How These Righteous Religious Leaders in Ferguson Are Giving Us Hope

FERGUSON, MISSOURI - August 13, 2014: The Rev. Willis Johnson (right) confronts 18-year-old Joshua Wilson as protesters defy
FERGUSON, MISSOURI - August 13, 2014: The Rev. Willis Johnson (right) confronts 18-year-old Joshua Wilson as protesters defy police and block traffic on West Florissant Avenue at Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo. Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 as part of their protests over the the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr., who died Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014 following an altercation with police in the St. Louis suburb. Rev. Johnson convinced Wilson, one of the last holdouts in the intersection, that he should leave and avoid arrest. Joining Johnson and Wilson was a member of the clergy from the African Episcopal Methodist Church who declined to give her name. (Photo by Sid Hastings/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On the day Michael Brown was shot, Rev. Willis Johnson heard people chanting outside his house and followed a group of upset community members to the Ferguson police station where people were beginning to gather.

"There was a group that wanted to go into the police station but I said you don't want to do that. I went over to the police station and negotiated with the staff to bring over some people with questions," the Ferguson pastor told me.

Clergy and lay people have played a crucial role in Ferguson. Men and women, black and white, Jews, Muslims, and Christians; they have served as a point of contact between the community and the civic authorities; acted as a safety buffer between protestors and police, collected and distributed food, opened spaces for youth, and cleaned up after the protest. Most importantly, these righteous religious leaders continue to witness for justice for Michael Brown and against systemic racism and inequality.

Since that tense first day on August 9th, Pastor Johnson has continued to serve as an intermediary between the city leadership, some of whom attend his church, WellSpring United Methodist Church, and the community in Ferguson. WellSpring Church has provided a rallying point for the community where religious leaders including both Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II have spoken. The church is also a location where community members can find food supplies as well as a place for education and play for children whose schools are closed.

Pastor Johnson continues to push for justice both in the immediate sense for Michael Brown, but he also views this as a crucial time to reflect on the wider systematic struggle that black people are facing in America:

"This is the clarion call, that moment, that situation where people realize that everything has not been alright. We are trying to use this opportunity to confront the issue in a constructive way."

Pastor Johnson went on:

"The Rabbi Joshua Heschel said we worship God through our questions and we want to move this confrontation to conversation. Ultimately we have to do something constructive in our strategy and efforts. We can do this with the help of God and a heart for one another."

You may already recognize another pastor working in Ferguson from the bloody bruise she received from a rubber bullet shot by police last Wednesday as she prayed while walking between the protestors and the police.

African Methodist Episcopal pastor Renita Lamkin first participated in the prayer vigil outside the Ferguson Police Department on the Sunday after Michael Brown was killed.

The next day she heard that young people she knew had been involved with the destruction that had took place late Sunday night. Deeply disturbed, Pastor Lamkin asked the young men to dinner to talk about why they did what they did. As they explained, she began to feel their deep pain:

"They told me about dealing with a system that does not value their life and it caused me a sadness in my soul. The issue is bigger than Michael Brown -- it is about the lack of valuing of human life including the human life of these young black men."

On Tuesday, Pastor Lamkin attended a community gathering at Christ the King, a UCC church headed by Pastor Traci Blackmon and after that she put her faith on the line in the streets.

"My prayer on Wednesday was that everybody goes home and that there is no blood on the streets. My role was to stand in the gap and intercede between the people and the system as well as the police and the system. I know police and I know they don't want to do that job, but when they are ordered to do it they have to do it. We have to change the laws that make them do that."

Like the pastors, Paul Muhammud has felt called from the beginning to act as a buffer between the people and police and to de-escalate tensions on both sides. A Muslim, Muhammud is encouraging self-policing within the black community and peaceful expression in efforts for justice.

When I asked him about long term efforts at reconciliation with the police and city leaders, Mr. Muhammud told me:

"There needs to be reconciliation with the police but would have to come from the police. There is a disconnect; the idea that they are there to protect and serve doesn't translate to what we experience. There is no respect; the police actually have to be trained to learn sensitivity to our community. It is going to take a lot of work to regain, no, establish trust. Not only conversations have to happen, but policies have to change."

The recognition that the situation in Ferguson requires systemic change is also what drives Rabbi Randy Fleisher's participation in the protests in Ferguson. Rabbi Fleisher, along with his colleague Rabbi Susan Talve, have been participating since the first prayer vigil on the Sunday after Michael Brown was killed. The rabbis serve at Central Reform Congregation, an interracial synagogue in St. Louis, and some of their members live in Ferguson, including families whose children have no school to go to this week. And a couple of nights ago, Rabbi Fleisher had to go pick up disoriented members of his congregation who had been gassed in Ferguson.

The rabbi explained how Michael Brown has been a wake up call for his synagogue as well as all of St. Louis:

"From this incident people are finally hearing the stories about how people of color have been treated on our streets, in our society and by the police. Something is going on that is not just; we have inequity that needs to be addressed. Profiling is profiling.

We believe in the scripture from Deuteronomy, 'Justice, justice you shall pursue.' You can't just pray, you can't just hope, you have to do something about it and not just sit on the sidelines. Justice is an action."

Like the rabbi, each of the religious leaders spoke of scripture passages and spiritual principles that are undergirding their work on the streets of Ferguson.

Paul Muhammad explained that his Islamic background gives him the strength to defend the voiceless. "If they take our physical lives, it is only the physical form, you still don't die. It centers me, grounds me so I can step on the front lines and be that buffer and work for a better life for our youth."

When I asked Pastor Johnson what piece of scripture is guiding his efforts, he immediately turned to 2 Chronicles 7:14, which reads: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

He explains that what he and others are trying to do is to model faith in action: "We are not just praying -- we being prayer in the streets. Being present as best we can."

Pastor Lamkin laments that the way forward will not be easy and will have to involve a complete systemic change, including how policing is done. She speaks from experience about the terror of being chased down the street with tear gas and bullets. She explained that perhaps the saddest thing that has happened to her is having young people, middle-schoolers, explain how to reduce the effects of tear gas -- that they are growing up with that kind of knowledge. And yet Pastor Lamkin has hope that comes from her faith.

She cites a combination of scriptures from John that state that God is love and that God became flesh and moved among us in the person of Jesus.

"We need to and can do the same things Jesus did," Pastor Lamkin explains, "We can heal, deliver, set free. It looks very different than it did 2,000 years ago, but we can do it because love always wins because God is love."