Churches in Ferguson organize, provide pastoral care – what I’ve seen on the ground

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Ferguson selfie

Photo by Devin Leibovitz

Devin Leibovitz and S.J. Creek take a selfie while at a protest in Ferguson, Missouri

St Marks Training

Nonviolent direct action training at Greater St. Mark Family Church

Guest post by S.J. Creek

Media coverage of Ferguson paints a picture of spontaneous, emotionally charged crowds. But my observations on the ground suggest a different story. Since day one, local churches have been key players in what’s happening on the ground in Ferguson.

I recently moved to St. Louis to take a position with a local university. Like any good (read: geeky) sociologist, I began my summer by reading up on history of my new home city. That was before St. Louis’ history was blown wide open for the whole world to see. Since the shooting three weeks ago, I’ve spent some time in Ferguson and in Clayton, registering voters and standing in solidarity with citizens demanding justice for Mike Brown.

Churches can be found at every event. Clergy and laypeople are demonstrating, marching, cleaning up, or working to create order. This involvement isn’t surprising. There is a well-documented and deep seeded history between black churches and the push for civil rights in America.  In the words of C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya, the black church is “the cultural womb of the black community.” But churches are doing more than political organizing. They’re serving and caring for the community.

Jesse Jackson demonstrators

Demonstrators listening to Jesse Jackson speak outside Greater St. Mark Family Church.

Rev. David Gerth, the organizing director with the St. Louis-based Metropolitan Congregations United, sees a growing need for pastoral care for those on the front lines. He expects this care will be needed long after the last demonstration. Ministers from around the region have stepped into the role of counselor for individuals grappling with intense fear, grief, and trauma. They are also providing food and energy assistance in the face of financial burdens resulting from or exacerbated by three weeks of near shutdown, something city and county officials are only now beginning to do.

Churches are an essential part of a broad confederation of religious and secular groups is channeling the community’s emotional response to injustice.

In talking to people on the ground, the Organization for Black Struggle(OBS), a long-active St. Louis area group, is poised to take the lead when it comes to organizing for a just future for Ferguson.  While OBS certainly receives support from church members and has religious members, it is not by definition a religious organization. There are also a number of secular organizations that have coalesced around this push for justice for Mike Brown, groups like Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), Show Me $15, Grass Roots Organizing Missouri, the National Lawyers Guild, and Amnesty International, to name a few.

Ferguson selfie

Devin Leibovitz and S.J. Creek take a selfie while at a protest in Ferguson, Missouri

This broad coalition reminds me of Francesca Polletta’s research on student involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Polletta found that stories about social actions connected to the movement emphasized the spontaneous nature of these actions. In fact, significant planning went into these seemingly organic and uncoordinated actions.

The movement in Ferguson isn’t over. In the coming days, I will be talking to demonstrators about how their faith informs their movements on the ground. I will be talking to clergy and organizers about church-based support of the movement. I have lots of questions — let me know what questions you want me to ask the people on the ground in Ferguson

S.J. Creek is an assistant professor of sociology at McKendree University. S.J. research focuses on religious movements, identities, race/class/gender, and sexualities. You can follow S.J. on twitter at @holyunicorns1.

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