My Trip to Ferguson

Books are always better than movies. It’s a fact. When Hollywood gets a hold of a great book and turns it into a movie, many things end up being lost in translation. One of my favorite examples is a conversation between Gandalf and Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is explaining to Frodo how his uncle, Bilbo Baggins, made a life-threatening decision that anyone would immediately reject. What the movie omits, the book masterfully captures,  (my paraphrase) is as follows:

Bilbo was offered the chance to solve a riddle. If he could solve it, he would be led to safety. If he couldn’t solve it, he would be killed, eaten, and his possessions sold. Bilbo agreed to attempt to answer to riddle.

“Why would anyone do that?” Frodo asked.

Gandalf replied, “Because, he was lost, in the dark, without hope, unable to go forward, or backward.”

Being on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri is radically different from watching news reports about a place you’ve never been to. The city that had been reduced to Facebook posts, Tweets, and summaries from CNN, Fox News, USA Today, and the Department of Justice do not an accurate picture make.

There aren’t statistics living in Ferguson.

There are people living in Ferguson.

After my plane landed, for some reason I cannot explain, I felt compelled to drive to Canfield Green Apartments to see the place that catalyzed the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. I will be writing multiple posts in the weeks to come, but I thought it would be wise to share about: The Place, The People, The Person, and The Practical.


The Place
It’s a dark road, with poor lighting. I almost passed the spot, if it wasn’t for the stuffed animals laid out by the community as a memorial to him. It’s been taken down twice by the Ferguson Police Department, and every time it is removed, the citizens rebuild it, but when I saw the all the bears, cards, candles, and toys, I knew I had arrived.

I walked up to the spot where Michael Brown was left to bleed in front of neighbors and family for four and a half hours with no medical attention of any kind. I was hoping to take in the scene and reimagine what happened that night. I wanted to feel the emotions of the place, walk the path he and Dorian Johnson did the last night of his life. I was expecting this deeply spiritual moment, like seeing a burning bush, or how experience what I felt at the Lorraine Motel—the site of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination—when I was in Memphis, but I didn’t.

I didn’t feel a thing.

It’s the ghetto. People were walking the streets. The narrow roads need paving. It’s poorly lit, overcrowded, yet I wasn’t afraid. Two police cars passed me as I looked at the memorial, which residents said is normal. The police are always driving in that community, not looking to serve and protect but to make arrests to fulfill their quotas for the month. Even Darren Wilson admitted to he drove to Ferguson hoping to make a few arrests because he was told that was how you get a promotion in the Ferguson P.D.

I went to the place alone…

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I was there again Sunday morning at 6:30am for a prayer meeting with local clergy…

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and again at 12p with the community gathered to grieve the loss of another brother, another son, another friend, another unarmed Black person.

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The People
Michael Brown and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement didn’t bring me to tears my first night there (they would come later), but it did bring a passage of Scripture to mind, Isaiah 53:2-5. It reads, “He had no beauty of majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”

There was nothing special about Michael Brown that should have started the movement. He didn’t have the credentials of Dr. King, the oratory skills of Malcolm X, the education of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and social awareness of Oscar Romero. He was a kid from the hood, and his circumstantial death was just one too many for that community, and for the broader Black community. The tipping point of so many—if not most—of us being that another unarmed Black person was killed, as the result of his own actions and no one else’s, who cannot tell their version of events. The reality is that every time one of us dies, the question is “Why did he/she resist,” rather than “Why didn’t the armed police officer deescalate the situation with the unarmed person like they are trained to do in every other instance?”

It was strange being in the place that didn’t question the convenience store robbery or Officer Darren Wilson’s version of events—although questions remain around both. What did fuel the anger was memory of Michael Brown in the street for four and a half hours. They remember the nurses and medically trained residents of Canfield Apartments that were not permitted to admit CPR to him. They remember the paramedics never coming. They remember seeing Michael Brown with his hands up when he was killed. They remember him being picked up like he was road kill and placed in the back of a police SUV to be taken to the coroner.

They remember he wasn’t the first, and he wasn’t the last.

The father of Michael Brown, uncle of Oscar Grant, the daughter of Eric Garner, and Bree Newsome—the woman who climbed the flagpole to remove the Confederate Flag in South Carolina following the massacre of nine non-violent Black people in a church in Charleston—were all there for the peaceful protest Sunday morning.  They all shared their stories. They shared their pain. They shared their tears, and they shared their confusion about how their club continues to grow.

