What can one say about Ferguson? Never enough, never enough, for some of us, and while for others, even one mention of the name is too much. There is much that swirls in the air these days about how we, as a country, respond to the continuing existence of racism in our institutions, our hearts, and our minds. It was this in mind that I went as part of our MidAmerica contingent to the events marking the one year anniversary of the death (murder) of Michael Brown.
Why did I go? Although I was involved as much as someone of my age could be in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, I left the States early in the 1970s for Canada. There the “complexion” of race relations is not the same — it’s based on a different history, and racism in Canada comes from similar but different strands. So when I returned to the States in the 1990s, I was playing catch up on issues around race. I noticed that some things had changed (many for the better), but that the great divide still existed with regard to education, employment, justice, and how people socialize. I wanted to learn more about that, and so I dabbled in the topic for years. Since coming on staff for MidAmerica, the trainings have deepened, and I am pleased to be able to work on intercultural competency issues for our Region.
Yet that is only part of the reason I went. The more compelling one was raised first by the minister, and then by the music director, of First UU in Ann Arbor. The Rev. Gail Geisenhainer brought into the church Black Lives Matter buttons, and invited us all to have a relationship with them—to take one and wear it, or not, or wear it sometimes, and keep track of what happened regarding our decisions and actions over the next week. When would we wear it, when not; what conversations did it spark inside ourselves, and with others. Pay attention. A couple weeks later, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, the music director, who is himself African American raised another question: Yes, he said, Black Lives Matter: but do we matter to Black lives? As a congregation, and as individuals, do we matter to Black lives?
I’ve worn the button since Gail handed them out; and it was asking how I mattered to Black lives that was the question that got me to Ferguson. I wanted folks to know — what ever color those folks are — that to me, Black Lives do matter, and that I am concerned about the vastly disproportionate rates of Blacks being stopped by law enforcement, being charged, being found guilty, and being sentenced more harshly.
In Ferguson, Ian Evison and I (your two MA staff who could attend) played a supporting role—we followed the lead of the local congregations. And they, on their part, were in relationship with and following the lead of movements within the African American community. We could share the resources of our larger staff and help with logistics like registration and communication, but that for this weekend to be a success we (and every other UU who showed up) would need to be willing to follow the lead of others.
That was a different situation for me and many of us — to know that showing up was what was called for, not our brilliant ideas, not our careful analysis, but our humility and our willingness to show up and follow. My responsibility, I realized, was to listen, be curious, ask questions, and know that others would help me know how to be helpful.
We did two types of witnessing — one kind in St Louis and Ferguson, and another in the suburbs. Following an orientation on Friday night, 70+ UUs showed up in the suburbs to stand vigil outside the entrance to a shopping area. In that predominately white community, standing on a corner with Black Lives Matters signs elicited many different responses, from honks and waves in support, to honks and other hand gestures in opposition. Emerson congregation has been standing on this corner every week for one hour, for a year—it was a privilege and honor to join with them for the hour.
From there, we went into the city, where over 150 UUs ended up at several different actions. I attended the memorial march for Vonderitt Myers, which was one of the most racially diverse gatherings I’ve been at. We all were there for the same reason—to say that the shooting of young black men by law enforcement was not right. Later, there was a block party, complete with bouncy house for the youngest among us, and a celebration of what is good in the shared community.
The next day, there was the memorial march for Michael Brown, another vigil in the suburbs led by Eliot Chapel, and then more gatherings organized by the other organizations. In all of them, UUs stood witness.
Here’s some of what I noticed:
- Our congregations and their leaders are held in esteem by the people with whom they’ve partnered. Their flexibility and willingness to join with others, to listen and learn, is clear. We were welcomed fully as part of the contingents in the marches and demonstrations.
- Our congregations and their members put themselves on the line every day. In joining with the Emerson and Eliot congregations, we augmented and honored their on-going work.
- The ability of us to do good work is augmented when we know why we’re doing it. The orientation on Friday night helped those of us from out of town understand what river we were stepping into, and the mixture of analysis, stories, and song gave us the strength to risk being on the streets as part of civil disobedience.
- That disparate groups can come together when the spirit is willing, and the cause is important. The march from Myers memorial included one of the most diverse groups I’ve witnessed — African Americans, Asians, Whites, transgender groups and many others gathered together. And the diversity within each of these groups was also wide — ideological, racial, economic diversity was present. This is the world we dream about.
- My internal struggle with balancing difficult issues: honoring and respecting the experience of those in the Black Community who tell of being racially profiled and harassed daily, and knowing that we as a society do not properly equip or train our law enforcement personnel to do their jobs in the best way possible. I was a police chaplain for ten years, and I learned that the overwhelming majority of “my cops” went into policing for the same reason I went into ministry: to make the world a better place. Yet we now put them in places where they are expected to make up for the racism in society without training, equipment, or personnel to truly be in relationship with the people in their communities.
- That as an educated white woman of privilege, it’s important for me to speak up and stand up — because I can. It doesn’t cost me much, and it makes a positive difference to and for others.
What I also realized is that I cannot just wait for anniversaries of horrible things, but that my personal call is to respond where I am, whenever it’s needed. I’m joining my local NAACP chapter. I’m starting to pay attention to blogs and other social media that keeps me connected. It could be so easy to do nothing, to “hide” in my white community. If I did that, I would know that I do not matter to Black lives. And so, that Black Lives Matters button? I wear it every day.
-- Lisa Presley