FERGUSON, Mo. — For nearly two weeks, the small Missouri town of Ferguson seemed poised on the edge of a full-scale conflagration: Angry crowds demanded transparency and justice in the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer. Citizens faced off against heavily armed police in armored vehicles and riot gear.
But voices of faith, walking on either side of the protester-police line, helped calm violent confrontations and prevent a bad situation from becoming much, much worse.
“So far, it has been an ecumenical movement,” said Father Art Cavitt, a black Catholic priest and the executive director of the St. Charles Lwanga Center for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, explaining that many St. Louis churches and denominations have been involved in the events in Ferguson.
“It is the visibility of those people of God, standing for righteousness and justice, not being afraid to be with the people and not being afraid to respond via those immediate needs of food, clothing, transportation, shelter and all those things that are now obstacles for some folks.”
St. Louis-area clergy of all races and creeds — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders — were key players in calling for protesters and police confronting each other to exercise restraint and thwarting agitators trying to prod the crowd toward violence.
One group called Clergy United, an association of 200 local St. Louis clergy, had its members interspersed among the crowds to keep them firm but calm in their demands for justice. Bishop Edwin Bass of the Church of God in Christ told USA Today that he also walked among police and prayed with them to help them “humanize” the protesters.
“We wanted law enforcement not to see the crowds as a mob, but as people,” he said.
The St. Louis Archdiocese also had its clergy among protesters and police, praying with them and urging non-violence.
Even with the episodes of violence and looting that did occur, Ferguson did not descend into the feared worst-case scenario of race riots reminiscent of the 1960s. Most of the 204 arrested were people from outside of Ferguson, who were charged with “failure to disperse.”
The common language of faith also helped Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is black and a Ferguson native, create a bridge of communication between police and protesters, as he tried to restore peace in a community that had no confidence in its own police department.
Johnson took charge of the security situation in Ferguson on the governor’s orders on Aug. 14, and in his call for calm and reconciliation at an Aug. 15 news conference, he told the crowds what his daughter said to him about Jesus asking Peter to walk with him on water.
“She said: When Peter got scared, Jesus picked him up and said, ‘Have the faith.’ And I’m telling you today: We need to be just like Peter, because I know we're scared, and I know we've fallen. He's going to pick us up, and he's going to pick this community up.”
Origins of a Protest
Protests erupted after the majority-black community reacted to the death of Michael Brown, 18, at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, 28, a member of the predominantly white Ferguson Police Department. Fifty of the department’s 53 staff are white, according to media reports, whereas more than two-thirds of the community’s residents are black.
Tensions were fueled by Brown’s body lying uncovered in the street for several hours after the shooting (in keeping with investigative procedures for such incidents), despite the pleas of his mother at the scene to cover him, and the refusal of the Ferguson Police Department to release the officer’s name for several days.
The protests demanding transparency intensified as officers deployed in full riot gear with automatic weapons and armored, mine-resistant personnel carriers from the Pentagon called MRAPs, unleashing police dogs, sound weapons and tear gas — an unprecedented militarized spectacle for this town of 21,000 residents.
A grand jury convened on Aug. 20 to determine the facts of the fateful encounter, when Wilson shot an unarmed Brown in the middle of a street in Ferguson after stopping him for jaywalking. Eyewitness accounts differ on what happened next — one account has Wilson grabbing Brown to force him into the patrol car and gunning him down as he fled the altercation or raised his hands in surrender; another account has Wilson firing his gun in self-defense, following a violent assault initiated by Brown, when Brown charged the officer after daring him to shoot.
Wilson’s car did not have dashcams installed, so no police footage of the incident exists.
Some St. Louis clergy also have participated in calls for Gov. Jay Nixon to replace St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch in handling the case, in the event of an indictment. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, McCulloch has deep ties with law enforcement; his police-officer father was murdered by a black man in 1964 and never brought charges against two undercover police officers who shot 21 bullets, killing two unarmed suspected criminals with felony drug convictions.
McCulloch, however, has refused calls to step down, and the governor has declined to intervene in the matter.
Seeking Lasting Justice
The Archdiocese of St. Louis has made clear that, in its view, there is no going back following the Brown shooting to the original status quo — neither for Ferguson nor the greater St. Louis metropolitan community. Archbishop Robert Carlson re-established the archdiocesan Human Rights Commission, which had closed in the decades following the civil-rights movement, and pledged to help Ferguson churches “dismantle systemic racism.”
“We integrated [professional] baseball and schools a long time ago. But we haven’t ‘integrated’ everyone’s hearts,” the archbishop told the Register, explaining that some St. Louis communities are integrated, but others remain socially segregated.
“The unrest in Ferguson is just an indication that we haven’t come as far as we’d like to believe. Sometimes the notion that ‘we’ve put those days behind us’ is a refusal to look at how far we still have to go — in people’s hearts and in the organization of society.”
Carlson said the issues in Ferguson and other St. Louis communities are “very deep and complex” and require the community to “re-examine the value we place on life itself and start to actively promote the dignity of the human person as a creation of God.”
The archdiocese has pledged to offer churches in Ferguson and St. Louis its support in fighting racism, poverty and their underlying causes in society.
Archbishop Carlson said that family-and-marriage breakdown, as well as the need for quality education to help alleviate poverty, are issues the archdiocese will be actively addressing. The archbishop recommitted the local Church to help young people out of poverty by giving them scholarships for education in Catholic schools. “If families are broken, society will be broken. When families are healthy — spiritually and physically — it is easier to build a healthy society. We need to make family life work,” he said.
“Education also plays a very significant role in the effort to decrease violence. If children have a solid educational background, they are far less likely to engage in risky behavior.”
Already, more than 3,000 youth receive such scholarships.
The archbishop has commissioned Father Cavitt to lead the St. Charles Lwanga Center in studying and proposing solutions “to decrease violence in our communities and in our families.”
Father Cavitt explained that part of the problem is that “mutual suspicion” exists between the black community and the police in urban areas. But he said one of the deeper questions to focus on is: “Do people feel they are in the fabric, of the fruitfulness, of society?”
“If I feel like 'I have no investment in it or if society views me as a detriment or a liability,' then 'what is there for me to lose, really, in terms of whatever behavior I demonstrate?'”
Many pastors have been leading their communities in a renewed effort at solidarity: from picking up the pieces of broken glass and rubber bullets in their streets to holding community events to encourage better racial understanding of Ferguson’s problems.
Father Robert Rosebrough of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Ferguson has spoken from his pulpit on Ferguson’s issues, but he said it is a challenge: Just 10% of his congregation, he estimated, grasps the deeper underlying issues that need to be addressed for Ferguson to achieve lasting justice within its society. Many people just want to go back to the peace and quiet as it was before, without doing the hard work.
But for lasting peace to come to Ferguson and other communities, he said, prayer is key to preparing Ferguson and its faith community to engage in that work to empower lasting, positive change.
Father Rosebrough’s parish has been actively praying the Rosary and offering up Holy Hours for Ferguson.
“Prayer, to me, is the first part we have to do,” he said. “We can’t count on any solution, when it comes, if we already think we have the answer. We need to prepare ourselves to receive God’s word and action when it comes.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.