Unrest in Ferguson

FILE: Officers stand surrounded by tear gas amid unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of a teenager by police.

FERGUSON, Missouri - At Greater St. Mark Family Church, a brick and wood church a short drive from where Michael Brown was killed, the Rev. Tommie L. Pierson Sr., the pastor, paused for a moment and surveyed the congregation of 100 before delivering his message. He had a complicated task. He wanted to inspire and uplift his flock in a familiar, fiery way. Yet he knew that, he also was addressing the world. The visitors with cameras and notepads signaled that.

"I hope that I won't disappoint you," he began with a savvy preacher's rhetorical lowering of expectations. "I'm going to try my best not to say something juicy that for the rest of my life I regret."

Not that Pierson is a timid man or one to beat around the bush. Just the day before he had said in an interview that a decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson could send a message to the community that "it's open season on young black men."

But Sunday, as his flock sat rapt and anxious about what the week is to bring, was a day for a more transcendent message. Pierson had no notes and did not write a draft - "I'm not a manuscript preacher," he says - but he had been thinking hard about this message for at least a week.

"This is new for us," he began. "This is one of those times when we face new challenges and the unknown."

The unknown has hung over the area for weeks as residents in the St. Louis metro area wait for a grand jury decision on whether to charge the white officer who shot Michael Brown, 18, black and unarmed, in August. Few seem to expect that there will be an indictment and fear it will mean more civil unrest similar to or worse than what followed the August 9 shooting. Many thought the decision would come during the weekend, but now the grand jury is expected to reconvene Monday morning to continue deliberations, according to those knowledgeable about its proceedings, which are conducted in secret. Because the process is closed, those knowledgeable about the proceedings spoke on condition of anonymity.

The delays are causing more wear and tear on an area that is already pushed to its limits.

City and police officials, whose staff members have been working 12-hour shifts for weeks in preparation for a decision, are pressuring the office of St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch to do what it can to bring the deliberations to a close, according to those knowledgeable about the deliberations.

A network of church and clergy in the greater St. Louis area - called the Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis - has been playing an active role in community organizing since Brown was killed, and it also is preparing for the aftermath of the grand jury verdict. Two churches - including Greater St. Mark - along with a veterans-for-peace office and a cafe are serving as "sanctuary churches" for demonstrators. They were chosen for their proximity to known hot spots, including Ferguson, Clayton (where the prosecutor's office is) and downtown St. Louis.

Greater St. Mark is one of a network of churches that will open their doors as "sacred spaces" where protesters can take refuge during any demonstrations that may come. The church also has been a focal point for rallies as well as consciousness raising to try to use the energy of the protest movement to engage marginalized communities in demanding greater influence.

Pierson took as his text the 2 Kings 7:3-10. It tells the story of four lepers who had been living on charity, segregated from the city, but who faced death from famine if they did not do something. They walked by faith into the camp of a besieging enemy army and found, thanks to God, the army had fled them, leaving food and supplies. The lepers were saved.

Pierson spun these verses into a towering allegory for the state of Ferguson today and that of the entire African American community - a people who must have the faith to unite and take the actions necessary to help themselves. Pierson suggested that the lepers probably did not vote, were not united and did not know how to talk to power. It was only tragedy and their desperate need that forced them to unite and act.

"God cannot help us until we decide to do something," Pierson declared. "Today, what we need cannot wait. We need to live in a just society, a society that looks upon all of us as equal partners."

"The government has a mighty army," he continued, as the organist found chords to track the preacher's rising drama. "But we're going to walk anyway. We're going to walk by faith. We are not going to loot, we are not going to break windows. We are not going to do any of that stuff, but we are going to walk by faith. There is change in the air!"

By the end, the people were on their feet, urging Pierson on.

"You don't know what the grand jury will do. God does," Pierson continued. "You don't know what the marchers will do. God does."

In addition, another 11 churches throughout the area are serving as 24/7 "sacred places" for prayer and conversation.

"It's important for the community and the rest of the world to know that God is a God of justice, and that it's critical that we stand up and be part of the solution of our community moving forward," said the Rev. Dietra Wise Baker, pastor of Liberation Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ), and co-leader of the clergy caucus of the metropolitan congregations. "This situation lifts a veil and people can see there are things going on in our community that we haven't been attentive to, that we need to be attentive to."

At 7 p.m. on the day the grand jury announces its decision, the clergy coalition will hold a worship service at West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Florissant, adjacent to Ferguson. At 6:30 a.m. and noon the day after the decision, the clergy will be active in larger demonstrations scheduled for Clayton and downtown, respectively.

At Greater St. Mark, shortly after the shooting, Pierson hosted one of the first rallies held by the Brown family. After church Sunday, members of the congregation lingered in the sanctuary and talked about what the week may hold. In their view, God's hand is at work, even in tragedy.

"I think Michael Brown's death has brought about a lot of chaos, but also a lot of peace and community," said Beverly Wells, one of the church music directors. Today, the choir had especially soared. "Sometimes God has to get our attention, and it may be through a tragic event."

Every day before she and her family go to sleep, Wells said, they pray specifically for the grand jurors, for Michael Brown's family and for Darren Wilson and his family.

"My prayer is that we come through it better, stronger, more united, and that this is a seed of change," said RoRené Wooten-Hughes, another church music director. "I think the change is internal."

Internal?

Yes, Wells agreed. Don't forget the inward change that must come along with all the outward societal ones.

"We are a people who deserve to be here, who were put here for a reason," Wells said. "We deserve to be treated with respect. But we have to believe that ourselves. That's the internal change. I think a lot of what happened with the looting and tearing up the neighborhood is not knowing who you are within."

Whatever the verdict, the church members don't that think those actions will be repeated, because they have faith that the internal change has already begun.

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