff with the police for a time, and when we were done praying, we stepped to the side and the protesters returned to the street.
At this point Alexis and the other young woman who were the line leaders called the clergy together and said how grateful they were for our presence but asked us not to join them in the street. They needed to do this themselves. It was the most I was moved all night, so great was their courage and dedication. They asked that we stand to the side, legally, on the sidewalk and continue to pray. And -- with various other things that happened the rest of the night -- that is what we did.
Last night was an honor and a privilege. I pray it wasn't self-induglent. I have to say it didn't feel like it at the time. Nor did it feel particularly brave. It did feel like an honor because of what I saw from these young people.
Yes, there was a tremendous amount of anger. Yes, there were even calls for violence that made me wince and that go against everything I believe in. And I tried to listen to the pain from where those cries came even as I was praying that we would find a better, nonviolent way.
But more foundational and powerful than that, I saw the power of the cross. I saw people who were willing to sacrifice for a greater good. I saw young women and men who stared down powerful men with sticks and guns. And then I saw them invite one of those powerful men, Capt. Ron Johnson, to speak to them. And then I saw the police do something remarkable, too -- stand down and not force a confrontation but take the posture of mercy and perhaps even a little bit of listening.
I cannot call it providence that we are in this moment. Whenever a child is dead, I cannot bring myself to call it providential. But history has handed us this moment in time and it is an incredible opportunity and responsibility. The chasms of race and class Ferguson has revealed are not unique to St. Louis, but we have been given the spotlight and the opportunity to lead this nation -- and even this world -- in confronting our brokenness with integrity, compassion and deep, sacrificial love.
I was meeting with a friend today and he said that 30 years from now what America is going to know about St. Louis is Ferguson and the Arch. This is the time for us together to create that legacy. And it will happen in a thousand moments like last night. Moments where young and courageous leadership is allowed to rise up. Moments where people of faith use their power like John the Baptist -- not pointing to ourselves but seeking out and pointing to the voice of Christ. Moments where the powers that be allow themselves to stand down. Moments that could erupt in blows instead find even an uneasy peace (and make no mistake, it was an uneasy peace last night).
Moments that remind us that as followers of Jesus we must always work not to defeat enemies but to move hearts. And what we move hearts toward is the heavenly Jerusalem -- a common vision of a city, region, nation and world that makes glad God's heart ... thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
A world where one child of God is not privileged over another.
A world where our original sin of racism is finally redeemed.