LIKE MANY OF YOU I HAVE BEEN WATCHING THE EVENTS TAKING PLACE IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI AND WONDERING WHETHER COMMON GROUND CAN EVER BE FOUND. I CONFESS THAT EARLY ON THE IMAGES OF ARMORED VEHICLES ,RUBBER BULLETS ALONG WITH TEAR GAS BEING THROWN AT THE POLICE COULD EASILY HAVE BEEN ANY WHERE IN THE MIDDLE EAST. IT WAS NOT THE MIDDLE EAST RATHER IT WAS AN AMERICAN CITY WHERE FIFTY TWO YEARS AGO I SPENT TIME AS A VERY YOUNG PASTOR. FERGUSON WAS 99% CAUCASIAN AT THAT TIME BUT THAT NUMBER IS NOW LESS THAN 25%.
THE LATE REV. DR. CARL DUDLEY AND I BEGAN AN INNOVATIVE AND EXCITING MINISTRY IN ST. LOUIS IN 1963. ONE OF THE SIGNATURE PROGRAMS WE STARTED INVOLVED WHITE MEMBERS OF FIVE SUBURBAN PRESBYTERIAN CHURCHES OF WHICH THE FERGUSON CHURCH AND ITS PASTOR WERE PARTICIPANTS. WITH THE BLESSINGS OF ST. LOUIS PRESBYTERY AND THE FIVE CONGREGATIONS WE INVITED A MINIMUM OF TWO WHITE FAMILIES TO BECOME FULL MEMBERS OF BEREA PRESBYTEERIAN CHURCH WHICH AT THAT TIME WAS AN OLD HISTORIC AFRICAN AMERICAN CONGREGATION. WE WERE MOVING INTO A BRAND NEW SANCTUARY AND EDUCATIONAL BUILDING WHICH HAD BECOME NEWSWORTHY BECAUSE OF A LARGE FISH NET HANGING AT THE CENTER OF THE SANCTUARY. THIS WAS ONE OF SEVERAL CREATIVE IDEAS PASTOR DUDLEY INTRODUCED TO CHURCH ARCHITECTECTURE. FERGUSON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CONGREGATIONS TO SEND FAMILES TO OUR PROGRAM.
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR SENT OUT A CALL TO CHURCHES ALL OVER AMERICA TO JOIN HIM IN PEACEFUL NONVIOLENT PROTEST IN THE SOUTH. CARL AND I WERE AMONG SOME OF THE VERY FIRST MINISTERS TO JOIN DR. KING. WE ALSO ENCOURAGED THE WHITE PASTORS OF THE FIVE CONGREGATIONS TO JOIN US IN HEADING SOUTH TO SUPPORT DR. KING. ALL FIVE SENIOR PASTORS IMMEDIATELY SIGNED UP TO GO TO SELMA AND THEY DID SO EVEN THOUGH THEIR CHURCH BOARDS THREATENED TO FIRE THEM IF THEY WENT SOUTH WITH US. I REMEMBER OUR GOING TO FERGUSON THE NIGHT BEFORE WE WERE TO FLY TO SELMA. AT THE END OF DINNER OUR HOST WHO WAS ONE OF THE FAMILIES OF FERGUSON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH PARTICIPATING IN OUR EXCHANGE PROGRAM SAID TO US: “WE UNFORTUNATELY WILL NOT BE ABLE TO JOIN YOU AND OUR MINISTER ON THE TRIP TO SELMA HOWEVER, WE WANT YOU TO KNOW YOU HAVE OUR SPIRITUAL, FINANCIAL AND PRAYERFUL SUPPORT SHOULD YOU NEED US. DO WHAT YOU BELIEVE IS RIGHT FOR EVERYONE AND KNOW THAT WE HAVE LAWYERS PRIMED TO COME TO ALABAMA SHOULD YOU BE ARRESTED.” FERGUSON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH BECAME OUR STRONGEST SUPPORTER FOR THE NEXT SEVEN YEARS OF OUR PASTORATE.
