St. Louis is us

Can you find Ferguson? It's just over to the right in between "St. Louis International Airport" and "St. Louis."

Can you find Ferguson? It’s just over to the right in between “St. Louis International Airport” and “St. Louis.”(google maps)

Joshua DuBois is a brilliant still-young man who served President Obama as the Director of the Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the first administration. He is a man of the church, recently publishing a collection of devotions he wrote for the President. And he continues in the great tradition of African-American men of the church speaking and writing with eloquence and insight in the public square of these deeply conflicted un-United States. He tweeted this week how important it was that people who are not Black engage the story of Ferguson so that it is not chapter bazillion of the ancient and stupid book of young-Black-vs-middle-aged-White-police short stories. This is my response to Joshua’s nudge to quit watching and start typing.

First of all, it’s not Ferguson; it’s St. Louis. Otherwise, you have to rename the airport “Ferguson International” since the neighborhood called Ferguson is across the highway from the runways and in between it and downtown. The only reason there is even an imaginary city called Ferguson was the transparent attempt to keep black and white people from having children in same schools and sharing other expensive services like public health. Perhaps this might remind you of another city near you.

And the thing that got an unarmed Michael Brown shot 6 times to his young death is not really St. Louis, either. It’s the post-industrial company town rust-belt reality you can find almost anywhere in the United States today where there used to be factories. That’s pretty much everywhere but Austin and San Francisco and maybe Portland. Certainly Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Birmingham and Baltimore, where I grew up. This is the pattern of even little Winston-Salem where the factories spun cotton and hundreds of billions of cigarettes. As everywhere else, the factory jobs moved, much of the money accumulated by the families and companies they formed stayed around in their philanthropies and really nice homes. The less cheerful patterns of the company towns remain literally built into the policies, zoning, plumbing and housing, which produce entirely predictable patterns of radical health differences. Spend an hour in any emergency room in any of these towns and you’ll see.

17,029 days and a few hours ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was shot in Memphis, another bitter river town that used to have factories. I was in junior high school then and watched TV from my suburban perch with curiosity as neighborhoods downtown burned. Baltimore was and still is to some extent, a patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods and suburbs, so pretty much everyone armed themselves or trusted the police to do so on our behalf against the inexplicably angry Black people. Mine was a family of gentle racism, softened by a lifetime of Methodism; we never used the N word. But I had no clue at all about the kind of rage would cause people to burn their own neighborhoods and the stores they shopped in. No matter; it was over there on the other side of the thin blue line.

I never heard an entire speech of Dr. King while he was alive, so had no idea what he was trying to say. I only saw him speaking through the thick filter of white suburban fears. It was with ears rather, I suspect, like some this week listened to Rev. Willis Johnson of Ferguson is about Dr. King’s age when his words of edgy hope were cut short by a redneck rifle ( ). A few years later my personal journey was lit ablaze by Vietnam. Out went my suburban politics of my ROTC-saturated family and, I assumed, out would also go their soft Jesus, who I had only known as part of the weave of ideas that had shaped what I now needed to reject.

Ed Christman, the chaplain at Wake Forest, told me in his lovingly blunt way that I didn’t know enough about Christianity to even reject it intelligently and that before I left it, I should read Dr. King and Rev Daniel Berrigan. I did and thus Dr. King’s words held me in the church where I remain today. But I pivoted toward the Kingdom of God rather than the city-state of the fortified burbs. And I never turned back. Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community, embodied by Rev. Dr. Fred Smith, tuned the Interfaith Health Program at The Carter Center and, of course, later in Memphis, I saw that embodied in hundreds of congregations tuned to the same beating heart.

I never imagined that so many thousands of days after the smoking neighborhoods of my youth I would still be reading and listening to the raw and violent edge experienced by every single black man I have ever come to know at all. Fred, Joshua, Milano, Jeremy, Cato, Sam, Steve, Mark, Bobby, Barack, Chris, Paul, William, Perry, Odell, AC, Kendrick, TL, Willard; even Dr. John Stuart one of the lead oncologists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center; all have had their hands up or hands tightly gripping the wheel at some point, their education and ordination no shield against the raw and ugly racial presumption. Shame, shame, shame; we have frittered away a generation of days.

The bewildering ugliness of recent years has been played out in the unrelenting disrespect experienced by the Obama family. The constant sneering venom directed toward President Obama has gone largely unchallenged by polite leaders who treat gently the mean old white men and slightly younger women (I’m thinking of the Alaskan) who keep pushing the edge of anger so dangerously. If this Harvard educated Ozzie and Harriet First Family can’t get any respect, is it no wonder that a young man on the street could be shot 6 times for frightening an officer? And if the officer isn’t indictable, shouldn’t the idiots who trained him be indicted for such radical failure?

Lament, even deeply grounded in appropriate shame, is only holy if its energy fuels the way toward shalom. This word for peace spoken by Jesus and every Jewish prophet did not allow for any possible separation from justice, respect and well being for all. No prophet would, as Governor Nixon is doing, call the leaders of the people together simply to raise funds to pay the police who are running up overtime patrolling the streets in the name of peacekeeping. Even St. Louis, with its long bitter history of racial separation knows better than that.

Jesus wept over his city because it did not know the way to shalom. Jerusalem still doesn’t; no small footnote about how hard it is. I sure don’t; but if it looks like shalom, head that way fast. I may not have another 17,000 days to see it. When Dr. King found himself in jail protesting very similar gross offenses of decency, he was most irritated by the banal lethargy of his fellow clergy who were white. The good and worthy Christians including the most reasonable Methodist Bishops and thoughtful Presbyterians and Baptists counseled patience and peacefulness. They were harder for Dr. King to stomach than Bull Connor. If you can’t hear it from Joshua, hear it from this white man; we got to pick up the pace of change. Now. Now.

Surely it is obvious that for every dollar raised in special session for bullets, ten more should be raised for books. For every new “peace” officer hired, another ten shalom officers should be, too. A shalom officer? I think the Reverends DuBois and Johnson are exactly shalom officers.

But they already have jobs. I’m thinking of what United Healthcare in Ohio is doing training and hiring non-violent felons as community health navigators helping people find their way to the things that make for mercy, if not justice, on the toughest streets. The answer looks more like thousands of youth ministers, teachers, community developers and health workers than it does people wearing blue.

The first step of the way lies in humility and listening to the complicity within me. Then let in the illumination of the men of grace and spirit on every street in every troubled town in the un-United States. Listen to them; give them the microphone and listen again. They’ll tell us what to do. Then do it.

About garygunderson

Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative
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1 Response to St. Louis is us

  1. Chad Blankenburg says:

    Interesting take on this Gary. You make some great points, albeit, politically charged – but it is your opinion. And the political lean is to be expected as an employee of WFU. Glad you wrote of Shalom. Shalom, as Jesus said, can only be found in Him. A Gospel-centered life should include fighting injustice. Certainly the church today has fallen short in the area of social justice; but the basis/rationale for fighting this should be grounded in Scripture not the ever-changing cultural ideas of justice and fairness. I think this approach would cause indignation at the causes, not just the symptoms. Why the name-calling? Does that lend itself to Shalom? Google Benjamin Watson’s response to the events in Ferguson. He is an NFL player for the New Orleans Saints. It’s a well written, well thought out response. May be helpful to you; it was to me.

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