A Prairie Village pastor’s experience in Ferguson

Aaron Roberts' photo of Damon Daniel organizing a rally in Ferguson.
Aaron Roberts’ photo of Damon Daniel organizing a rally in Ferguson.

Last week, Colonial Church pastor Aaron Roberts got an email from a friend with Communities Creating Opportunities, a group that had started organizing youth to get people to register to vote in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., seeking assistance. So Roberts boarded a train for St. Louis to help the organizers as they prepared for a peaceful rally. He passed along this account he wrote of the experience. We thought you all might be interested in how the situation in Ferguson looked through this northeast Johnson County resident’s eyes:

By Aaron Roberts

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Often I start my day with the prayer of St. Francis, and so I did as I settled into the train in my black clerical shirt on the way to St. Louis.

Damon Daniel from CCO (Communities Creating Opportunities) had emailed me his story from Ferguson. As a community organizer, he was there organizing youth in the community to register people to vote. The kids had successfully registered 50 new voters when, without warning, tear gas was used on them.

They ran.

They saw a police position, and Damon took the kids there to try to get them out of harm’s way. The officers seeing a bunch of kids running towards them, drew their weapons and pointed them at the Damon and colorfully told him to move away.
They ran.

They ran for about three miles to escape.

Damon asked for Kansas City clergy to come help. So the next day I got on a train. My wife Carrie was supportive, but concerned – ditto for my son, Paul. We didn’t tell Miles. He’s 8, and, LORD, let him have a little more time before he needs to confront this.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

I was glad to learn that I would be able to worship with the United Church of Christ General Minister Rev. Geoffrey Black. So I headed to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Ferguson to worship, and the highlight was connecting with my colleague Rev. Traci Blackmon whose ministry in Ferguson is powerfully connected to the Holy Spirit. She had just come to worship after praying with Attorney General Eric Holder and Governor Jay Nixon. We placed our hands on Traci and blessed and prayed for her. I got some video of her talking to us. She was going to the rally later, and I told her I’d see her then.

The businesses in Ferguson have suffered. Not just the ones that have been burned down. I saw the QuikTrip and others, which have been on the news. So, I decided to find a locally owned place in Ferguson to get an early dinner. I went to the African Palace. It’s West African style food, and I’ve only ever had East African. So, it was something new. The owner went over the menu with me, and I ordered a spicy beef dish that you eat with a dough. The owner hadn’t been able to get shipments in, so he didn’t have any Diet Coke for me.

We watched MSNBC on the TV which was covering the mobilization a couple blocks away. It was surreal as I ate my delicious meal.
As I left (big tip), the owner said to me, “I’m proud of you.” Honestly, I’m not sure what for. Coming to eat there? Trying a new spicy dish? Or, just dining out in Ferguson.

For it is in giving that we receive.

The rally was still an hour and a half off, so I drove to the grocery store parking lot where we were supposed to meet. It’s in a nice area of Clayton, and there was a Barnes & Noble with a Starbucks. I went in to read and get a nice iced tea to drink. There was an Episcopalian priest there all collared up too. After about 15 minutes, the store manager came around saying that we needed to leave in 5 minutes because the store was closing early. OK… So, I grabbed my iced tea and headed out. I went to my rental car to get a little AC because it was really hot and humid. I saw my Episcopalian friend doing the same. Another pastor showed up, and then so did 4 police squad cars! Who knew that 3 pudgy pastors were such a threat!

We were told that we needed to leave since we weren’t “actively shopping.” I had my iced tea in hand and asked, “Does this count?” They just closed the Barnes & Noble, so my “active shopping” had to end. The officer sighed.

More pastors were arriving in the now vacated Barnes & Noble parking lot. A representative of the strip mall came out and asked us to leave because we were taking up parking for customers. Well, he had a point…if the main store hadn’t just closed. One of the officers was kind enough to check and let us know that we could park at the high school a few blocks away. So, we did.

Where there is doubt, faith.

The Rabbi that parked next to me at the high school and I talked about the Holocaust survivor who was hassled by the police. It’s on the news if you haven’t seen it. It is an embarrassment to this nation. He was quite concerned about the militarization of the police in the United States. This hasn’t historically gone well for Jews.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon.

The people for the rally were gathered in a parking lot. Lots and lots of clergy in collars and stoles and some youth too. I found Damon and checked in with him. He asked me if I would meet him at St. Mark’s Church in Ferguson after the rally. I agreed, and we began the pilgrimage to the County Courthouse to ask the County Prosecutor to ask for justice. The United Church of Christ was out in force. You’d think we were the largest branch of Christ’s church! I met Rev. Martin Copenhaver. Lots of Eden professors – David Greenhaw, Deb Krause, Adam Ployd. I saw seminary friends. It was like a reunion! I also met some Kansas City clergy who I’m looking forward to getting to know better.

We marched and held a rally at the Courthouse. Speeches were made. I found the most powerful to be from my colleague Heather Archovich and from a mom who lives in Ferguson. Voices like her’s are how resurrection is going to be experienced from this mess, I think. I silently prayed that God’s Spirit move her to run for office.

Damon and I caught up, and I could tell that he was tired. In a decade of community organizing, he’s never seen anything like this. For him, that’s saying a lot.

