Clergy in Ferguson Make A Difference
But Where Were They for the Last Fifty Years?
2×2 is a city church. We live in a neighborhood (East Falls, Philadelphia) that has transformed over the last few decades just as countless American urban neighborhoods have. City neighborhoods used to transform over the course of a generation or a decade. Today, they can change dramatically in just a few years.
The Church doesn’t deal well with change. When the decision is “fight” or “flight,” flight wins.
What happened in Ferguson was brewing—probably for decades. Where were church leaders then?
Here is our experience. And we are not alone.
In 1968, when cities across American were burning with racial tension, our neighborhood was solidly white. Not rich white. Working class white. The people of East Falls came to this neighborhood to work in small businesses and factories. They created a nice neighborhood that richer people liked. Some wealthy and influential people built homes on the outskirts of the neighborhood.
Things were changing even then. The violence of the 60s accelerated change as the children of factory workers decided for the first time to put down roots nearby but outside the city. Mom and Dad stayed behind to age gracefully. At the same time, government leaders looked at the urban landscape to find places for low income government housing projects. Working class neighborhoods were the answer—not neighboring richer neighborhoods. Through the 1980s, East Falls had a government housing project on the northern, eastern and southern borders.
This created racial tension as an entirely new population appeared suddenly. The people and churches who stayed in East Falls dealt with the change. Like most change, it doesn’t happen by decree. It happens by living and working together, making occasional mistakes and trying again when the going gets rough.
Where were Church leaders during this time of transition? They visited once every 10 years or so and gave advice. “Close. Your demographics have changed. There is no future for a church here. Leave us your property and endowment funds. We will sell it for you.”
This was stated to us in just these terms and summed up by our bishop in 2000. “In ten years, you will die a natural death.”
By 2007, Redeemer had grown five-fold—with little professional help.
But SEPA/ELCA had a plan and they were going to stick to it.
Their only strategy was to stick a pastor in place. Full time as long as there was money. Then part time. Then Sunday supply pastors. Any pastor with a pulse would do since expectations were low.
There was no vision then. There is less now.
The view of the urban church from the green, manicured lawns of the suburbs remains static. Their view is a continuation of the “white flight.” They are coming back into the neighborhoods they have deserted and neglected. They are gleaning the physical and monetary assets they left behind. They were absent in the years when they could have made a difference. Helping churches serve in changing neighborhoods would have been a witness to the mission the Church stands for in theory—diversity, inclusiveness, charity, justice, etc. All these things are hard to do from 20 miles away!
Redeemer dealt with it. Again, change didn’t happen overnight, but it DID happen and without violence!<
What remains with our relationship with the greater church is dealing with Church Gossip. Gossip from the lips of clergy is powerful, hard to refute. Motives of the story tellers are rarely questioned. Much of it comes from people who have spent no time in East Falls in nearly two decades! Their view may have been self-serving back then!
When we hear the gossip about our congregation it is surreal—stuck in the 1970s. Our favorite distortion is the one we hear the most often. Redeemer is racist. They overlook the fact that church leaders locked out 60 black members of Redeemer to shut down the church which in their view had only 13 members—our white membership in 1999. They refused to see our changed membership except in a frantic attempt to encourage new people to join congregations more “like them”—assuming that newer residents of East Falls need help in choosing a congregation for their families.
Redeemer actually “transformed” steadily as the neighborhood changed. The first black members joined in the early 80s and when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided that they had better uses for our property and assets than we, Redeemer was a predominantly black congregation. Five black pastor served Redeemer — two called and three long-term supply. But Redeemer’s progress in diversity and inclusion didn’t count. Some leader 20 years ago decided the fate of Redeemer. They were waiting for the natural death they predicted—until their own fiscal crisis prompted the use of force.
Locked out of our own sanctuary, Redeemer members visited 80 congregations in SEPA/ELCA—the ones that voted blindly to go along with SEPA’s prejudices. Most of the congregations we visited were 95%+ one color or another. Only about four of the 80 were like Redeemer in diversity. And yet SEPA finds it so easy to label Redeemer racist.
After six years of seeking justice within the Church and in the courts, we understand the anger of the people of Ferguson!
What if the Church had never followed this foolish path? What if they had placed leadership in these neighborhoods that could — well, lead.
That’s what I’m thinking about as I read about the good work of clergy in the angry streets of Ferguson. Some of them are local. Some of them are coming in from outside. But where were church visionaries for the last fifty years when the anger, injustice and distrust was building—when gangs were attracting youth with false promises of power and acceptance? Where were they?
Mowing the lawns in the suburbs?
The passion of the people of Ferguson, misplaced in violent destruction, could have been harnessed years ago, if the streets of the cities were viewed by the Church as dynamic and not as spiritual wastelands—if they had professional leadership that didn’t seek first the economic security of the status quo.