Reflections on Ferguson

Speaking peace, seeking justice

It’s been two months since the volatile events of Ferguson, Missouri. When Mike Brown was shot on Saturday, August 9, 2014, the surrounding community was plunged into confusion, fear and anger.

One EFCA congregation, less than 4 miles away, initially felt the same rush of emotions. Yet now, Salem Evangelical Church is doing what it can to speak peace into the chaos. Through a holistic youth and young adult ministry called the Kulture, led by Brycen Marner, and with the direction of Senior Pastor Jeff Schultz, Salem is reaching out to the community, encouraging the building of transformative relationships and tangibly living out the gospel.

Below are these two men’s stories, chronicling how they reacted to a situation they didn’t fully understand. (For another viewpoint, read Alvin Sanders’ piece on the EFCA All People blog. Alvin is executive associate director of ReachNational and director of the EFCA All People Initiative.)

Brycen Marner, 27, associate pastor and director of the Kulture

I was on vacation the first few days of things happening in our neighborhood. Like many others, I grasped the severity sometime Sunday night. The closest business looted was a mechanic that backs up to the church. The next morning, when I turned on the news, I saw one of our students walking out of the QuikTrip in a video from the looting. Several of our students live off Canfield, where Michael Brown was shot. That Sunday and for the following four nights, we had a few students stay with leaders to help protect them.

I wrestled while on vacation with the right response, not wanting to mistake my logic for the Holy Spirit. I felt this internal pressure to figure everything out. Then I remembered Jesus with the woman at the well, with Zaccheus, with Matthew and with others. Jesus didn’t wait until all the facts came out before He went to be with hurting people.

On the 13th, within one hour of coming home from vacation, I was picking up two students (who had been involved in looting) from their house next to the protests and taking them to an area prayer meeting. Then we went down to the protests with a few other students and passed out Powerade®, picked up trash and talked to people.

The next week we spent sweeping parking lots, and talking and praying with store owners and people on the street. The beauty of this was that we had students from the neighborhood—and even students who had stolen—serving the store owners and caring for their community.

In the evenings, a group of pastors from around the city started to walk the crowds, engaging people and being peacemakers between people and police. This seemed to bring a greater calm. I walked with a pastor who is Mike Brown’s first cousin and watched his humility and learned from his words how to show amazing Christ-like love.

At the Kulture the week after, we looked at Ephesians 4:20-32 and discussed how the gospel helps us respond to things that make us legitimately angry. We continue to speak with students about these things, even as their emotions have varied over time from anger to irritation (over the inconvenience of life interrupted), to some indifference, then back to passionate flare-ups. Ultimately, many have displayed a genuine desire to bring about justice and peace through the love and eternal hope of Jesus Christ.

The media has largely left, but the church and ministries like the Kulture are still here. We were here before, we’ll be here when situations escalate again, and we will be here for years to come.

Jeff Schultz, 47, senior pastor

When the protests turned violent, my family stayed up past midnight listening to reports of looting around the corner, wondering if we were going to be safe. It was tempting to give in to fear, to make assumptions and pass judgment on the protesters, to “pick a side.”

I realized, in response to everything going on inside me: The gospel needs to shape my heart. In our congregation, we’re been inviting God to help us honestly and safely examine our hearts for responses of fear (Those people scare me), pride (I wouldn’t do what they’re doing), self-protection (It’s time to move out of here), condemnation (They all need to be locked up), anger (Why are the police attacking protestors and not protecting businesses?) and even apathy (It’s not my problem).

In addition, the gospel needs to shape our culture. We need to acknowledge that not all people are treated justly. Not long ago, our teenage son’s friend mentioned how he’d been stopped in our neighborhood by a police officer who wanted to know where he’d gotten the bike he was riding. The officer wanted the teenager to produce a receipt, on the spot (let that sink in). When he couldn’t, the officer took him home and made his mother verify that the bike belonged to them. I was struck to realize that will never happen to my son, because he is white. Every black person I know has a story of being stopped and harassed by police while they were doing nothing wrong.

The prophets repeatedly condemn God’s people for laws that pervert justice (Psalm 82:3-4; Isaiah 10:1-2; Zechariah 7:9-10). The gospel calls us to work for a just society with laws and institutions that respect the inherent dignity of every person. People in our church have been talking with civic leaders about these issues and advocating for changes in our court systems and police departments. Some are working on addressing the broader political and economic systems that perpetuate injustice and racial disparity. Others are working at expanding economic opportunities.

When things are difficult, it’s tempting to hunker down, hoard our resources and look out for our own. But the gospel needs to shape our priorities. We’re called to live for something greater than our own comfort and to look beyond our own interests. So we’ve been serving our community, at first providing food for people who couldn’t get to the grocery store during the protests, then helping with cleanup efforts. We’ve also been partnering with other churches and community leaders to work toward positive solutions.

God told his people exiled in Babylon (of all places!): “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). We should do no less for our city.

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