I got back to the car, plugged St. Mark’s Church in Ferguson into my phone, and off I went. Evidently, this church had been raided by police earlier in the day. Something about use permits. A computer may have been seized. It’s hard to know what happened exactly.

A thunderstorm broke en route. I found the church, and parked on a dark street. I couldn’t see well at all with the rain, and after accidentally walking into someone’s garage, they were kind enough to tell me how to find the church door.

Damon showed up a few minutes after I got there, and directed me to the church gym where we would be gathering. The gym was full of kids and clergy – some had come from the Clayton rally; others had been here a long time. It was the kids – not the official community organizers – who called things to order.

OK – these kids are angry. Really, really angry. An unarmed boy was shot six times a few blocks away, and it could have been any of them. They see no justice happening. They see lots of cameras. They have been trained in non-violent demonstration, but there are so young. One young woman is a particularly powerful leader, and she isn’t waiting hear what the pastors have to say. She has a job for us.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand.

Each night it’s as if a something new were being used on them – rubber bullets one night, tear gas another, sonic disruptors another. The police have become their enemy. They tell stories in tears about being taunted and mocked by the police. They’ve been hurt. The stories are powerful and the tears are real.

The kids would like the clergy to go with them essentially as human shields. The police may be less willing to pepper spray a pudgy pastor. Perhaps not.

We’re divided into groups to go with the kids. Each group receives training and there is a buddy system. You are responsible for keeping your buddy safe or dragging them to safety. I took a video of this. It’s getting very real.

The kids are angry. I mentioned that, right? They see these religious leaders as tools to potentially keep them from being targeted. There’s more going on here though. God is speaking. And a whole room of shepherds in Christ’s service are there.

This young woman – she let me take her picture – says that they believe that St. Mark’s Church has been targeted for a raid this evening. The church is the “safe zone” where people can come for water, to cry, and yes – to pray. Damon confirms that this is the case – a raid is expected. They need some pastors to stay and keep this holy ground as a safe sanctuary. However, there is a very high likelihood that you will be arrested, if you choose to stay.

Some of the kids scoff as there is a pause when no clergy volunteer. Rats.

If we’re not willing to go the extra mile and put ourselves into danger of being arrested, we are just talking heads to the kids. But, we are called to be ambassadors of Christ, and it is by his authority that we serve. Rats. Rats. Rats.

I tell this charismatic teenager that I will stay. I am a shepherd and I will do my best to keep this holy place safe. I will do my best to keep her and these kids safe because I love them. A Franciscan friar, a professor from Eden, and an AME pastor from St. Louis, volunteer along with our captain, who writes the phone number I am to call when I am arrested on my arm in green Sharpie.

I get a huge hug from my colleague Nelson Pierce and lots of concerned looks from others. Maybe I should have thought this one through more.

We are taught how to treat tear gas victims, and my first aid EMT training from 20 years ago is coming back. I also clean up the snack table as all the other teams leave.

It occurs to me that I should probably let Carrie and Shea know what is happening. I could be delayed. And I pray.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

One of us goes to watch the backdoor. And a couple of us are out front. And, I’m in the gym waiting. So, this is a church, and God is pretty clear about hospitality. So, I clean. Groups of people come to this sanctuary, and I welcome them! I get them snacks and listen to their stories.

There is this cute couple from California who have come as legal observers. They have neon caps. They are nervous, and I point out that there is nothing illegal going on here. They had witnessed the police with shotguns drawn earlier, so they are nervous. They are recent law school graduates, and they are very concerned about the direction the nation is headed. Although they are not religious, they allow me to ask God to bless them and keep them safe as they head into the night.

Another group from Indianapolis has arrived to see the St. Mark’s Church they had heard about on the news. The community organizers are concerned about his group. Not that they are violent – just really naïve and scared. They’re not sure why they’re there, other than they want peace. I ask one of the young men what he’d like to see happen out of this mess, and he describes what I hear as a vision of God’s Kingdom here on Earth. I point out that what he envisions is a vision he shares with Jesus of Nazareth. We form a circle and pray.

People come and go. Twitter is showing that the clergy shepherding the kids is successful in keeping them safe. It also is creating conversation. God-willing that those conversations lead to a transformation of anger into focused commitment to make this world better. It’s what pastors do. God is working.

Eventually, our kids get back exhausted. The pastors are too. The police haven’t come. It’s early in the morning, and as I take leave I’m walking away from the building with two African American pastors who live in the area. They hug me, pray with me, and ask God to bless me.

That’s when the squad car comes. They want to come into the church.

I ask why. I ask if any of them follow Jesus. One officer says he does.

“Brother, you know this is holy ground. This is a place of sanctuary and worship. Let’s keep the peace tonight.” He shakes my hand – but not the hands of my black colleagues and leaves.

We’re a long way from the Kingdom of God.

But, it’s coming. I know it’s coming.

God’s Holy Spirit is working in Ferguson. Interlopers like myself have a little piece to play, but it is the Christian leaders like Rev. Traci Blackmon who will witness and work for the resurrection of Ferguson.

I come away from this night recognizing the need for Christian communities that are intentionally multi-cultural. There have to be places in our culture – demonstration plots – of God’s Kingdom. They are notoriously hard to create. But those communities of hope are good medicine for such a time as this. The walls of separation – racial, economic, political – must come down like Jericho. Otherwise, I fear that Ferguson is just a beginning.

Video of the organizers giving instructions before the rally