One year since the death of Michael Brown.
The plane touched down and the flight attendant came on the speaker to ask us to please keep our seat belts buckled until we had come to a complete stop at the gate, and enjoy our stay in St. Louis.
"Enjoy your stay in St. Louis," That phrase hung in the air.
Only minutes away from the Lambert/St. Louis International Airport the sky was falling.
Over the 11 days that had passed since Michael Brown was shot multiple times and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in the sleepy suburban town of Ferguson, MO, the QuikTrip where Brown was last seen alive burned down, protesters held vigil and peace turned into mayhem as the Ferguson Police Department rolled out military grade armored cars, machine guns, camouflage, tear gas and sound bombs. Minutes from the Lambert/St. Louis airport America was at war with itself.
I went to Ferguson because I was compelled by my faith to go.
Along with other across the country I watched in disbelief as the St. Louis sheriff's office issued a statement one day after the shooting with the entire story conveyed as if they had completed an investigation and were simply reporting what they found. But it was only day two. Then there were video surveillance tapes released that tried to smear Michael Brown's character. Then I watched police officers in camouflage treat protestors as if they were enemy combatants, rather than American citizens exercising their constitutionally protected First Amendment right to assembly. Something in me broke.
I spent the next week figuring out exactly how I could be of help. It became clear that generally speaking evangelical white and multi-ethnic churches in St. Louis didn't know how to engage. So, they weren't. The pastor might be going to the protest site to minister to the protestors, but parishioners weren't budging from their pews. Seven days into the unrest, I awoke with clarity. I would go to help build a bridge from the evangelical community in the surrounding St. Louis area into the larger movement for justice in Ferguson.
I grabbed my bag from the overhead compartment and made my way down the jet way and through the airport. When the sliding glass doors opened and I walked outside the air felt thick--heavy in St. Louis. Over the course of my week the heaviness never went away. About three days in, the word "confusion" came to mind. That was it. It felt like a spiritual heaviness -- like a spirit of confusion was lying like a blanket over the city.
I spent seven days I going back and forth between Ferguson protests at night and organizing meetings among evangelicals in the daytime Over the course of the week, I met a cadre of leaders who faced calls to lead much like the one Solomon faced when he received the leadership mantle following the death of David (1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14).
Facing God's call to lead his people, Solomon went up to Gibeon; a place where he had met God before. While on the mountain, the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream.
God said, "Ask what I should give you."
How would you answer that question? What would you ask for as you stand at the starting line of an intimidating ministry? I mean really.
A large congregation? A plenary speaking slot at the next denominational convention--eventually?
Or would you ask God to make your followers like you.
Solomon answers God: "Your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?"
Solomon asks for wisdom. Wisdom is described as the ability to discern between good and evil. Help me know the difference between good and evil.
"God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)
God tells us what goodness is. Goodness (tov) according to the Hebrews was not merely located in the object itself. It is located between things. In Genesis 1, Goodness refers to the integrity, the wellness, the bond of relationship between all created things! And the word "very" (me'od) tells us how true, how deeply, how forcefully, how bonded those relationships were. The web of relationships between God and all God's creation was forcefully, overwhelmingly, abundantly goooooood! That is God's definition of goodness!
So, Solomon is essentially asking God, "Give your servant and understanding mind to govern your people able to discern that which protects, serves, and cultivates the relationships of your people to you, to themselves, to each other, to the earth, to the systems of governance, and to our surrounding nations! And show me what is evil -- what destroys, threatens, corrupts any of these relationships." This is wisdom.
In Ferguson and across St. Louis, one year ago, I met several spiritual leaders who were facing just such a moment. Women and men alike stood before God and asked for wisdom in August 2014.
Upon hearing of Michael Brown's death Rev. Traci Blackmon (Christ the King Church in Florissant, MO) called the clergy together to pray and hold vigil. Over the next year, Rev. Blackmon served as a spirit guided leader known for her discernment of what is good and evil.
Rev. and State Rep. Tommie Pierson (Greater St. Mark's Church) offered his church as a safe haven and strategic staging area for most of the protestors on West Florissant Avenue.
Rev. Starsky Wilson (The Deaconess Foundation), who I met later, but whose wisdom about the funding structure of St. Louis revealed one of the causes of Ferguson flashpoint: massive over investment in charity with little investment in community empowerment structures.
Rev. Mike Kinman (Christ Church Cathedral), Howie Melosh (Intervarsity Christian Fellowship), Rev. Renita Marie, Rev. Dr. Deborah Krauss (Eden Seminary), Rev. Craig Scandrette Leatherman and so many others leveraged the power of their relationships in Ferguson, their institutional resources, together with the privileges of their whiteness to guide other white people of faith to follow the leadership of Ferguson's indigenous leaders.
Michelle Higgins (South City Church), and Dr. Mike Higgins (Covenant Theological Seminary) who prayerfully leveraged the power of their blackness (their understanding of the issues) to build bridges that helped their white and multi-ethnic institutions to engage the movement.
These leaders stood like Solomon once stood; in prayer before God. While watching the sky fall over Ferguson, they asked God "Show me what is good." And God answered.
This is how God answered Solomon: "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the lie of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is just, I now do according to your word. Indeed, I give you a wise and discerning mind." (1 Kings 3:11-12a)
When called to lead, Solomon didn't seek his own glory, his own comfort, his own peace. Solomon sought the shalom of all his people. So, too, did the leaders above--and God said yes.
The movement to protect black lives gestated in the womb of our nation for years before Ferguson, but God birth a movement in that place--in part because of wise and discerning leaders of faith.
May God help us all to enter the one year commemoration of Michael Brown's death and the uprising in Ferguson, MO by reflecting on how we responded to God's question a year ago: "Ask what I should give you in the face of black death?"
What was your answer? Was it Comfort? Fame? Power? Money? Was it increased church numbers? Or was it the ability to discern good and evil--was it wisdom?
May God make us people of wisdom today and forevermore.
Bible Study Questions
1. What gift would you ask God to give you to promote peace and healing in your community?
2. Where were you when Michael Brown was shot one year ago?
3. How has the #BlackLivesMatter movement shaped your understanding of race relations in the 21st Century?
For Further Reading
Lisa Sharon Harper, "The Lie" (ChristianityToday.com) and "The Other Lie" (Rachel Held Evans Blog)
Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, Soong-Chan Rah, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith (Zondervan)
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.
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