Why I Can’t Forget Ferguson

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For those people who have followed my blog for a while, you will know that frequency of my posts has been greatly diminished of late, but I promise it is for a good reason – I was finishing the first draft of my thesis for my Master of Sacred Theology. More of that to come in future posts, but suffice it to say at the moment that I am “I’M FREE!”

There have also been other developments that have taken place vocationally and professionally that have required more and more of my attention and time, and necessarily so. In my area of God’s great vineyard (St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO), God is doing some great work and seeds sowed long ago by deeply faithful and forward thinking people are beginning to bear fruit.

Despite all of that, my situatedness (my “social location” or “who I be”)  has not allowed me to forget one thing – Ferguson. It pains me to see so many people have “moved on.” The Twittersphere, too often satisfied with “fingertip activism,” has largely moved on to other trending topics, distracted by the endless cycle of panem et circenses (“bread and circuses”). The news media, once focused on “Flashpoint Ferguson,” now only offer soundbites to severity of what continues to take place there. Even the Church, ostensibly and on paper the “moral conscious of a nation,” has arisen from the post-Christmas haze with another set of priorities. The work of justice-seeking is just not sexy anymore, at least not until the next crisis.

But my situatedness as a Black man in this country has not allowed, and will not allow, me to forget Ferguson. Ferguson was a watershed moment in my life and in my vocation as a priest – the moment when the jangled chords of vocation and witness came into clear view. Ferguson made clear to me that the Church has no authentic voice if it is not a voice that demands justice for those who are oppressed. Ferguson made clear to me that Jesus means nothing if he is not found on the margins of our common life, with those crushed and suffocating under the stifling weight of empire, those whose backs are against the wall. Ferguson made clear to me that I am nothing and that my priestcraft is utterly worthless if I am not creating disciples who are passionate about justice in the world and leading a worship that inspires and empowers people towards those ends. Ferguson has changed everything.

I have had the privilege of working with a passionate group of young adults with CCO (Communities Creating Opportunities) along with a group of concerned Kansas City clergy (KC Prayerful Response) in crafting a community-wide training on conducting conversations about race in faith communities. We’ve been calling that training “Faith, Race, and Power.” The title of the training itself makes clear that “this is not your grandmother’s antiracism conversation” (if there was such a thing). This training seeks to create a “multi-racial, multi-faith justice movement that will change the world,” by exposing the dominant narrative, the story and experience that is held up as normative and that, by it’s very nature, discounts the multitude of stories and pieces of the truth owned by each of us, and inviting us to see one another, hear one another’s stories and experiences, and to create community where there was none. Theology after Ferguson must create community where none has existed.

The first part of this three-part training was attended by 60+ people from across the Kansas City Metropolitan area – white, black, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Buddhist, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Gay, Straight, Clergy, Lay – all people who showed up, open, receptive, and ready to “change the world.” The Rev. Deth Im led the group in a theological reflection of “The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:16), but with a twist – laborers became sharecroppers, the vineyard became a plantation, and the landowner became the southern white elite who used sharecropping during the Reconstruction Era to re-enslave newly emancipated African Americans by shackling them to an exploitative economic system. If you’re tense from reading this narrative, you should be. Deth skillfully altered the way the dominant narrative interprets that parable – challenging the assumption that God is the landowner and disrupting the presumptions and connections that flow from that presupposition. (I just want to add that I preached a similar sermon months ago at St. Andrews – “Shade Trees and Grape Vines: Animating Anger in the Service of God,” so I was completely HERE for Deth’s interpretation – I’m all about disrupting the pattern). Beyond offering a “right” or “wrong” way of reading that parable, Deth was illustrating a key component to our understanding of faith – the racialized lens through which we interpret our world, and our sacred texts. How we read and interpret scripture has everything to do with our situatedness.

I can’t forget Ferguson because ever since Mike Brown was gunned down in the street and his body was left there for hours, and ever since the Ferguson Police Department seemingly did everything they could to frustrate the process and aggravate the community, and ever since protesters – American citizens – were fired upon with tear gas and rubber bullets by police who resembled more of an invading army than a community institution, and ever since Robert McCullouch (in his role as Darren Wilson’s defense attorney prosecutor) indicted Michael Brown in his own death, and ever since Darren Wilson stated that he had “no remorse” for taking a human life, and ever since Ferguson burned, and ever since protesters took to the streets to stage die-ins and frustrate traffic flow, and ever since more and more people of color have continued to become victims of a hyper-militarized police state, my situatedness has demanded answers to some serious questions that I have asked God and scripture. It is a questions that people on the underside of empire have asked throughout history – God where the hell are you and what do you have to say about of this mess?

I do not have an answer to these questions yet, but while I wait for an answer that may or may not come, I am committed to getting my hands dirty in the slow and complex work of community organizing – gathering a community around a shared passion, dismantling the various and insidious layers of racism in order to create a community where previously there was none.

I can’t forget Ferguson, and for that I’m glad. Someone has to be the one to call the Church back to task in bringing God’s justice to bear in the earth in real, tangible, and life-altering ways. After all, “what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!
Marcus+

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