The five panelists spoke with passion, and then hurried off to a protest at the police department.
On Day 30 of a justice movement they said will go on “as long as it takes,” these pastors and theologians from the St. Louis area challenged Presbyterian mid-council leaders to join them in the streets.
The panel on “Faith in Action: Being Church in Times of Social Unrest” was one of the workshops offered for stated clerks and mid-council leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in St. Louis October 13–17.
“Thirty days ago a judge in St. Louis announced the acquittal of police officer Jason Stockley in the fatal 2011 shooting of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith,” said Rev. Karen Anderson, pastor of Ward Chapel AME Church and board president of Metropolitan Congregations United.
In the wake of the announcement, protests erupted across the city, many of them led by young people.
“I’ll tell you what the young people say,” Anderson said. “We want them to stop killing us. We want them to think before they shoot.” She added, “Shooting first is the norm when it comes to people of color.”
Anderson said the protestors also want things like economic parity and more funds for trauma care and counseling in schools in less affluent neighborhoods. “The perpetuation of poverty leads to a lot of what is going on in our city,” she said.
Another panelist, Rev. Melanie Smith, associate pastor for youth and young adults at Ladue Presbyterian Church, told how she became involved in the protests.
“On August 9, 2014, we started seeing images of Michael Brown’s body lying in the street in Ferguson,” she recalled. Brown, another African-American shot by a white police officer, was left in the street for more than four hours. His body lay in a place where children could walk by and see it.
“Something broke in me,” Smith said. When she saw the images she thought, “That is my student, my brother, my neighbor.” Then she recalled Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor.”
“That’s what got me into the street,” she said.
Smith told listeners that her church is 99 percent white and located in one of wealthiest suburbs in nation. “My sphere of influence is my students,” she said.
She helps lead an “urban plunge,” in which affluent young people spend a week each summer looking at the economic divisions in their city. She said the experience helps them to realize that “not everyone has my reality.” It pushes them to ask, “How am I as a person of faith going to act?”
Rev. Clyde Crumpton, pastor of Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, noted that since 2012 there have been more than 600 killings of black citizens by police or while in custody. “Our young people are saying, ‘This is our last go-round,” he said. “Something’s going to change, one way or another, no matter how long it takes. We as clergy have made a commitment to support them.”
“The call is to stand in support, to use our bodies and our privilege in support of young protestors,” said Rev. Deborah Krause, academic dean and professor of New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary and a member of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. “These are revelatory times. We are being called by God to hear the voices of pain in this city and stand in support.”
The religious community’s engagement in protesting injustices has grown over the past few years, said Anderson, “But it’s not enough. To some people, religion is about personal piety. This allows me to absolve myself of engagement with the community.”
Anderson said the unity embodied in a wildly diverse group of protestors gives her hope. “Young protestors have created family and community in the streets,” she said. “They have purpose. That’s where I see God.”
Smith agreed. “It’s really early-church kind of stuff. I’ve spent a couple of nights on the steps of the Justice Center, and all of a sudden trucks show up with bottles of water, pizza, doughnuts.”
The panel was moderated by Rev. Erin Counihian, moderator of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. “We felt that people coming to St. Louis needed to engage with what’s going on here at this time,” she explained.
Counihan encouraged Presbyterians to get involved in working for justice. “If you can’t be in the streets, your church can offer space to host meetings, a place for protestors to park so their car doesn’t get towed.”
Some churches have contributed money, she said. Others have been “safe spaces” for people to gather when things on the streets get heated.
There are people of influence in congregations, Anderson said. “It’s imperative that pastors talk about justice issues in the church, that pastors of affluent churches sit with police and aldermen in their congregations and talk about these issues.”
“We’re in a time of moral crisis,” Crumpton added. “Clergy are obligated to speak out.”
Following the workshop, at least four attendees marched with approximately 200 other protesters as they marched through downtown St. Louis from police headquarters to the Federal Court.
Crumpton and Krause, along with Cathy Ulrich, General Presbyter and Stated Clerk of Eastminster Presbytery, and Chris Iosso, coordinator for the PC(USA) Advocacy Committee on Social Witness Policy, joined the peaceful protest as it made its way, with police protection, through the streets of St. Louis.
The protest was a continuation of actions, called the “Resist Movement,” that began after the September 15 acquittal of Stockley. Local clergy have been a part of supporting the protest movement since its inception and Krause said their voices are heard as ones of solidarity.
“The protest leaders have an understanding that clergy have a privilege and a platform and communities [in which they] share the message,” she said. “They are working with us to get that more broadly heard and to have us think theologically about it — to offer a moral, theological frame for this movement. We do that with them and on behalf of them.”
Crumpton said local clergy were active in protest and advocacy long before the verdict was issued, including their presence during protests in Ferguson.
“Clergy issued a letter to the judge and to the city that protest was going to be the case if there was a non-guilty verdict,” he said, adding the clergy presence has received an “excellent” welcome at the protests. “We’re here because the organizers and leaders [of the movement] invited us and asked for us to be here. We’re here at their request and doing some things legislatively and through other means, but everything goes through the organizers of the protest. This is their program.
The PC(USA) Committee on the General Assembly recently affirmed its commitment to hold the denomination’s 223rd General Assembly here next summer, overcoming objections that St. Louis was not safe for the church’s members of color.
“It’s good for the GA to be here if the church is open to hearing the voice of the protest and the voice of those suffering in St. Louis, who are victims of police violence and if the church is willing to move into solidarity with this movement,” she said. “God is calling the church out into the street and it could be a powerful opportunity for the Presbyterian Church to move out of our space and move into solidarity and larger community with God’s people.”
“It’s an opportunity to say we do not abandon St. Louis because of recent events,” added Ulrich. “[Saying] we want to stand in solidarity with the people of St. Louis, with this movement, and that we want to be a presence in St. Louis along with the people who live here.”