THE FERGUSON OF 55 YEARS AGO IS NOT THE FERGUSON WE HAVE SEEN ON THE SCREENS OF TELEVISONS THE PAST TWO WEEKS. THOSE DEMONSTRATING OVER THE SHOOTING DEATH OF MICHAEL BROWN BY A WHITE POLICEMAN COULD CARE LESS ABOUT MY STORY AND I GET THAT. WHAT IS TROUBLING ME IS THE SEEMINGLY LACK OF WHITE MINISTERS AND WHITES IN GENERAL IN THE PROTEST MARCHES. I RAISE THE QUESTION, WHERE ARE THEY? DID THE CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANZATIONS TRY TO REACH OUT TO THEM? IF NOT WHY NOT? WHATEVER IS OR IS NOT NEGOTIATED GOING FORWARD WILL NECESSARILY HAVE TO INCLUDE WHITE PEOPLE. THEY MUST BE AT THE TABLE TO MAKE SURE THEY HEAR THE PLAINTS OF BLACKS AND VICE VERSA. DR. KING WAS ALWAYS OPEN TO SITTING AT THE TABLE WITH THE OPPRESSORS. WHY CAN”T WE? AND I RARELY IF EVER SAW DR. KING ANGRY, WHAT CAN’T WE?
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT FIFTY YEARS AGO INCLUDED WHITE MINISTERS, WHITE COLLEGE STUDENTS AS WELL AS ORGANIZATIONS LIKE THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF CHRISTIANS AND JEWS. WHERE ARE THESE ORGANIZATIONS NOW? WE WERE JOINED TOGETHER ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND THEY WERE SUBJECT TO ARRESTS AND INTIMIDATION AND BRUTALITY AS WE WERE. WHERE ARE THEY NOW? GIVEN THE DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES RACIALLY AND SOCIAL MANY BLACK PROTESTERS DO NOT LOOK LIKE THE PROTESTERS OF FIFTY YEARS AGO. I BELIEVE THIS CAUSES FEAR AMONG MANY WHITES AND BLACKS WHO IN THEIR OWN WAY HAVE STEREOTYPED AND PROFILED THE NEW GROUP OF PROTESTERS. FIFTY YEARS AGO THE CONFLICTS WERE MORE IN SOUTHERN STATES THAN IN NORTHERN INDUSTRIAL AREAS WE SEE TODAY. WHAT HAS CHANGED?
AS I PREPARED TO PREACH AT A PREDOMINANTLY WHITE CONGREGATION LAST WEEK IN BETHESDA, MD I REALIZED I HAD NOT GOTTEN OVER SOME OF MY OWN PERSONAL ANGER AND OUTRAGE OF THE SHOOTING DEATHS OF MICHAEL AND ERIC BY THE GUNS OF WHITE POLICEMAN. I WAS A REAL MESS UNTIL I RECEIVED TWO EMAILS FROM CLOSE FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES WHO ENDED THEIR MESSAGE TO ME WITH THESE WORDS: “THERE IS STILL REASON TO CELEBRATE.”IT WAS NOT UNTIL I SAW THESE WORDS IN FRONT OF ME THAT I REALIZED I COULD NOT PREACH A SERMON REFLECTING MY ANGER AND GRIEF AND DISAPPOINTMENT OVER THE SHOOTING DEATHS. I TURNED IMMEDIATELY TO I CORINTHIANS 13 PAUL’S LETTER TO THE CHURCH IN THAT CITY. THE WORDS OF SCRIPTURE SPOKE VOLUMES ABOUT HOW I WAS APPROACHING MY SITUATION IN THE WRONG WAY. IT HAS BEEN SAID THIS PARTICULAR EPISTLE IS THE BEST DEFINITION OF LOVE EVER PRINTED. I ALLOWED PAUL’S WORDS TO TOUCH MY HEAD AND MY HEART AND IT SOON MADE A DIFFERENCE IN MY FEELINGS. I KNEW THERE WAS NO WAY FOR ME NOT TO BE OPEN AND PRAYERFUL IN MY TONE. I HAD TO PROVIDE AN OPENING FOR MYSELF BEFORE I COULD FIND AN OPENING FOR OTHERS. I REMEMBER THE MANY LECTURES AND FOCUS GROUPS DISCUSSING WHETHER OR NOT NONVIOLENCE COULD WORK AS A STRATEGY IN TODAY’S WORLD OF CONFLICTS. WHEN I LEARNED OF THE HORRIFIC DEATH OF JOURNALIST JAMES FOLEY IT CAUSED ME TO WONDER WHETHER NONVIOLENCE COULD EVER BE PRACTICED IN TODAY’S WORLD AND I COULD NOT FIND AN ANSWER. I PERSONALLY AM ALIVE TODAY HAVING PRACTICED NONVIOLENCE DURING MY PARTICIPATION IN MARCHES AND PROTESTS FIFTY YEARS AGO. MY MANYVISITS TO ALABAMA AND GEORGIA WERE FILLED WITH DANGER AND I COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED OR INJURED ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS BUT I WAS NOT AND I AM GRATEFUL FOR THAT.
