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Clergy's Role In The Ferguson Protests Is Controversial And Expected

Clergy guard a memorial at the Ferguson police department as part of Ferguson October.
Rachel Lippmann I St. Louis Public Radio
Clergy stand guard around a memorial to Mike Brown and other victims of police violence on October 14, 2014. The action was part of a day of civil disobedience.

Though he didn’t want to go to jail, Rabbi Ari Kaiman, the assistant rabbi at Congregation B’naiAmoona, was willing to be arrested in front of the Ferguson police station on Monday.

It was the fifth day of Sukkot, the holiday during which Jews are commanded to dwell outside in temporary houses with open roofs. The holiday calls for an act of vulnerability, Kaiman said, trusting that God will provide the protection needed.

"My willingness to be arrested came from a desire to have more trust and faith in St. Louis,” he said. “Being willing to be vulnerable is a practice that I think builds trust and faith, and that’s exactly what this community can benefit from right now.” 

Kaiman was joined in the pouring rain by the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant. Her church hosted one of the first community meetings in the days after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August.

She, too, was willing to be arrested. But she said she was not planning to deliberately cross the line to get arrested.

“I believe strongly that we are called to show up for those whose voices are not being heard, for those who don’t and for those who are oppressed,” Blackmon said. “I see all of those elements in Ferguson.”

Blackmon and Kaiman were among hundreds of clergy and lay leaders from various faiths who spent four-and-a-half hours praying for peace and asking police officers nearby to admit that wrong had happened and be willing to work for change. Forty-three people were arrested. Kaiman and Blackmon were not among them.   

Clergy at Ferguson PD, 10-14-14
Credit Rachel Lippmann I St. Louis Public Radio
Clergy and lay leaders from a variety of faiths protest in front of the Ferguson Police Department on Oct. 14, 2014.

Kaiman made it clear that he was out there as an individual, not as a representative of B’naiAmoona. He said he trusted he had the love and support of his congregation for the action he was taking. Blackmon said she also believed she had the support of her congregation to take a stand. However, she said she is prepared for the day when that support may not be there.

"Part of my faith is that I’m doing what I’m called to do," she said. "I can’t compromise my understanding of the Gospel for fear of job security."

Blackmon said her congregants are being patient with the fact that her need to pastor the community has taken away from her time to serve the church in other ways. Still, she isn't ignoring her church completely. Blackmon said she did pause for a moment after receiving a late-night call from an elderly member who wasn’t in crisis. The woman just wanted her pastor to be there the way she used to be.

Dueling Roles

Clergy have long played a central position in social activism in America, stretching back to the abolitionist movement and even earlier said Christopher Parr, the chair of the Religious Studies department at Webster University.

"Religious leaders going back to the cave times have been people who saw ways in which to marshal the energies around them, or to call on the great powers that human beings have, or powers beyond the human being, to try to address serious problems that confront us," he said.

But there has also always been a tension between the roles that religious leaders fill, Parr said. On the one hand, they are prophets who advise followers of the consequences of their actions. On the other hand, they are also educators for their congregation and the larger community.

“Professors also have that same tension,” Parr said. "When is it appropriate to be an activist? When is it appropriate to be calling people to live up to their best responsibilities? And when is it important to soothe those who are anxious and troubled and perhaps don’t see the issues with the clarity you feel you do."

There has been plenty of need to force people recognize their privilege, Parr said, and religious leaders can do that. But police officers also need the comfort that religion can provide in times of stress, he said. And that's a role that religious leaders have to fill as well.

The fight against racism will require a broad coalition, Parr said. We cannot pretend that all the truth is on one particular side. 

"Who Do I Wish Is Active? Everyone."

Mike Kinman, the dean at Christ Church Cathedral, agreed with Parr’s analysis.

Like the Rev. Traci Blackmon, he has been a consistent presence on the streets in Ferguson and, more recently, in the Shaw neighborhood where an off-duty St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr.after he allegedly fired at the officer first.

The Cathedral has a long history of activism, Kinman said, going back to his predecessor as dean who proudly proclaimed, "Our Church has AIDS."  Kinman has preached about the privilege associated with race and class in St. Louis since well before Michael Brown’s death.

However, he has friends who lead congregations where members are trying hard to ignore what’s going on, he said.

"I don’t judge anyone else’s heart, because God knows I don’t want anyone judging mine," Kinman said. "Not everyone is called to be out in the street, but I hope that everyone is addressing this in some way. In some ways, someone in a suburban congregation or a rural congregation raising this issue a little bit is far more courageous than me standing out on the street in Ferguson. So, who do I wish is active? Everyone ... realizing that that activity is going to look different for different people."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.