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St. Louis Faith Leaders Talk About Hope And Not Giving Up Quest For Justice

Ferguson Davis
Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

Tasha Davis, executive pastor at the Flood Christian Church, started Sunday service as she usually does, with prayer. But this Sunday’s service was different.

Just feet away, the cinder block building that once housed the Flood Christian Church is destroyed, still marked with black ash from a fire set during chaos last Monday evening. That night, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch had announced the grand jury's decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson in connection with the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Flood Christian Church Pastor Carlton Lee got a call late Monday night from police.

“They said that I need to get down here,” Lee said. “I was on the other side of West Florissant, trying to stop the unruly protest and riots and the police told me that I need to get down here because my church was on fire.”

On Sunday, Lee gathered his congregation under a large, white tent in a parking lot. He said it was important that they continue to worship and show the community their strength.

“I want everyone to know we are not backing down, we are not budging, we are ever more committed to this family, to this community. We’re not going to run,” Lee said.

The family he’s committed to is Michael Brown’s. Michael Brown Sr. is a member of the church.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the fire, trying to determine whether it was a targeted attack against the church.

Despite the damage, Executive Pastor Davis says she’s hopeful about the future of the church and the region.

She looks toward a time when the children of today are grown and we look in "the history books and we'll be able to see how St. Louis was able to come back together again.”

A space for discussion

Twenty minutes from Ferguson, in downtown St. Louis, the Rev. Michael Kinman of the Episcopalian Christ Church Cathedral was practicing his Sunday sermon. He was having technical difficulties as he tried to cue up a song he planned to use for service. Fiddling with his iPhone for a moment, he finally got the song — “Freedom is Coming” — to play. The song came out of the anti-apartheid movements of South Africa, and Kinman said it was a song that would inspire both hope and action.

The Very Rev. Michael Kinman
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
The Very Rev. Michael Kinman

“It’s one of these songs that’s hard not to dance to and it is just the heart of the Gospel, because it says Jesus is coming,” Kinman said.

Kinman has talked with his congregation about Brown's death and the resulting unrest for months now.

“We’ve had people leave the congregation because we keep talking about this. … We’ve had people join the congregation because we keep talking about this,” said Kinman.

Kinman said these conversations about race are hard.

Credit Emanuele Berry|St. Louis Public Radio
A clergy led protest in Clayton.

“I think one of the tasks for us as white people ... is to say yeah, this may be hard for us now but, as Jon Stewart said this perfectly, (if) you’re tired of hearing about race, try being black,” he said.

Beyond community discussion about race and community growth, Kinman said he also thinks it’s critical for religious leaders to work beyond their church buildings.

“I think it is critically important for white faith leaders, all faith leaders but particularly all white leaders, to literally be out on the streets with the young people who are committed to nonviolence and just this bold courageous love that will lead to social change,” he says. “We have to be out there, otherwise we have no credibility. That’s our job is to really be present, stand in the breech. We guard those voices and we amplify those voices and we learn from those voices.”

Bringing Ferguson To You

One of many religious leaders who’ve made their way into the streets was the Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ.

“The church should always be in the street, “ Blackmon said. “Buildings are just where we gather to refuel, but our work out ministry is always in the street.”

Credit Emanuele Berry|St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters in Clayton stage a "die in" at a Mothers March on Saturday.

Blackmon helped organize a “Mothers March For Justice” in Clayton. It was one of many protests in the St. Louis region this past weekend. Demonstrators held a silent march around the justice center in downtown Clayton and participated in a “die in,” where some demonstrators lay down and had their bodies outlined by chalk on the street.

At the march, Blackmon called on Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to appoint a new prosecutor and grand jury for the Darren Wilson case. She also called on political leaders to address the issues facing minority communities.

“We serve under a governor who though it necessary to declare a state of emergency before a decision was even released. Well, Gov. Nixon, I’ve got news for you. The black community has been living in a state of emergency for longer than I can imagine.”

Since the decision to not indict officer Wilson was announced on Nov. 24, a question on the minds of many is "when will demonstrations stop?" 

Not anytime soon, Blackmon said.

“We are here making people uncomfortable because, whether you know it or not your liberty is connected to mine,” she said. “And what is being uncomfortable, what is being inconvenienced, compared to being dead?”

Blackmon called on marchers to take that discomfort to leaders in the state capital, Jefferson City.

“On Jan. 7, mark your calendars,” Blackmon said. “Jan. 7 is the first day of legislative action in Jeff City. We will be there in droves. … We are coming to you, if you don’t come to Ferguson, Ferguson is coming to you.”

Blackmon said that when they come; they will come in peace, but also in power.