Church leaders strive to be peacemakers in Ferguson

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Since Aug. 9, the Rev. F. Willis Johnson has devoted his entire ministry to fostering peaceful — and meaningful — responses to the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager and the violent tumult that followed in Ferguson, Mo.

The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown led to four days of clashes between police in military-grade riot gear and angry crowds.

The United Methodist pastor led prayer vigils, helped with cleanup, met with community leaders and comforted protesters. Other United Methodist leaders answered his call to help a community in pain.

“The ultimate concern is this: Under no pretense does someone deserve to lose their life, and in this case to have innocence stripped,” said Johnson, who is also the father of a teenage son. “Innocence is not defined by court law but by the fact all life is sacred. In our faith tradition, that is enough to stand on.”

Wellspring Church, the predominantly African-American United Methodist congregation Johnson started in 2011, is about a block from the police station in the St. Louis suburb and less than a mile from where most of the protests have been taking place. The church, in partnership with the Association of Black Psychologists, has provided counseling to anyone in the community who requests it.

When unrest led the Ferguson-Florissant School District to cancel classes, the church welcomed children with educational games and healthy food so parents could work without scrambling for childcare Friday.  Members of other area United Methodist churches volunteered to help, and the Missouri Annual (regional) Conference provided financial support for the church’s outreach this week.

“The rallying cry of support and the uptick in engagement from churches in our connection and their leaders has been very, very encouraging,” Johnson said.

The Rev. Matt Miofsky, lead pastor of The Gathering, said his church responded by praying, organizing and listening to community needs. The Gathering, a predominantly white, multi-site United Methodist congregation in the St. Louis area, is among the congregations that sent volunteers to Wellspring on Friday.

“There is a lot of grief, which I don’t think the media has really covered,” he said. “I also think there is a sense of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, a sense of having a voice but having no one willing to listen.”

He saw resiliency, too. “I continually hear a deep faithfulness and hope that God is present and at work for good and not for harm.”

Difficult week

This has been a difficult week for pastors and others in the community as the events raised questions nationwide about race relations and police tactics.

Underlying the crisis is the death of Brown — just two days before he was scheduled to start classes at a technical college.

What happened Saturday, Aug. 9 is still being investigated by parallel federal and state probes.

According to a friend who says he witnessed the incident, Brown was walking in a Ferguson apartment complex when a police officer ordered him to get on the sidewalk. The friend said Brown had his hands up to show he was unarmed when the officer shot him multiple times. The police account is that Brown attacked the officer and tried to grab his gun.

The police initially delayed releasing the name of the officer saying there were threats to his safety. On Friday, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, identified the officer as Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran. Jackson also released security-camera footage from a convenience store that showed a young man pushing a store clerk. The police identified the man as Brown.

One protest took a destructive turn the night of Aug. 10 when a QuikTrip convenience store was looted and burned. Law enforcement has faced mounting criticism for aggressive tactics that included dispersing crowds by firing rubber bullets and tear gas.

Johnson, the Ferguson pastor, said he was among the crowd days later when a Washington Post photographer captured an image of Johnson calming down Joshua Wilson, one of Brown’s friends.

“Something just said, ‘Grab him, hold him,’ maybe initially to keep him back but ultimately to become what is really symbolic of the situation that’s at hand,” Johnson told National Public Radio in an emotional interview. “People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt, people who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger.”

The crisis, Johnson told NPR, “is not a race issue in and of itself.”

“This is a human issue. If you are honest and true, you can’t help but look at other people and look at situations and say there but for the grace of God go you and me.”

The Rev. Ivan James, an African-American and pastor of predominantly African-American Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown St. Louis, viewed the shooting and its aftermath with mixed emotions.

He worked with Johnson to help in Ferguson, and volunteers from his church helped provide childcare at Wellspring.

“We need to keep a calm head,” he told United Methodist News Service. “We need to keep a loving heart and we need justice for what actually occurred. We understand we need to find ways to bring better resources to that community, so people have hope.”

On Thursday, Gov. Jay Nixon ordered the Missouri Highway Patrol to take over safety and crowd control in Ferguson from the St. Louis County Police Department. According to news accounts, the demonstration that night was peaceful, and the armored police cars were gone.

However, more unrest came the following night, and on Saturday, Nixon declared a state of emergency in Ferguson and imposed a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew.

‘We are all St. Louisans Now’

Kenneth J. Pruitt, a United Methodist clergy candidate and member of the ecumenical monastic community Anam Cara, attended an impromptu and peaceful prayer vigil Aug. 10 in Ferguson. “I was one of only about seven or eight white people in the place, and the only white male,” he said. “Everyone was very welcoming and very kind.”

He also attended a public forum with local and state leaders, and Wednesday night helped a friend get two reporters, who had been arrested, back to their cars after they were released from jail.

Pruitt is among a group of St. Louis Area United Methodists who published a statement titled “We Are All St. Louisans Now” on The statement called for the right of peaceful protests, denounced looting and urged the church to do more to reach out to the marginalized, especially African-American communities.

“We believe that the church, particularly our United Methodist Church, can’t sit this one out,” the statement said.

“The United Methodist Church has not served the African American community in this city in the way that our Christ would have us serve. Justice begins at the margins.”

United Methodist leaders urged churchgoers not to lose sight of God’s power to bring healing.

As he arrived at an afternoon prayer meeting Thursday in advance of the night’s demonstration, Johnson quickly shared his prayer for his community. “The prayer is that we continue to be receptive to the presence of God in all of this, in all things,” he told United Methodist News Service.

“We lean and stand totally on the promises of God. All things work together,” he added, referencing Romans 8:28. “Justice is promised and will be given, and there is a peace that passes all understanding.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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