An unarmed 18-year old teenager in a St. Louis suburb was shot and killed, the police department is under fire for its aggressiveness and tactics, and the town of Ferguson, Mo., is engulfed in riots as citizens take to the streets to violently protest this turn of events for a third straight day. To overcome the contention between the public and police, United Church of Christ minister the Rev. Karen Knodt believes that community churches must be involved.
"We need to be relevant, to provide a forum of dialogue and be places of extravagant welcome," said Knodt, interim pastor at Immanuel UCC in Ferguson. "It's difficult to hear language of 'They.' Why do 'they' have to loot? We need to do tons of homework at the same time to get beyond some of the prejudices and reach a dialogue."
The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a young African American who was supposed to start college this week, by Ferguson police has triggered racial tensions in the town of 21,000. It has prompted many citizens to accuse law enforcement of racially profiling Brown and underserving a community that is predominately black.
Police fired teargas to disperse large crowds and have arrested almost 50 people during the rioting. Officials believe that some of the rioters reside in neighboring towns and not Ferguson.
Christ the King UCC, in Florissant, Mo., is acting to curtail the divide and end the animosity between community members and police. On Tuesday night, Aug. 12, the Rev. Traci D. Blackmon will host an ecumenical forum at the church, with the Ferguson police chief and mayor in attendance to answer questions from the public.
"I think what is at the core of this is fear," said Blackmon. "What an African American male represents is fear, and our fear causes us to react irrationally. Sometimes there's justified fear on both sides, but how do we stop it?"
Among the church leaders expected to attend Tuesday's forum are representatives from the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, Central Reform Congregation and the UCC. Blackmon organized the forum by petitioning the Ferguson police with almost 500 signatures to open a dialogue with the community in hopes of avoiding more violence, vandalism and looting. The Ferguson police chief, Tom Jackson, is on board and has no issue with peaceful protests.
"We're working with some of the community leaders, some of the ministers, to just keep advocating for peaceful protests," Jackson said. "We don't mind if they protest, we encourage it – that's a right. We just don't want any violence."
The Ferguson community has undergone considerable change in demographics in the last 25 years. Knodt explained that as income levels rose in the St. Louis area, some of the families doing better financially moved into this first-ring suburb – the communities clustered closest to city limits. While Ferguson's African-American population has flipped, from 30 percent to 70 percent, the government leadership remained predominantly white. The power structure and police force didn't change, Knodt said, indicating that 51 of the police officers on the force are white, with just a few black officers.
In this moment of strife and divisiveness along racial lines, the media coverage indicates constant tension, but the town of Ferguson that Knodt knows is not like that. "There is a lot of cooperation," she said. "Generally, there is good cooperation, but because of the police force and school situation incidents (where an all-white school board fired a black superintendent in 2013), it's spilling over."
Knodt is optimistic about the town's ability to move forward past what she called the "tragedy and utter awfulness of this teenager, this young man, being shot."
"It will take a while for exact circumstances to come out, but we certainly want to support and bring dialogue to the community," Knodt said. "There are plenty of people in the community and the congregation who live well with each other."