Last night, we, along with three other Jesuits currently studying at St. Louis University, went to Ferguson to be present with the community there for the press conference where we learned that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing Michael Brown. Much has happened very quickly in the last 24 hours and we have been asked to share our experience.
Let’s state this upfront: We are white, middle class, privileged males who do not speak for the movement happening in the black community. We do seek to share our witness and experience of being here as the events unfold. Our faith compels us to walk in solidarity with the last, the least, and the lost, and it’s in that faith that we went to Ferguson. And here are five themes that we encountered there last night.
1) Personal welcome
The first thing that we were greeted with at the protest yesterday was a handshake. A woman approached us almost immediately, introduced herself as one the the protest’s organizers and asked if we would pray with her. We held hands and she prayed out loud pleading with God to “strengthen us” and to “heal us.” A welcoming spirit was one of the great gifts that many of the protesters offered us (along with big smiles, generous hugs and more than a few granola bars!)
2) Peace and violence
Last night the media focused on the the destruction of property – burning buildings, a looted Walgreens, and toppled cars. This type of destruction certainly happened, but the city is not on fire, nor is it going to be. There were several thousand protesters in Ferguson last night who did not turn to violence. We were among them – holding signs, praying together, marching, and offering one another comfort.
We’ve heard a lot of calls to pray for peace. Yes, pray for peace without ceasing. But we have been going to Ferguson because peace is not passive. True peace means engagement, understanding, and compassion. It means digging into the ashes and destruction left by violence, racism, fear, and greed and uncovering a human face – the face of my brother, the face of my sister.
3) The role of faith
Among the protesters, we found good company and good friends among the rabbis, ministers, religious sisters, and priests. We share, even across different religions, a faith that compels us to join in the protests and to speak against injustice. As for us as Jesuits and Catholics, our faith pushes us to ask the question, Where would Jesus stand in Ferguson? In his own life he stood among those who have no voice, those who are demonized and oppressed. In Ferguson, we do the same.
4) Remember why we’re there
Last night Michael Brown’s mother stood up in front of everyone at the protest and with tears streaming down her face shouted, “They think this is a joke! They think this is a game!”
It isn’t a joke. On August 9th Michael was shot to death in the middle of his neighborhood, and the one who caused his death will not be held responsible, at least not, we learned last night, by the local authority.
5) Hope is alive in Ferguson
When we look at the injustices in these last months, we’ve been tempted to lose hope. But hope is there. It’s in the faith communities that hold us together. Hope is there with the teachers who stood in the cold today offering their services to children in the libraries because their schools were closed. Hope is in the tears of Michael Brown’s mother when she cries for calm, in the righteous anger over injustice, lack of opportunity, and decent schools. Hope is there in the kindness of police officers simply doing their job and listening to the concerns of the people. And for us, when we see hope, we see the presence of God – God who is alive in Ferguson, God who calls for justice, God who calls for peace.