Revisiting Ferguson

St. Louis county is made up of dozens of small and mid-sized municipalities.  It’s hard to tell when you cross from one into another, unless they’ve put up a sign, which most of them have done.  The city of St. Louis itself is crowded into a bend of the Mississippi River south of its confluence with the Missouri River, bowing out toward the east in a long sweep of about 15 miles or so, to the River DesPeres on the south side.  St. Louis County wraps around the city, to the north, west, and south, and is mostly suburban.  While some of the municipalities are small, with populations of less than 5,000, Ferguson is one of the larger ones on the north side, between the I-270 loop and I-70.

Originally a small town in a rural area outside St. Louis, with a core of historic buildings in its business district, and historic homes in a residential neighborhood, Ferguson was in the path of “white flight” growth as people left the city because of bad schools and high crime, and moved to the suburbs.  Ferguson developed into a working class community, with small bungalows and brick homes characterizing the neighborhoods.  And during the 70’s, as the African American population began to move out of the city because of bad schools and high crime, they came north.  Ferguson’s smaller homes, with better property values, was a big attraction.  The African American population, concentrated on St. Louis’ north side, kept moving north, and over a twenty year period, Ferguson went from being a predominantly white suburb to a predominantly African American one.

My wife is a native of St. Louis, and I met her while serving as a summer mission worker in a community outreach ministry of her home church in the city.  We both watched with concern and horror as the events unfolded in Ferguson following the Michael Brown shooting.  My wife has a close friend and several relatives who live near there.  Growing up in St. Louis, in the inner city, she was familiar with ongoing racial tension that came to a head from time to time.  Her church was located in a neighborhood that had been the scene of rioting and violence, and had taken precautions to protect the congregation during services.  Located virtually on the very street that was a defining boundary between races, it also tried in many ways to reach out to the community as a means of being able to preach the gospel, and bridge the tensions in the community by building relationships between its members and its neighbors.

I came to St. Louis in the summer of 1977 to work in the church’s community outreach.  The church was just a few blocks away from one of the largest public housing projects in the city.  Go north and cross the street on the north side of the park, and you were in an African American neighborhood.  To the west, across Jefferson, also African American.  To the south, along Gravois, and going south along the interstate and east of Jefferson, and it was a white, working class neighborhood where three breweries were the major employers.  Several of the areas to the west had pockets of Asian and Slavic groups. It was quite a change for someone who grew up in a small town in Arizona, very intimidating and frightening at first.  But after a few days, we got into a good routine and it wasn’t long before we knew the streets pretty well, where it was safe and where it wasn’t.

We hauled a projector, screen, puppets, cookies and a cooler full of red kool-aid around in a bus to a different neighborhood every morning, gathered dozens of kids, showed cartoons, had a puppet show and told Bible stories, then served the kool-aid and cookies. Afternoons were pretty busy, too.  We worked with a team from another church, packing donated food into boxes, and delivering them to apartments in the projects.  I’d never seen poverty up close.  It was pretty shocking, and it bothered me.  It was an existence of survival.  I tried to understand the circumstances that brought these people to this place, and why they couldn’t seem to escape them.  It was pretty overwhelming.  More than 7,000 people lived in the 10 story apartment buildings in the project, and the list of needs was endless.  People lived there because their circumstances forced them to.  It wasn’t a place you’d go if you had other options.

The woman who ran the social ministry in the church across the street from the projects helped me put things in perspective.  “Don’t question why,” she would say.  “Just try to love people the way Jesus loves them.”  I tried.  I made friends with some of the kids who came to the VBS we had at toward the end of the summer.  Some of them weren’t very trusting, understandably, though I didn’t know why at the time.  But there were a few with whom I did share a genuine friendship.  From them, I learned a lot.

One of the things I learned is that I can try as hard as possible to understand the circumstances and situations that have brought a person of another race, in poverty, to the place where they think and act as they do, but I can’t ever get to the place where I can feel what they feel, know what they know, and understand what they do.  I grew up white, in an overwhelmingly white community, relatively prosperous, at least, not ever being in a position where I didn’t know where my next meal would come from.  Most of my family was raised in a church, or at least, connected to one, and no one ever denied me anything because of the color of my skin.  I cannot point to relatives who were horsewhipped, or lynched, or who lived in fear of their lives and their property, or who were denied a job and a means of supporting their family because of their skin color.  My Dad was never without a job and a means of supporting his family, nor have I ever been in that position for any extended period of time, and I never experienced the disappointment of not being hired for a job for which I was well qualified because of the color of my skin.

No one ever burned a cross in my yard, or torched my church.  I was never turned away when I registered to vote because I could not pass an impossible test.  I was never told I had to sit at the back of the bus.  I was never turned away from a restaurant, or a bathroom, or a drinking fountain.  I might think I’ve had a few employers who didn’t pay me what I thought I was worth, but I never had to take a lower wage because of my race or skin color.  I was never turned away from the door of a school.

We visited Ferguson this past week.  It doesn’t look much different than it did in the 70’s.  The houses and schools are a little older, the trees have grown up, but it looks pretty much the same as it did in the 70’s, last time I was there.  It also doesn’t look anything like it did on those nights when the news coverage showed businesses ablaze and police cars overturned.  The damage is repaired.  The streets are quiet, and the historic downtown area, where protests crowded the streets in front of the police station and municipal buildings is as quaint as ever.  It’s still a nice looking St. Louis suburb.

What you can’t see, from driving through, are the scars left by generations of racial discrimination, the battles and fights for many of the city’s residents to get the housing they have, and into the schools where their children now attend, and to get away from the poverty and deprivation that they experienced simply because there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to race.

Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  Matt. 7:1, HCSB  Supposedly, there’s a native American saying that has a similar interpretation.  “Do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”  If you interpret Jesus’ words literally, you can’t get a better interpretation than that.  At this point, I haven’t walked the full mile, so I’m not going to point a finger and judge.  I’m going to listen to what you have to say…

If you believe in the sanctity of human life, you must come to the realization that it is more than just a catch-phrase for a political faction pertaining only to the nine month period of human gestation.  Don’t get me wrong, it most definitely does pertain to that, but that’s just a small part of the whole spectrum of the gift of human life, in God’s image, to which it does pertain.  Indeed, all life does matter.  To insist that Black Lives Matter is just a euphemism for a racist perspective is to lack an understanding of the affects of generations of racism on those black lives, and it invalidates your credibility when you claim you believe in the sanctity of human life.


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