With additional reporting by Cray Allred.
If the media alone is to be believed, Ferguson, Missouri, is currently a battleground, wafting with tear gas, mangled storefronts, and face-offs in which power-hungry law enforcement uses German Shepherds and armored trucks to stave off furious rioters.
Thousands of Americans in over 90 cities have marched in outrage over the seemingly unjust killing of rising college freshman Michael Brown. Many demand justice for a young man who was apparently killed, defenseless, in broad daylight, his body left for hours uncovered on the street. But demonstrators most desire a more far-reaching change.
Meanwhile, similar to most wars—both global and civil—the church has quietly worked from dawn until dusk without much notice from the press. Many of Ferguson’s citizens recognize a narrative missed by the press.
Speakers and crowd members expressed hope in the gospel’s power to change lives and communities, but many complained that for centuries, no matter how pure, nonviolent, and prayerful the community at large has been, authorities have continued systems of oppression.Eighteen pastors along with their church members of various denominations and races gathered together Wednesday night in Ferguson, Missouri, not to demonstrate but to pray. At 8:00 p.m., they honored their city’s encouragement to head home. Other churches raised prayer tents around the town.
Alpha Omega Theta Christian Fraternity took to the streets along with protestors, but these young men mediated between cops and agitated citizens, offering many demonstrators food and water. If they observed grieving individuals, the students approached to offer prayer and comfort. One member of the fraternity dropped food off at the home of Michael Brown’s family.
Ferguson-based Christian leaders, citizens, and law enforcement seem to come to four similar conclusions, all with an underlying question: How can we bring glory to God while pursuing justice?
1. The church helps with hands and feet, not just words.
“We want to be known for what we do and not what we’re against,” said Pastor Joe Costephens, pastor of Passage Community Church in Florissant, Missouri, who helped organize a volunteer cleanup on Wednesday attended by more than 120 people. “A lot of churches are known for their public stance instead of service,” Costephens said.
Passage Community Church joined other churches in leading a food drive, donating school supplies, and attending neighborhood watch meetings to understand the community’s needs better. “People ask why we are doing this, and we say it’s because we love Jesus and because of that we love you,” Costephens said.
Theophilus Murphy, Jr., was the 2013-14 national president of Alpha Omega Theta Christian Fraternity and a senior at Ranken Technical College. His fraternity became famous this week for a viral Facebook photo of a few of its members serving.
“We believe in prayer and putting feet to our prayer,” Murphy said. In addition to handing out food and water, presenting at town hall meetings, and working with local law enforcement, his fraternity plans to raise and donate funds to help with Brown’s funeral costs and the family’s legal fees if necessary.
2. The church does not sensationalize.
In the midst of the riots, only a few media outlets discussed the peaceful reactions. The majority of individuals we talked to agreed that the media was portraying a Ferguson different from the one they knew. Many of the more militant demonstrators, including looters, they said, were from out of town.
“What you’re seeing reported is not the Ferguson I know,” Costephens said, adding that the majority of arrests are from out-of-town. “The heartbeat of the city is not what you’re seeing portrayed.”
The media has portrayed the citizens of Ferguson as willing to loot liquor stores and bomb the police to preach justice. Church groups worked alongside Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party to calm demonstrators.
On the streets of Ferguson, citizens complained that the media portrays them as “hoodrats,” and shows their town more severely impoverished than in reality.
“The media has been tearing the citizens of St. Louis to shreds,” said Murphy. “There are many of us of the age and racial demographic of the victim who are trying to work positively with government. Our cooperation with local law enforcement is first and foremost,” he added. “We’re trying not to give St. Louis such a black eye.”
His fraternity actively worked this week to dissipate energy and work with the county police, utilizing level-headed communication both with demonstrators and police. Murphy observed the physical stance of separation between those distrustful of local law enforcement and others, like his fraternity brothers, who are attempting to mediate and work within the legal system.
3. The church understands the larger picture.
Many evangelicals live by the eschatology of the “already and not yet.” This means that the Kingdom of God is already here in part, but will not be fully realized until Christ’s return.
As we rush to implement much-needed change, we must act by the “already” and swallow the “not yet.” We should fight for justice, yet realize that the fulfillment of the gospel is the only reality that brings true peace and justice.
“Ferguson is ripping the bandages off the racial wounds we thought were healing but instead are full of infection,” writes Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition. In fact, we believe that the divide reveals more than wounds, but instead a cycle of self-destructive language.
“If God be for us, than who can be against us?” Murphy said. “[Jesus] didn’t tell us we wouldn’t face persecution. But he tells us in the end not to let that consume us.”
Costephens and Murphy both acted in mediation between the law and the people. Similarly, both emphasized that racial tension was only part of the issue.
“It’s the sin underneath the sin,” said Costephens, quoting Pastor Timothy Keller. “Racism is a sin, but there is pride and self-centeredness underneath that. We prayed to repent of our own pride. We must be willing to say ‘I’m sorry,’ be able to forgive and walk arm and arm with people,” he said.
4. The church desires orderly peace and justice.
This week, controversial protest organizer and leader of the Black Lawyers For Justice Malik Z. Shabazz called for protestors to “police ourselves. We have to discipline ourselves,” reported The Verge.
“We’re for Michael Brown. But we also know that the world is watching us,” Shabazz said. He echoes a sentiment that Murphy finds to be essential as he and his brothers comfort people this week.
“If this is an incident that is supposed to the springboard something, then we are supposed to be disciplined until desired result,” Murphy said, citing Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. “If this is in fact the catalyst for change in our country, we have to be smart enough and wise enough not to do anything to hurt the success of this moment.”
And while some may find looting an easy outlet, Murphy views prayer as key.
On Friday, St. Louis-based hip-hop artist This’l hosted a forum at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church to allow local citizens to voice their feelings of communal pain and lament. Speakers from the forum’s panel and crowd members expressed hope in the gospel’s power to change lives and communities, but many complained that for centuries, no matter how pure, nonviolent, and prayerful the community at large has been, authorities have continued systems of oppression.
The New Yorker reports that a movement might be boiling out of the chaos, but how many more movements will be necessary for change—true justice?
Those of us who believe in prayer, hope, and redemption should be at the front lines—it is we who contain the drive, the truth, and we who should execute the most effective change.