Over the weekend, I sat in on a panel discussing race and white privilege in the context of youth ministry. There was speculation on what would happen in Ferguson with the pending grand jury decision. The three gentlemen on the panel were faithful Christians trying to make sense and help us make sense of the incredible situations in which we live today.
On Tuesday, the day after the announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, I attended the Macon County Ministers Council (MCMC) meeting in Tuskegee, Alabama. We meet twice per month. As I drove to our meeting my heart was heavy with the occurrences from Ferguson the night before. My mind spun as I pondered what I might say to my African American friends and colleagues. I could not imagine how they were feeling. Those who are part of our ministry team at ARM prayed and sought Christ’s wisdom and grace.
As I sat with my friends at the MCMC, we had a wide range of discussions. We wanted to believe that the grand jury – whose racial makeup did reflect the Ferguson community – made the best decision with the information they had and that the community would be ok with that decision. I listened as they spoke of the continued racial bias against people of color in the justice system. The profound quote from Dr. MLK Jr. was reiterated: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We discussed how the same kind of incident happening in Ferguson could happen in Tuskegee and how it would be different. Since the Tuskegee community is 97% African American, the issue would not necessarily be patterns of racial injustice. Instead, the issue would be the paternalism of the justice system that does not trust good, common sense, everyday people to make decisions on their own.
I spoke of Jesus being with us in our pain, grief, and misunderstanding. I questioned how are we to see and heal.
For ARM, the work of racial reconciliation is essential because we serve in communities that have been severely wounded by extreme racism. We acknowledge that our free country was born on the backs of unjust and inhumane slave labor, which was followed by unjust and oppressive systems of segregation and prejudice known as Jim Crow. It seems that our Declaration of Independence simply did not apply to people of color. According to Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, racism is America’s birth defect. It’s not as though we once had good relations between people of European and African/Asian/Indigenous-American descent, that have now gone wrong. When we work for racial reconciliation in America, we’re not trying to restore something healthy that has been lost; we’ve never done this right and so the way forward is incredibly complicated and complex. We must make the road by walking – by faith and not by sight.
We are blessed to share many genuine, loving relationship with good folks in the communities where we serve. We believe that our service in these communities is more than just a “housing” ministry. At Alabama Rural Ministry, we want to be about the work of making “Sweet Homes”. A home is more than a house. A home has relationships and families, it has memories, it has hurts, and it has joys. A house is just a structure; a building without a soul. Turning houses into homes requires us to be honest about where we came from: our hardships, our wounds, the skeletons in our closets. When we’re open about these things with each other, we can build real relationships and join together with God’s Spirit to imagine a better way, to write a new story, for our future.
We are about racial reconciliation – “bridging” – in which we walk hand in hand with those on all sides of injustice in hopes that God’s love might heal our shared wounds and teach us to walk in justice and righteousness as a community. Helping repair a home is only a small part of our larger mission to love our communities. I believe that is what we are called to. At the MCMC meeting, we read this scripture and thought about what God requires us of today: to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
So, as I think about everything happening in Ferguson and across our country right now, I have no answers. Just emotion: grief, confusion, frustration, empathy, heartbrokenness. And at the end of the day…I know a faithful God who shares all of these emotions as well.
How should I respond? I find wisdom in the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12:15 – “mourn with those who mourn.” If we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2), then maybe, for some us, this situation is an invitation of God’s grace to be challenged in the way we think of ourselves and others. Might God be calling us to think differently, more responsibly, more justly, and more gracefully?
In the wake of the grand jury’s decision, many in Ferguson have protested. Some have turned to violence and looting. I have a hard time condoning behavior that destroys property and people’s livelihood. I know there must be better ways to respond. But, at the same time, I have questions: what about the military-level response to these protesters by the police? Do we have that type of response when there are riots after sporting events by mostly white people? And to me, those are even less justifiable… The rules of engagement seem one sided and most certainly in true military situations would be considered excessive. It’s something I’m continuing to think about; fear motivates and is rarely rational in its manifestation.
What encouraged me today by my fellow pastors in Macon County was the sense that we as ministers bear a certain level of responsibility in our community. What are the unjust laws we must challenge and change? Are our political leaders fair, just, and being held accountable? How do we respond to injustice in a way that is peaceful but still carries the message of “enough is enough”? And, what are the preventative measures we must take in our own communities and families?
We left our meeting with a sense of grace and forgiveness. We will mourn with all of those in Ferguson and pray for the families and the police officer, Darren Wilson. He is the only one that really knows what happened and his conscience must be clear as he answers before God.
Finally, I ask the simple question, Where is Jesus in the midst of this? He can seem so far, so distant, so hidden. Do we catch a glimpse of God? As I watched the news, there were those in Ferguson packing boxes for families needing a Thanksgiving meal. Ah Ha! There He is!
And, in the middle of our pain and confusion, Jesus is present on the cross bearing our pain, our hurt, and making us look and respond a different way. When he said on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” he was talking to each one of us. As we try to walk together clumsily into a better future of racial reconciliation, “Father, forgive us – for we know not what we’re doing but we know you are with us!” We will certainly make mistakes as we try to do this right, but Jesus, our Trailblazer, and the Holy Spirit, our Guide, are there with us to make a way where there is no way; a way back to the infinite heart of God the Father who loves us all as His children. The healing that can come does so from the empathy and solidarity we share together. I pray we have that courage as we go with God as his ambassadors and agents of healing in brokenness. May the things that break God’s heart, break ours. May we all work to live in God’s kingdom values of grace and work toward re-creation with Him!
May Christ’s love and grace be with you,
lisa and joe-your friends at ARM