#Ferguson: calling us deeper as followers of Jesus into the work of racial justice
The hardest part is the silence
It’s the middle of the first morning for the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri’s Dismantling Racism training and for the first time, we get up and move. We arrange ourselves in two rows of chairs, facing each other, toe-to-toe. We’re paired up, gazing into each others’ eyes. Till now, we’ve held ourselves at arms’ length to the topic and each other. We’re known only by a name and church affiliation.
After this exercise, we will be a community of eager learners.
Here’s how it works: The moderator asks a question. Those of us on one side have 90 seconds to share our answer with our partner, who must remain silent. Then, the tables turn. Our partners across from us answer while we listen. Just listen. Then, we all stand, slide one chair to the left, and sit again, paired with a different partner for another question.
The silence is where the community forms. How can I sit silently when my partner recounts a brutal indignity in response to this question: “What was the cruelest thing someone from a different race ever did to you; and how did you respond?” Then, what silent messages are we sharing when I cannot come up with a single such experience to share?
After nine rounds of questions, each a little more probing than the last, the group widens into a circle. Now we share more broadly how this exercise affected us. Some confess guilt that we’d never had to confront these issues. Others are carried back to painful memories. We are all glad for the experience.
Because in those excruciating moments of silence, we all had a chance to see the world through a friend’s eyes.
Kurt is a member of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, and on the Dismantling Racism Commission. He participated in the commission’s 14-hour training in dismantling institutional racism this April.
As an Episcopal teenager in the Diocese of Missouri, I like to hang out with my friends from Camp Phoenix, Episcopal youth events and Episcopal churches, where we all get together.
Earlier this year we had two talks about race. The first event was at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson.
My group arrived early for church, then went to breakfast in Ferguson and visited the apartment complex where Michael Brown was shot. We returned in time for the conversation led by two members of the “Millennial Activists United” group. They talked a little about how the events that took place were not entirely represented accurately by the media. I had never heard anyone from the ‘front lines’ tell their side of the story, and they spoke with great feeling and honesty about the situations they had been through. Listening to them was powerful and changed my understanding of the protests.
The second event, held at All Saints Episcopal Church in St. Louis, was called “Challenging Colorblindness.” Some other teenagers and I were invited to facilitate table conversations, each with a different focus. The focus I was assigned was “Economics” - and the lasting lower-class status and stereotypes that people of color have been cursed with. I was surprised to hear how awful the race situation still was, after all of these years of pressing for equality. The constitution may have been changed, but people are still treated just as unfairly as they were decades ago.
I think these conversations matter because people can be unaware of the situations, not unlike I was. It is not foolish or arrogant of them not to know, but they shouldn’t be blind to poverty and white privilege.
Sometimes it seems like all we do is have the big talks of what we should and shouldn’t do, but don’t really make plans or change anything. Watching people struggle with the reality of racism—the information we shared at both events—is an important step in changing hearts. Those changes will affect actual policy and societal change.
Having teenagers involved in leadership matters because teenagers are the present, and the future. What I believe and the way that I treat and talk to everyone, will touch the hearts of my children and my children’s children.
I’m glad to share these times with other Episcopal teens, and hope churches keep participating and sending youth to these community events.
—S. Becket Clark
Becket is a member of the Diocesan Youth Advisory Council.
Beginning the dialog
In the immediate aftermath of the death of Mike Brown, I wanted to find some way of involving Advent in a conversation about race in St. Louis. I called Marc Smith, the Vicar at Ascension (I think within a day or two of the shooting), and asked if our two congregations might find a way of doing something together, "once the dust had settled." We agreed to a series of meetings together during Lent of 2015.
In the event, we met for four Tuesday evenings this past March for a shared meal, and a conversation. We used the book Mapping Decline to frame the conversation. Crestwood is a near lily-white suburb (neither inner-ring, nor outer-ring), settled in the 50s and 60s as part of the flight from the city. I hoped that people in my congregation could learn to see the systemic advantages that had made it possible for them to settle here, and the costs to the city.
About twelve to fifteen people from Advent (ASA ~75) drove up for the four sessions, and about eight to twelve people from Ascension (ASA ~50) attended each session. The conversations were sometimes uncomfortable, but mostly very good and insightful. More importantly for me, some of the conversations we have had back at Advent have been very transformative. People are beginning to "get" white privilege. Part of our frustration has been that we want to "fix" the problem -- a very white response.
Our last session, we celebrated Eucharist together, in which we offered our discomforts, our gifts, and our willingness to work together to God. Everyone, from both congregations, who attended the meetings wants to continue the relationship somehow. We are not yet sure what that will look like, but we will talk again after Easter to figure out what next.
This past Saturday, members of Advent and Ascension cooked and served the Peace Meal at St. John's, Tower Grove. Advent has been doing this five times a year for about five years, and we decided it would be a good thing if Ascension joined us. We had too many people on our Saturday, but that's a good problem to have!
Dan is the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent, located in south St. Louis County (Crestwood) and Dean of the Episcopal School for Ministry.
Anger and Love in the streets
I have been in the streets of Ferguson since September. I have seen how a group of protesters went from coming together in mutual anger towards the justice system to coming together because they’ve become family. It’s amazing to see and be a part of the changes that are happening in the St. Louis area. Each night on the front line means coming together with family in a fight for justice—it means protecting each other!
“We have to love and support each other, all we have to lose are our chains”: this chant expresses the truth of Ferguson. People of all races, religions, economic classes, and ethnic backgrounds have come together and become a family.
And this is where love comes in: for even out of the anger at our justice system, love can be found.
I know this personally. I know this because I felt God’s love for the first time in the streets of Ferguson. I know this because, since August, clergy have had an amazing part in this revolution; a part in which they put God on the front line to show that He can make a difference, especially through the works of the young people involved.
It’s especially amazing to come into an Episcopal Service Corps program that had already set an image of what our program year would look like in Ferguson. I didn’t anticipate that I would be one of the millennials standing on the front line in a fight for justice with people who I now consider family. I am thankful for the role that our program has in Ferguson, not only because I am in a year of discernment, but also because having the experience of being on the front line has helped me understand what it means to be a Christian.
To me, being a Christian is about spreading the word of love. It’s about being involved in a community. It’s about standing firm in your beliefs. I am trying to do all of these in the St. Louis area. I am praying with my feet firmly in the street each week.
Rosemary is a member of Deaconess Anne House, in the Episcopal Service Corps. This is an extract of a reflection originally published in St. Hilda’s House Winter Quarterly: Voices of Young Adults for the Church, March 2015. www.sthildashouse.org.