Ferguson, Missouri: Church leaders aim to help rebuild community trust

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Aug 15, 2014
Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith marches Aug. 14 with clergy and others through the Canfield Green apartment complex where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot Aug. 9. Photo: Mike Angell

Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith marches Aug. 14 with clergy and others through the Canfield Green apartment complex where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot Aug. 9. Photo: Mike Angell

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Teresa Mithen-Danieley gambled “there probably wouldn’t be tear gas” and took her two-year-old daughter Ruby Frances with her to the Aug. 14 march in Ferguson, Missouri, to begin to rebuild community trust after the Aug. 9 fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager and its violent aftermath.

Along with Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith, she and other Episcopalians joined at least 1,000 other clergy, public officials, residents and supporters in the nearly two-mile march in Ferguson with clergy positioned on the perimeters and ends, according to Mithen-Danieley.

“We wanted to try to be clear to anybody that wanted to participate in the march and to the police and to the public that this is a nonviolent event, and that we were all there in solidarity with the people of Ferguson.”

As marchers approached the Canfield Green apartment complex where 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot Aug. 9 “we were walking down into a valley of ranch-style homes and you could see how the whole neighborhood was tear-gassed,” she said.

“You could see how the tear gas was used, it permeated the whole area,” said Mithen-Daniely, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tower Grove near St. Louis.

The shooting — and the level of police violence directed at the predominantly African American community in its aftermath — has re-opened old wounds and painfully exposed racial and economic divides in the suburban St. Louis community of about 21,000.

And the Aug. 15 police statement naming the officer involved in the shooting and identifying Michael Brown as a robbery suspect didn’t change any of that, according to Bishop Smith.

“It’s unfortunate timing, that the mention of Michael Brown as a suspect was released at the same moment as the name of the officer was released,” he told ENS on Aug. 15. “It just did not seem right. It is absolutely a red herring when it comes to the shooting itself.”

The lingering effects of the spiritual violence of racial and economic injustice “are not new to us; it’s something we’ve had to face for a long time,” added Smith, who in a statement on the diocesan website called upon all Episcopalians “especially those whose race or culture gives innate privilege, to look upon what has been laid bare, to pray about these things, humbly to learn from them, and to yearn and work for responses that would bring justice.”

Lingering scars, racial and economic divides

While traveling to Ferguson from Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis for the Aug. 14 march Smith said: “I passed by Calvary Cemetery, where Dred Scott is buried, and I thought of that long and painful history that we’ve had with race relations here in St. Louis city and county.”

A slave, Dred Scott sued to gain his freedom in a landmark case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1857, the court ruled that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue.

Smith said that he joined the march at the invitation of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition “a predominantly African American organization. We sent out email notification to clergy and laity and I really was heartened by the strong support,” he said.

“I hope that our church really can follow the lead of what the community in Ferguson and surrounding communities need and want. We have to respect their integrity and authority,” he said.

During the march Smith said he “walked with a young man from Morehouse College who drove from Atlanta with Ruby Sales” who had been invited to speak at a local event.

“He wanted to be involved with conflict resolution in St. Louis and asked for my contact information,” Smith said. “I mentioned to him that yesterday was the feast of Jonathan Daniels” the Episcopal seminarian who died when he pushed Sales out of the way of a shotgun blast during the 1965 civil rights Freedom Summer in Hayneville, Alabama.

‘A huge poverty of trust’

The Very Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, said after the Aug. 15 release of the officer’s name and information naming Brown as a robbery suspect that “the situation is changing moment by moment.”

The timing of the release “speaks to the huge poverty of trust in our community; that’s one of the central issues here,” he said. “There has been over time an incredible deterioration of trust between the black community in St. Louis and the police department and the institutions of justice in general, and not just in Ferguson, but the whole metro area.”

On Aug. 14, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon took supervision of security in Ferguson away from the local police and gave it to Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, and he promised a change in tone from what the Rev. Steve Lawler and others had called “a militarization” of the police.

State police joined with demonstrators during the Aug. 14 march. Noticeably absent were the riot gear, semi-automatic weapons, armored vehicles and excessive show of force previously used by the Ferguson police, he said.

“That’s been the biggest shock, the biggest surprise, the police response,” said Lawler, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (http://www.saint-stephens.info) in Ferguson. “It’s really been intense, and it seems like it’s accelerated rather than decelerated the figuring out how to get folks back to working together.”

Chester Hines, chairperson of the diocesan commission on dismantling racism was leading an anti-racism training in Sikeston, 145 miles south of St. Louis, that had been previously scheduled “before Ferguson blew up.”

But he wasn’t surprised at the shooting or the violence, “as a result of my own experience with racism in this community for over 60 years now,” he said. “The reason I do this work is because of my own personal experiences of living with racism in St. Louis.”

And, he said, the same circumstances in Ferguson are present in other communities. The difference is “Ferguson has a large enough population of people of color, that they were able to stand as a community against the forces of the police department. In most of our suburban communities people of color are really in a minority so they actually have very limited voice or impact.”

