Friday, September 19, 2014

Report from Ferguson: Faith Leaders and People Power

Credit: Episcopal News Service
One of the questions that keeps coming up during our visit to Ferguson is the relationship between faith leaders and people power.  Most of the young adults we've spoken with are distrustful of clergy and complain that we don't listen to them.  In the Ferguson rebellion, young people felt that clergy leaders sold them out, aligning themselves with the police.  From their perspective, the clergy were more concerned with order than they were with justice.

Clergy here are divided along racial and faith lines, much as they are elsewhere.  The St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition is the main interfaith group, but many African-American pastors choose not to participate.  Several new clergy coalitions have sprung up in the aftermath of the Ferguson rebellion - consisting mostly of African-American faith leaders - but these groups do not collaborate together.  Racial reconciliation work needs to begin within and among faith leaders before we can be agents of reconciliation in the wider community.

I was heartened, however, by a meeting of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition that we attended.  It was convened by the Rev. Rebecca Ragland at Holy Communion Episcopal Church.  About 40 faith leaders gathered to prepare a collective response to the grand jury's decision early next year (no one believes Officer Darren Wilson will be indicted), and to support the ongoing efforts for justice in the greater St. Louis area.

My observation is that the group is working hard to bring diverse voices to the table and to include African-American leaders in particular.  Several of the clergy present were at the Don't Shoot Coalition meeting earlier in the week, so faith leaders are connected with the broad coalition of multiracial, secular groups working for reform of law enforcement in the Greater St. Louis area.

More importantly, faith leaders are beginning to better define their role vis-a-vis the young adults driving the Ferguson rebellion.  Initially, the working group on the on-the-ground response framed their charge as being about peacemaking, bridging the gap between protesters and the police.   What the group discerned, however, is that they need to ask young adult leaders how they want clergy to support them.  The role of clergy is not to serve as agents of the police enforcing order, but rather to be "protectors of the story" - witnesses to the reality of injustice and the hope for justice that the Ferguson rebellion expresses.

This is not inevitably a comfortable role for clergy.  We tend to be a conflict-avoidant lot.  We are like the religious leaders criticized by the prophet Jeremiah:  "They dress the wound of my people as if it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 8:11, NIV).  As faith leaders, our role is to bear witness to the wound of racism and to support the struggle for justice.  Only justice can heal such a serious wound.  And only then can there be peace.

Militarized police response to the Ferguson rebellion
This is not a counsel to condone violence, but to recognize that the concentration of violent power is overwhelmingly in the hands of the state and its agents.  In response to that violence, faith leaders must choose solidarity with the power of the people.

1 comment:

janinsanfran said...

This strikes me as a brave post. Somehow, we all need to find a way to speak for both love and justice. This will carry most folks into uncomfortable territory, but there can be no love in the absence of justice.