In the neighborhoods and suburbs of St. Louis, to congregations and seminaries across the United States, people of the United Church of Christ are throwing their hands in the air. They’re also raising their arms in Utah, Indiana and in the Northwest, too, all as an act of solidarity with the residents of Ferguson, Mo., and the family of Michael Brown.
Brown was the unarmed 18-year-old African-American shot to death by a white Ferguson police officer, prompting prayers and protests – both silent and violent in nature. Church leaders of every setting and corner of the UCC are hoping to help foster peace in the St. Louis area, to heal the rift caused by rioting, while calling for justice in Brown’s death.
"Senseless death, sketchy details, unanswered questions, excessive force, tear gas, the National Guard – the painful events of the past several days in Ferguson, Mo., are the only proof we need to make vividly clear that, despite how far some would like to believe we have progressed, when it comes to young people of color, their lives remain of lesser value in a society still stained with racial division, injustice, and unequal treatment by and under the law," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a national officer of the UCC. "But, clearly, our loving God holds every child to be of equal value, which is why the witness for justice in Ferguson, and across our nation, is a deeply sacred one."
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black is traveling to Ferguson to be with local UCC ministers and conference leaders on Wednesday, Aug. 20. Black will spend the day with ecumenical partners and join the calls for justice and peace.
The civil unrest began on Aug. 9, when a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a predominantly black suburb of St. Louis, shot and killed Brown. The incident first triggered peaceful gatherings and rallies before spilling over into riots and looting. Police have used tear gas and non-lethal force against protestors and even members of the media.
Distrust and fear of local police are part of the problem, but the Rev. Heather Arcovitch believes that can be overcome by doing what the church does best -- reaching out intentionally and getting to know its neighbors. That idea has played out repeatedly in the last week.
Arcovitch, senior pastor at First Congregational UCC in St. Louis, is part of an ad-hoc group of clergy acting as a bridge between the police and the community, showing that churches can be at the center of community healing.
"We are uniquely positioned to build better relationships [within the St. Louis community] where we faltered. Part of what we saw in Ferguson was the whole community gathered in prayer," she said."But some young people became part of what turned violent. We have to get to know those kids, so that they know we are in this together."
"As you would well imagine the need for good peacemaking is all around in Ferguson this week," said the Rev. David Greenhaw, president of the UCC's Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "I attended a meeting at Christ the King UCC, where I witnessed just exactly what good peacemaking is."
On Aug. 12, Christ the King UCC in Florissant, Mo., hosted a racially diverse group of more than 400 people, as a standing-room-only audience gathered for a community forum with Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson, Missouri mayor James Knowles and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
There has been a public outcry for more details about the shooting. After several days, Ferguson police finally released the name of the officer (Darren Wilson), and one report out today said that Brown was shot six times. The police also said that Brown was a suspect in a robbery, but officials added that Wilson was unaware Brown was a suspect at the time of the shooting.
Members of First Congregational UCC in Vancouver, Wash., could not stay silent after watching events in Ferguson unfold. Congregants gathered on Sunday, Aug. 17, and stood with their hands raised above their heads in what protestors have turned into a symbolic way of evoking, "Don’t shoot! I’m unarmed!"
Senior pastor the Rev. Brooks Berndt noted that the killing of Brown has particular meaning for him as a Christian. "Jesus was executed by the government of his time," he said. "It is hard for me to truly live my faith without thinking about those killed by representatives of our own government today."
Members of First Congregational UCC in Indianapolis also raised their hands during the Rev. Jim Rapp’s sermon on Sunday.
"Would you like to stand to confront prejudice in our own hearts so that all people count as real people, not second-class citizens? Would you like to raise your hands to give up on racial divides, to make peace with our sisters and brothers of color?" Rapp asked, as members responded by extending both arms into the air. "Today, you have become your most articulate without saying a word," Rapp told the 200-member congregation.
Brown’s shooting has prompted the national leaders of the UCC to speak out.
"We mourn the tragic and violent death of Michael Brown, and we pray for his friends, family and community. His shooting by a police officer is indicative of the racial injustice that the St. Louis area, and America, still faces today," said the Rev. James Moos, executive minister of UCC Wider Church Ministries. "We are concerned about ongoing violence in Ferguson, and call for a peace that begins with transparency on the events that surround the shooting. The community has legitimate questions that need to be answered, and, until they are, it will not be possible to establish peace based on justice."
"As we await answers, in the effort to fully understand what occurred on that tragic day, we pray that people across the nation, world, and specifically Ferguson, Mo., will band together in peaceful assembly to show solidarity and support to family, friends, and community who are experiencing much pain, grief, and anger," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of UCC Justice and Witness Ministries. "May God bring swift healing to us all."
In Utah, the Rev. Gage Church, pastor of the Congregational UCC in Ogden, took part in moment of silence on Aug. 14 to honor Brown and call attention to the alarming situation in Ferguson and the police department’s "over-the-top response."
"Who [Ferguson police are] protecting, I don’t know," he said. "Perhaps police are too militarized. Perhaps more training can be done so other alternatives can be considered before violence."
Said Arcovitch, "Ferguson needs to know they’re not alone."