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Amy Hu, a friend and fellow InterVarsity Staff Member, caught me on the verge of tears because for the first time in these last twelve months, as I was with thousands of people that not only acknowledged Black lives were less valuable than white lives, the crowd also acknowledged that the lack of dignity ascribed to our lives was no longer acceptable. I had been in learning mode for most of the trip, but in that moment, with such a diverse group of people who knew that even with our hands up and being unarmed we still had a high chance of being killed by police, when I put my hands up, the tears began to stream. I realized how much I value my own life, and how much the rest of country and many in the dominate culture simply do not. As one activist remarked, “We don’t have rights, we don’t even have #CecilTheLion rights.”

I watched the marginalized—women, female pastors, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered people—lead peaceful protests against the perpetual violence law enforcement and the dominate culture have used against African-Americans since we first arrived in the United States back in 1619. I watched as women who haven’t been allowed to lead in so many churches lead this movement. They were able to lead this movement because they were already on the margins to reach these marginalized communities.

I watched as these hurting people loved each other, served each other, wept together, ate together, and shared the little they had with each other. My friend, Erna Hackett, with tears in her eyes said it best one night, “These people are a church, and they are acting more like a church than I have seen in some time.”

I don’t know how to reconcile that.

I know I saw hurting people, people that are unheard, overlooked, ignored, critiqued….I saw a people lost, in the dark, without hope, unable to go forward, or backward.

I don’t condone violence. I never have and I never will. I grew up in 3rd Ward in Houston, Texas. I have seen people get shot before. I have heard gun shots and police sirens throughout the day—I still hear them when I home. I understand “the code” of the hood, how to survive there. If you’re not from the hood, it may as well be a foreign country as there is much outsiders do not understand. But one thing is clear: you cannot ask an oppressed people ostracized from the broader economy of society, to continuously enjoy their poverty. The protests, peaceful and otherwise, are an affirmation that the proverb is true, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). The peaceful protests are from people whose hope has made them sick. The violence descending into the streets is from the people who placed their hope into people and systems that have consistently proven to be unfaithful.

The Person
I have been asked multiple times how I am doing since I have arrived back from Ferguson. It is difficult for me to put into words. I traveled to Ferguson at the expense of and as an employee of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I was at a conference, “Lessons from Black Lives Matter: A National Scholars Gathering in Ferguson,” with highly intelligent people who teach theology at seminaries around the country. The group was Christian, largely African-American, with doctorates and PhDs, and they shared how the church—especially the evangelical church—had failed them and the Black community both historically and currently. I sat there as a leader in a large evangelical organization, listening to my elders blatantly condemned the silence of evangelical Christians, and their affirmation of white supremacy, white privilege, and white fragility. They spoke about the lack of diversity in evangelical seminaries and churches, and spoke about the absence of evangelical organizations in Ferguson. Lisa Sharon Harper challenged their historical thinking. “The Black church has its roots in evangelicalism, but like many things, it has been co-opted by American culture.”

I watched and listened as people who look like me condemned organizations like the one I work for, and the seminary I attend…

And their stories and synopsis reflected the pain I have for more than a year.

They didn’t just affirm pain.

They affirmed my pain.

I still work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and I still attend Fuller Theological Seminary, but I do know the responses from both—that have we hoped would produce legitimate systemic change—have not occurred, and it has broken my heart, and eroded much of my hope…and the hopes of my friends in this generation.

The Practical
I have no idea how to move forward from Ferguson. Here are a few things I am doing, and a few things I am inviting people who read my blog to do as well:

  • I have many posts to write from my experiences. I am committing to be brutally honest about my own leadership and how I have failed, as well as where the bare minimum has been done in order to appease my people.
  • Don’t start the Fall with a new focus. Talk about racial-reconciliation and multi-ethnicity. Talk about the racial tensions in society as part of your discipleship programs. Unpack why “All Lives Matter” is a universalizing statement that omits the call for my life to matter. (No doctor tells a patient with a broken leg, “All legs matter.” They acknowledge the pain and work with the patient to fix what was broken, no matter how it got that way.
  • Don’t ask Black friends to explain how they are feeling right now. Be proactive. Learn about the realities of racism and systemic injustice at the same level you seek to educate yourself on all your other endeavors.
  • Stop dismissing the feelings of the situation. There are spiritual, personal, emotional, and social pains happening right now. That won’t be solved with one prayer and one conversation. It also won’t be solved if our pain is dismissed in order to “get to the real work.”

On Netflix, go watch:

  • The House I Live In
  • Crips and Bloods: Made In America

Google videos and the authors. The organizations. The cities referred to.

Go on Amazon.com, type in “Black History” or “Black People” and learn.

Ferguson affirmed my pain, my perspective, and my desire to see not just lamenting from churches and organizations, but repentance.

That’s what I long for.

That’s what Black Lives Matter is really about.

Change.

Sean

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