Engaging ‘the Power of the Gospel’

Yet, in spite of it all, Lawler said “the power of the Gospel” has been palpable.

St. Stephen’s food pantry desperately needed restocking; many local businesses were closed and residents were reluctant to venture out because of the massive police presence, he said.

“We couldn’t get food and we knew that this is the time of year when people have to buy school supplies and other things,” he said. “Monday would have been the first day of school for the local school district.

“People are already stressed financially,” he added. “It’s an expensive month.”

But the response was overwhelming, as diocesan congregations, community organizations and individuals flooded the food bank with food and personal items. For instance, Lawler said, “a guy I know who toggles in and out of being homeless but who stopped by and handed me a couple of cans of baked beans, which I know is probably half of the food he had for the day, if that.”

“Another guy, whose son was in the wrong place at the wrong time, buying weed and was shot and killed a couple of weeks ago, came by with food, with such compassion for the community. There’s a level of connectivity that’s been here throughout, in the midst of all this.”

Planning for additional prayer vigils, demonstrations and events is also underway, as the community begins to grapple with the long-term and challenging work of rebuilding trust and engaging reconciliation.

Chuck Wynder, Episcopal Church missioner for social justice and advocacy said he has been working closely with his colleagues Missioner for Racial Reconciliation Heidi Kim and with Alex Baumgarten, who directs the church’s Office of Government Relations, “to see how we can companion the folks there and how we can support the diocese and the community.”

“We want to make sure our witness and our advocacy is present both locally and church-wide and facilitate our missional response so that other parts of the church beyond Ferguson and the Diocese of Missouri know the church is present in the midst of all this,” he said.

The Rev. Mike Angell, who as Episcopal Church missioner for young adult and campus ministries is based in St. Louis, said he wrote a question and answer sheet to help college students and young adults discuss the ramifications of the Ferguson tragedy.

Beginning the hard task of reconciliation

Coming together and moving forward is a long-term challenge, Angell said. “It’s an issue of systemic racism,” he said. “We have a crisis in our country that broke through with what happened with Michael Brown. It’s ongoing. We have a lot of work to do today and isn’t the church exactly the place where we should be doing it?”

The Rev. Teresa Mithen-Danieley agreed.

“There’s been some immediate response this week, and I’m glad of that,” said Mithen-Danieley who grew up in Normandy, a community adjoining Ferguson. “But I want a long-term commitment,” she added.

“To me, it doesn’t mean much unless the diocese as a whole and the people of the diocese continue to be invested and engaged in long-term economic justice and racial justice in our region. Unfortunately, this tragedy has helped people to see there are a lot of tensions that have been going on my whole lifetime, and I’m 37,” she said.

“I hope this is an opportunity to bring this to the wider church, how racial and economic justice are tied together and that this is a long-term problem that’s not going to go away when the marching stops.”

Kinman agreed.

“Right now, it’s in the media, we’re riled up about it and that’s important and that’s good. But the issues this is all about are power and privilege and race and class and they have been around a long time. This will take a sustained effort to deal with.

“And it’s going to take people of power and privilege and that’s most of us white Episcopalians and white St. Louisans; it will take us becoming educated and becoming really good listeners and examining how we are being called to change some of these systems that led to the killing Michael Brown.”

The cathedral is having conversations about being part of that ongoing educational process, “and of healing, not healing to a point where everyone’s just sort of quiet again, but healing to where we reach a different level,” he said.

“We’re never bringing Michael Brown back, but somehow that this can be redeemed,” he said.

“It’s so easy in moments like this to cast one side, one person, one group of people as completely good and the other side as completely evil and we have to resist that at all costs. But, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ and ministers of reconciliation and we stand with everyone. We have to call all of us to be those images of God that are our best selves.

“That’s the long-term work of the church, to build relationships of love and respect with everybody so we can bring people together and say let’s listen to everybody and look at who God is calling us to be.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.



Comments (7)

  1. Henry Roulin says:

    I applaud the church for seeking to rebuild trust and/or community. But I am disheartened that the church would be drawn into yet another mass media-driven event. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be tools. We don’t know what happened with the officer and the decedent. Regardless of one’s political views for or against the police, we would do well to distance ourselves from anything to do with a race-baiter like Al Sharpton. We he comes to town, we should leave. Just sayin’

  2. The Rev. Dr. Charles H. Morris says:

    This is a problem of all our American society, which has been well-attested to here on this Website. Racism has been around a very long time, stemming of course from the time of slavery in our nation, and even the lack of equal rights given to all citizens from the outset. We must all, black and white, Asian and Native Americans, Latinos those of mixed-races–all Americans–resolve now to pray and work for justice for all, equality under the law for all, and economic and educational opportunity for all, in a society which is often bent on individual self-interest rather than desiring above all the common good–especially those of us in the dominant white group in this area and across the country.

