What the Church Can Learn from Ferguson
The religious response to the violence in Ferguson and its aftermath has prompted response from church leaders. In some cases it has met with resistance, which caught some church leaders off guard.
Church leaders hang signs. Black Lives Matter. In this day and age, who could disagree?
But in some cases, the signs sparked outrage. This surprised church leaders. Their seat on the ecclesial bandwagon seemed safe.
There are three problems with the Church leading dialog on race relations.
1. It is too little, too late.
2. They rarely recognize that the Church has been part of the problem.
3. The people eager to lead the discussion, have little experience dealing with the problems.
Discussion that might have prevented Ferguson didn’t happen.
Racial issues moderated by clergy who preach from pulpits in the affluent suburbs are suspect.
How do we get past this? Let’s hang that “Black Lives Matter” sign in front of a few different churches and imagine how the passersby in each case feel when they read it.
Let’s hang the sign in front of a church in a still segregated black neighborhood, one of thousands across the country similar to Ferguson. We’ll call this church NEW CANAAN GOSPEL FELLOWSHIP.
Then we’ll hang the sign in front of an 1000-member mainline church in an affluent suburb a good 15 miles away from NEW CANAAN. The members of these congregations are likely to make their livings in the urban centers, but the highways and trains they travel between work and home allow them to never set foot in the neighborhoods in between. We’ll call this church FIRST SUBURBAN.
Finally, we’ll hang the sign in the urban neighborhoods that were once segregated, but white. They have spent the last few decades dealing with the transitions. Let’s name this church CRUSADER.
NEW CANAAN GOSPEL FELLOWSHIP
The reaction to the sign hanging in front of NEW CANAAN GOSPEL FELLOWSHIP isn’t difficult to imagine. We saw it on the news for weeks following Ferguson— the demonstrations, the anger, the shouts, the rally signs, and more violence. They are tired of going unnoticed — or noticed but ignored. They are weary of the only educational option being substandard schools. They detest having to send their teenagers out the door to face finding adequate employment with poor education. They know full well that they will face temptations of drugs, crime and gangs. They need an army to help but they are often just a single mom or grandmother. In short, they are enraged at being written off.
It is one thing to feel expendable and another to know that you are passing that legacy on to your children and grandchildren. They look at the sign in front of the neighborhood church, shake a fist in the air, and shout an impassioned “Damn Straight. High Time.”
On to FIRST SUBURBAN. There the pastor hangs the sign to show that the people care about the current events. They don’t want to turn away from the crisis. But they may not recognize that their church probably credits its growth and prosperity to the history that created Ferguson. Many of today’s large suburban churches were small village churches prior to the White Flight sparked in the 1960s Civil Rights Era. Their strength came from large numbers of people escaping the societal change in the city. Job opportunities and educational opportunities are myriad because of proximity to the best the city has to offer. They are assured access to the best health care urban centers can provide. Suburbs are desirable because of their proximity to cities!
They have the 3 Esses—SPACE. SCHOOLS. SECURITY. Urban problems? No, thank you.
The ties to the city remained for a couple of generations. Grandma and Grandpa still lived in the city. They drove out to attend family baptisms, weddings and funerals. But those ties are now nearly gone. The problems they left behind are history.
The people reading the sign in suburban neighborhoods feel like the world they thought they had escaped is creeping up on them. Most were born post 1980 and don’t remember White Flight. To them, the sign challenges law enforcement, property values, way of life, quality schools—the very issues that created life as they know it. They remember the stories of why mom and dad left the city. For all they know, nothing has changed. They are likely to be thinking, “Of course, black lives matter. So do ours. So do the lives of our police. So do the lives of our storekeepers. So do our schools. Don’t hang this sign in our community. Don’t bring city problems to our doorsteps!”
Finally, let’s walk by the sign hanging in front of CRUSADER church. CRUSADER was once a “white” congregation because it was in a “white” urban neighborhood. As the urban scene changed, they continued their ministry but were largely neglected by the mainline church which was amassing strength in the suburbs. CRUSADER has few leadership choices. They make do with part-timers—usually retired pastors with no interest and little energy for evangelism. Guiding social change? Not likely.
Mainline denominations with prime leadership well-positioned in the suburbs talk patronizingly to CRUSADER members about inclusion and diversity while providing little support. Truth be told, they have little experience leading the kind of change CRUSADER already experienced. The people forged the way.
Nothing happened overnight. Denominations watched as government housing projects surrounded urban neighborhoods. CRUSADER lived through decades of crime that resulted from isolating new populations near but culturally separate from the neighborhoods surrounding them. Now that things are better, denominations claim expertise in issues CRUSADER faced alone for 50 years.
They still have no plans for helping neighborhood churches. CRUSADER cannot rely on its denominational leaders to provide leadership now when they have been largely absent for 50 years.
Denominations test the waters to “prayerfully discern” the right time for closure. Meanwhile, they slowly rewrite governing rules to make sure he assets of neighborhood churches go to them.
The people walking past the “Black Lives Matter” sign in these neighborhoods think, “NOW you want to talk. Where were you in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s and the last 15 years?”
2×2 is a church like CRUSADER.
Like so many other CRUSADER churches, we experienced neighborhood changes and kept up with them quietly. We watched as our children married and looked for homes in the suburbs. We drove to FIRST SUBURBAN to attend the baptisms of our grandchildren. Back home we tended to the children who came on Sunday morning from the government housing projects—never with parents. We worked with the public school across the street even as our families found it an unsafe environment for their own children. We dealt with a diminishing offering base as members aged and newer members had less means and greater needs. We worked with minimal pastoral leadership. Lay leaders who picked up the slack were criticized as being intimidating to pastors who wanted authority while committing to little more than worship leadership.
Our congregation challenged suburban-focused church leaders in the 1980s who claimed a major bequest left to our church. We challenged a bishop in the 1990s who placed us under Synodical Administration temporarily so he could access this same bequest. And in 2008, we challenged yet another bishop who decided to exert power once and for all. She not only claimed our land and every penny of our congregation’s bank accounts but she went after church members’ private funds to cover legal costs for both sides.
We continue to work in our neighborhood, networking with organizations of diverse backgrounds, only to face ongoing defamation from church leaders—who safely hang signs in the suburbs, reflecting how much they care about racism.
Racism went unrecognized when church leaders came to our majority black membership and encouraged them to take their memberships elsewhere to make the acquisition of our land easier. No one noticed racism when we were denied voice so that we could point out that parish reports used to justify a second imposition of synodical administration had been altered to reflect only our white membership—in effect removing 69 black members from our congregational roster without their knowledge.
All the while, church leaders keep the race card up their sleeve, ready to play whenever it works to their advantage, knowing that dialog that might expose racism will never happen.
Now, after Ferguson, church leaders want to talk. Are they ready to listen?