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Vacating the pulpit, entering the streets made clergy relevant in Ferguson protests

Dr. Leah Gunning Francis wrote on the activism and impact of communities of faith in Ferguson.
Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio


Religious leaders have played prominent roles in Ferguson protests since their outset last August. They have criticized police brutality, abusive municipal court fees and procedures, and other local iterations of racial injustice. They have advocated for hope throughout the movement, and for sustained, peaceful protest; they have enabled and made room for the young voices that have driven protests year-round.

Leah Gunning Francis, associate dean for contextual education and assistant professor of Christian education at Eden Theological Seminary, is one such faith leader. She had become deeply involved in movements like Black Lives Matter—and she has also studied them. For her book “Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community,” she performed two dozen interviews with faith leaders, organizers, and young protesters in order to understand the impact clergy had on the movement—and how Ferguson, in turn, changed church communities.


“‘Ferguson and Faith’ is an opportunity not only to hear [clergy’s] conversations but also to bear witness to their actions and activities, the ways in which they use their bodies, their resources, their social capital to support young people; to deescalate situations that were tense; and, equally as important, to call our country to account,” Gunning Francis said—“to say, racial profiling, police brutality, is unacceptable and needs to be changed.”

Ferguson movements, though, owe their start and sustainability to the efforts of young people, who have criticized clergy in the past for taking more subdued, traditional approaches to protest.

Which is why, Gunning Francis said, young people in Ferguson started listening to clergy when they “vacated the pulpit and went into the streets.” Young people to whom she spoke for ‘Ferguson and Faith’ told her that they had not previously been accustomed to clergy treating them as peers, valued persons, and persons of respect.

Something about Ferguson was different, Gunning Francis said; Michael Brown’s death brought many communities together, not just youth and clergy.

“I think what made this one different was first the image of his body,” she said, lying on the ground for hours on what was otherwise a “typical Saturday morning” in a relatively small community. Broadcast around the world in rapid time, the picture fueled anger and provoked awareness of old injustices.

It is hard to put the blame for the deep racial disparities in the region —or the credit for attempts to alleviate them—on any particular institution, Gunning Francis said. “Nobody gets a gold star here.” But the responsibility for recognizing and fixing those policies that contribute to racial gaps in housing, economy, and education lies with government: state legislators, she said, as much as presidential candidates or municipal institutions.

“This is why the Black Lives Matter movement has gained the kind of traction that it has,” Gunning Francis said: it forces people on the street and in government into awareness.

Awareness, however, is not the same thing as acknowledgement. Shying away from talking about race and instead focusing on police brutality, poverty, or public education as a whole is helpful only to a point, Gunning Francis said.

“We need white people to do their own work in naming privilege, and understanding the ways in which white privilege… too often works to undermine people of color, and especially African-Americans.”

To that point, she said, people who say they are tired of protests, Black Lives Matter, or conversations about Ferguson conversation are missing the point. “What I’ve found is that most of the time, the people who are tired of it are people who can choose to be tired of it.”

“I’m a mother of two African-American sons,” she continued, “so I don’t have the luxury of ever being tired of pursuing justice for more equitable treatment of young black men and women in our society.”


St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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