    As a priest working in two churches of this diocese in the general area where this tragedy occurred a few days ago, I have become most cognizant of the injustices and inequality concerning African-Americans especially in that north St Louis County part of the St, Louis metro area, formerly virtually all white. I was fortunate to have for many years, slowly at first, a parish of roughly half black and half white, with good relations and shared leadership among all parishioners. That was in the Normandy area, not far from Ferguson. (St. Andrew’s in Northwoods, where Ascension Church now occupies the building. Owing to poor decisions, a miss-match happened between clerical and lay leadership some three years after my retirement, and the parish soon had to close.Stronger and wiser leadership and involvement by various within and beyond the church there could have meant a far different outcome, in my view. The dioceses of our Church need to provide much stronger and wiser support for struggling congregations, especially those with heavily black or mixed membership. [St. Andrew’s had a good number of Nigerians, mainly college students, as members, in addition to the African-Americans.] Teresa Mithen-Danieley, who is white, was a member there [St. Andrew’s] from birth–I baptized her and her younger brother!–and as related above, is a priest, quite effective I can say without reservation! She now is pastoring in the south St. Louis City [Tower Grove] area.)

    What we need now I believe is to take time to reflect, pray and have serious, informed discussion on all these matters, continuing to support the people of Ferguson of course, but waiting patiently for the outcome of all the investigations, perhaps trials, and the like, before coming to premature conclusions in the “blame game” in this whole affair. God help us all!

    1. The Rev. Carol Ruthven says:

      Rev. Morris, Thank you for sharing your story. We all need to share and hear stories like yours as we join hands together across The Episcopal Church to continue to work for economic, social and racial justice and reconciliation. – Rev. Carol Ruthven, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Lexington, KY

  3. Rev. Gary Nowlinl says:

    I have been an Episcopal priest for almost thirty years. In all that time, I have never done what I am going to do this morning, which is to preach on current events, rather than the appointed lessons. But I also served for many years as rector of St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson, and even after I went into hospital chaplaincy, I contintue to live in the house we had purchased in Ferguson. I live in a safe quiet mixed race middle class neighborhood, but it is a neigborhood only a 5 minute drive from the looting, the violence, and the shooting. And I have done a lot of thinking about the situation.
    But first, a boring but important comment about the psychology of belief that is relevant to the Ferguson situation. On any important and controversial topic, facts do not dictate a single belief, a single interpretation. Facts can be arranged in different patterns, and some facts can be highlighted, while others are minimized. We have choices among a range of beliefs, and what casts the deciding vote is our HOPES.
    People get into arguments that they think are about facts Each recites the facts that support their side, and show how they can be arranged in a pattern that fits their belief. But the really important questions are “Why do you HOPE that that is true” and “What does it say about your character that you have those hopes?” and “Are those hopes appropriate hopes for Christian to have?”
    And I will tell you some hopes that are not worthy and appropriate for a Christian.
    It is not worthy and appropriate to hope that other people are total villains so that you can look down on them. And yet we all find it so very helpful to have enemies. Despise the enemy, deny their fellow-humanity, and you can be distract yourself from your own problems and faults.Focus on THOSE terrible people over there and you don’t have to examine yourself.
    The spiritual danger is that we will be tempted to HOPE that those people, the ones will label the OTHER, are just as bad, just as villainous, as we can possibly imagine.
    There are black people who HOPE that all whites are vile racists and white racism is the total explanation for all their problems. Some of them think white racism justifies looting and violence in response. There are white people who HOPE it is true that most or all black people are born criminals, who deserve any misfortune and poverty that they suffer. There are black people who think all cops are villains and no investigation or trial is needed to know the cop is guilty. There are whitepeople who think that any cop who shoots a black person is justified, and no trial or investigation is needed.
    I marched down West Florissant Avenue, where all the trouble is, with a group demonstrating for justice and peace. I was beside a young black man in his twenties named Marcel. Marcel said to me “There are good people and bad people in every group of people, but the trouble starts when people look at the bad people in the other group and say ‘Oh, they are all like that.'”
    Too many people, who claim to be Christians, hope that the worst is true of those who have a different skin color. Such hopes are not Christian. They come from our desire to focus on the sin outside ourselves and avoid thinking about the sin inside ourselves.
    Think you have enemies? Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies.
    Think all the sinners are over there, with those other people, whoever THOSE people are? St Paul tells us that “ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

  4. Daniel Zipperer says:

    I regret that I haven’t heard your sermons more often. What a brilliant and beautifully expressed insight here. Alex and I have kept you. Susan and family in our prayers!
    Love and peace to you all, and thank you for your strength!

  5. Eric Anderson says:

    I am from Trinity Episcopal Church in Farmington Hiills, Michigan. I see this picture I feel hopeful. I have seen nothing like it on national TV. Civil rights is an issue every citizen of the US whether black; white; brown or regardless of gender should care about . On TV I saw almost no white protesters. I find that disappointing.

  6. Carolyn Brooks-Burton says:

    You are in y thoughts and prayers and let’s keep in mind what the Scriptures says in Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, the Watchman stays awake in vain.” NKJV Let’s continue to SPEAK PEACE from the Word of GOD!

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