Six Months Later, Grief and Hope in Ferguson

I have been thinking a lot about this Anne Roiphe quote as Ferguson approaches the half year mark since the killing of Michael Brown. "Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life." On Feb. 9th it will be six months since Michael Brown died. Since then in Ferguson we have seen engaged community leaders and protesters, frustrated citizens and officials, burning buildings, armored vehicles, countless expressions of the greatness of the human spirit and things that do not inspire hope at all.

The first wave of responses is over with few people now out protesting and little or no press coverage of day-to-day life in Ferguson. There continues to be announcements of gatherings to discussion racial reconciliation. The Urban League has launched a program to help young men become job ready with support from local corporations. The school district is engaging clergy leaders.

The university and the community college that border Ferguson had strong Dr. King celebrations. There is a lot going on, yet clarity about how the world is different now is still slow to emerge. There are many good responses but the question remains, is there something happening outside of the usual mechanisms that make these responses better or even different than what has gone on before? Can the fissures that have been brought into fuller view be engaged through the people, money and programs that are taking shape now? What, at this distance of almost half a year, can be said to be working? What is just more of the same? At one point certainty fueled by various passions was in great evidence. Now there is less of it and more tactical, practical work to do. And there is grief.

Grieving is not programmatic, it is human. My perspective on life in Ferguson has any number of filters. I am white, male and 60. I am an organizational psychologist and the parish priest of the small Episcopal congregation in town. Daily I see people's best efforts and also the difficulty that responding differently entails. We have reached new places and witnessed new responses, and more of them than even the most optimistic could have imagined. The unflagging and ingenious engagement of those a half or a third of my age is nothing short of inspiring. Many official leaders have stepped up and joining them are many who are now leaders when before they were simply neighbors, coworkers or quiet contributors to making a place a community. And that is just the part of what is happening that I understand.

What I find at the six month out reflection point is hope and the continued hard work of honestly grieving what has been lost in a young man's life, a community's awakening and a nation's resistance to change. Engaging in this grieving is a choice that has to be made time and time again lest there be reactive rage or dispirited despondency. So, just as there is much practical work to do, there are still many things to grieve.

I think of a young girl's request to have the helicopters go away as her birthday present. I think of what happens when another white person says what they may have felt all along and are we suddenly estranged. I still see boarded up windows. I know from conversations with young women and men of color that the weight of being in or around Ferguson is at some points fatiguing and beyond frustrating. I hear claims for what it all means and what it will mean muted by a heaviness that comes from it still being too soon to say. Since Michael Brown was killed, Ferguson has been diagnosed, described and upended. The community continues to move through the slow motion world of shock and grief. The new normal is not yet here.

As a priest I know that grief is like a heavy fog. Only time and the gradual strength of living into one's changed life serve to lift its weight. We are in the in-between place. Although at six months Ferguson is still fog bound, there are days when the sun is doing its work and more and more rays of light are poking through. Certain plans are being finalized, money spent, hope enacted. There is movement. I am hopeful that at 9 months and a year, there will be even more that comes in the time after grief.

Ferguson Pastor F Willis Johnson said early on something that I return to time and time again, "It is a challenge to be hopeful." Hope is the sunlight that is helping the fog slowly lift for the many who live, love or work on the things that Ferguson has come to symbolize. Facing the challenge to hope that comes in the weeks, months and years ahead is what the tactics and practical work will involves. We will all know more and see more as time goes on. We still have much to grieve and their is emerging in our midst, hope as we respond to the challenges.