I ENCOURAGE EVERYONE TO HEAR AGAIN THE WORDS : NOT BY MIGHT BUT BY MY SPIRIT SAYS THE LORD.” I WILL CONTINUE TO BELIEVE JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL FOR MICHAEL BROWN AND ERIC GARNER AND TRAYVON MARTIN BECAUSE I HAVE MORE FAITH IN WHAT GOD CAN DO FOR AMERICA THAN WHAT AMERICA CAN DO FOR ITSELF. JUSTICE DOES IN FACT ROLL DOWN LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM EACH DAY IN THE LIVES OF PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD. MY HOPE AND MY PRAYER IS THAT ALL OF US MAY FIND WAYS TO ENTER INTO DIALOGUE WITH THOSE WHOSE OPINIONS MAY DIFFER FROM OURS. I BELIEVE GOD PROVIDES OPENINGS FOR US TO ENTER INTO IF WE ONLY WOULD ALLOW OURSELVES TO LISTEN FOR THE CLUES. I HOPE YOU AND I MAY FIND THE STRENGTH AND COURAGE TO BE OURSELVES WITHOUT MAKING IT DIFFICULT FOR OTHERS TO BE THEMSELVES. THERE IS ALWAYS ROOM FOR COMMON GROUND BUT ITS UP TO US TO MAKE IT HAPPEN. THERE IS ENOUGH ROOM AT THE TABLE OF NEGOTIATION AND RECONCILIATION FOR ALL OF US. WHY NOT TAKE THAT FIRST STEP AND BEGIN A DIALOGUE WITH YOUR FRIENDS, YOUR CHILDREN YOUR ADVERSARIES-THE KIND OF DIALOGUE THAT DOES NOT PLACE BLAME RATHER IT BECOMES A DIALOGUE THAT IS OPEN TO CONFESSION. BY DOING SO WE WILL BEGIN TO SEE CHANGE AND JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL IN OUR TIME. AND SO IT IS! DR. PAUL
2 thoughts on “IN SEARCH OF COMMON GROUND”
Paul. thank you for your comments and as usual your insights are thought provoking. You may be surprised that one of your former students is the Pastor of First Presbyterian in Ferguson. Unfortunately you didnt see many white pastors marching is partly because it wasn’t shown by the media (there were many)but more importantly and I can only speak for myself that there was so little coherent organization at many of the marches. What was seen on national news was the evening time protests and it often characterized the protesters as violent when the large majority of people were people of conscience who just needed to be there. Some of my colleagues, both African American and Anglo believed that the narrative had been taken over by those outside of Ferguson for their own purposes. This in no way diminishes the real pain, hurt and grief of many who did march seeking justice for Michael Brown. The reality of policing tactics, economic and political disparity, and racial division are all objects of intense conversation and debate among clergy, politicians, and citizens of Ferguson in the aftermath of this tragedy. Would it have been so before is something that haunts me. Many of us are deeply engaged and are committed to be forces of much needed change in our community. We cannot bring Michael Brown back into the arms of his family but, I and many like me, are committed to making sure that no more families have to grieve the lost of their children to the factors that eventually took his life.
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