|Photo: Lawrence Bryant, St. Louis American|
I was there in Ferguson last night. I arrived about five minutes before the shots were fired. I was there to stand with Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferrell, two of the activists we hosted at Christ Church Cathedral this past Sunday, and to stand with three other demonstrators -- our diocesan youth missioner, Elle Dowd, and two of the Deaconess Anne interns who have made the Cathedral their worshipping home.
I heard the shots. I saw an officer fall to the ground. In an instant, I saw fear sweep across police and demonstrators alike. I saw guns drawn and people scatter. I heard a cry of pain.
My heart is breaking right now.
My heart is breaking for the police officers who were wounded, for their families and their fellow officers.
My heart is breaking that, last night, violence broke into a movement so many – myself included – have strived to keep nonviolent.
My heart is also breaking for six-year-old Marcus Johnson, killed in a drive-by shooting in North St. Louis last night … and his family, two of whom were also wounded.
My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.
My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord.
One of the touchtone scriptures for me these past months has been those two verses of Exodus 3. They are about God not being content to be removed from the suffering of God’s people. God moves with rich, active brushstrokes:
I have observed the misery of my people
I have heard their cry.
I know their sufferings.
I come down to deliver and raise them up.
God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”
That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.
Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again
And so today, my heart is breaking. And maybe yours is, too.
It breaks my heart that those police officers were shot last night. It breaks my heart that even though I can tell you firsthand the shots did not come from the group of gathered protesters but from up a side street, this movement will probably be tagged with this violence.
It breaks my heart that this is nothing new. History tells us that though this is tragic and abhorrent, every mass, nonviolent movement for social change, be it India or South Africa or our own American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, has had to deal with instances like this with people who wish to inject a violence that is not what we are about and that profoundly sets us back.
History has shown this is a part of the process because oppressed communities have a tremendous amount of anger and pain … and the African-American community is no different. That in no way excuses the violence – there is no excuse for the violence -- but it is a reminder that the situation is incredibly volatile and has been not just since August 9 but for a long, long time.
In fact, I believe last night shows us why nonviolent action is incredibly important. It gives a way for people to express their anger and pain without violence – and throughout the 200+ days since Michael Brown was killed, on behalf of the core group of demonstrators that is exactly what has happened.
It is a profound misunderstanding to believe that if the protests would just go away everything would be fine. The demonstrations are an expression of deep anger, pain and rejection. They are an expression of the misery of the people and their cry on account of their taskmasters and their sufferings that those of us in our privilege do not automatically share but which we are invited to share in and know.
The demonstrations are a constructive way to direct attention toward places where attention is desperately needed … and the recent responses to the DOJ report and the legislation that nine of us spent the day in Jefferson City lobbying for are examples that the needle is moving and change is happening. Slowly, yes. But it is happening.
Those emotions will not go away if the demonstrations stop … they will just more likely to be expressed in a never ending cycle of more and more Mike Browns followed by violent responses.
Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.
Tonight I will be at St. Martin’s Church in Ellisville taking part in a Lenten book discussion of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I can’t think of a more important night for we as a Cathedral to be present in a suburban congregation that has the courage to discuss some of the core issues at the heart of what has erupted in Ferguson and throught the nation the past seven months.
This weekend, I will be in Fayetteville, AR, teaching on Saturday evening and preaching on Sunday about what is happening in Ferguson … and how it relates to a God who so loved the world that God sent his Son to be with us, to have his own heart broken and to invite us to do the same. Again, I can’t think of a more important time for us to be the Cathedral in this way for the wider church … after all, there are Fergusons everywhere.
In the coming weeks, months and beyond, we will continue on the course we have set as a Cathedral. A course to seek a deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ through, among other things, proclaiming the Gospel boldly and embracing diversity joyfully – knowing that these things involve risk and pain and that all roads to the cross are littered with our own broken hearts.
We have said our Lenten journey this year is Face to Face. That means we will continue to walk this path together – together as a Cathedral congregation, together as a diocese, together as a St. Louis region. And it is together that we will be lifted up into that good and broad land, where the hardness of heart of Pharoah and the pain of Egypt will one day be a distant memory.