I live in Clayton, Missouri, a fairly affluent suburb just outside the city limits of St. Louis, and also 14 miles from Ferguson. When I watched the TV coverage of the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown – the peaceful and not-so-peaceful protests, and the varying degrees of police response – I realized that I could’ve been watching from anywhere. Was this really happening so close to home? I often watch tragedy unfold on TV. Sometimes I’m relieved that it’s happening far away. I often wish I could help. Usually, I’m at a complete loss. In response to this event in Ferguson – what could I do? Where would I even begin?
I’m a social worker by training. I have an MSW, and I worked as a school social worker for six years, before I had my first child. I then became a stay-at-home mom for 12 years, and recently went back to work part-time. Less than a week after the shooting, my church posted a call for pastors and counselors to spend time on the streets of Ferguson, where the shooting happened, to talk and pray with people who may need comfort. I contacted my pastor and told her that I would be willing to go, but that I wasn’t sure if I would be appropriate (not being either a pastor or a licensed counselor). She encouraged me to go, and said that she would find someone from the church to go with me. So, I signed up for a morning shift on Tuesday, August 19th, 10 days after the shooting.
I was emailed the address, and told to find a sign that said, “Clergy and Counselors 9:00am – 9:00 pm We are here if you need to talk”, and position myself nearby. When I pulled up to that address, with Jenn – an MSW student who arranged to go with me – I realized that we were arriving at Canfield Apartments, and the exact location where Michael Brown was shot. We parked, walked to where the people were, and found ourselves looking at the memorial of flowers, signs, stuffed animals and posters, placed in the middle of the street, where Michael Brown had died.
During my two hours at Canfield Apartments on that Tuesday morning, I met people who lived: in Canfield Apts, in Washington DC, in South St. Louis County, in St. Louis City, in other parts of Ferguson. I met: residents, passers-by, pastors, teenagers, college students, young parents, and social workers. While I was there, a Barnes Jewish Hospital mobile health bus pulled up, and a mobile home filled with food, personal items, and school supplies arrived. I watched and became involved with several prayer circles. I had many conversations with people who had varying degrees of involvement with Ferguson and with the Canfield Apt. community. I met a young man from Canfield who explained that in September he was leaving for training with the National Guard. He said he wanted to “protect his country AND his community”.
I went to Ferguson on that Tuesday morning with some trepidation, but an open mind. I wasn’t sure what I would experience. I left, though, as a changed person, in ways that are almost impossible to describe. To say that I was out of my comfort zone in Ferguson is an understatement, When I got there, though, I realized that nothing about being at Canfield was scary. When I stood on the sidewalk, looking at the Mike Brown memorial in the middle of the street, my perspective changed. I was forced to think about what it must be like to live in these apartments, to have a black teenager of the community shot to death by a white police officer, and to see him left in the street where he fell for four hours, just steps from the front door.
I was not scared for myself. I was heartbroken for this community.
The next day, I heard about an organized, peaceful protest happening in Clayton at the courthouse, where the grand jury would hear the case against the police officer who shot Michael Brown. Along with living in Clayton, I also work there. On my way to work on Wednesday afternoon, I stopped by the protest. I felt the need to show the protesters that there were people from Clayton who supported their efforts. I began a conversation with a well-dressed, soft-spoken African American woman, holding a sign that said, “Step Down McCulloch”.
After we talked for a while, she said to me, “Thank you for coming. It’s great for us when white people show up.”
“I hope so.” I responded.
“Oh yes!” She said, and added, “Do you know about the underground railroad?”
I said no, because I thought she was referring to a location in St. Louis, or a newspaper, or something current.
Without missing a beat, she started describing the original Underground Railroad – the one in the mid 1800’s that included secret routes and safe houses to assist in the freedom of black slaves. I interrupted her, because I obviously knew about that Underground Railroad. She then responded to my interruption, “Oh, ok. “ she said, “well that couldn’t have happened without the white people, the abolitionists.”
We were interrupted then, by the announcement that it was time to form a prayer circle. I move around, and ended up holding hands with two women I had never met – one white, one black – bowed my head, and listened to several people ask the Lord to be present in this protest, in the courthouse, with the people of Ferguson, and with Michael Brown’s family. After the time of prayer, I had to leave. I found the woman I had discussed the protest with, said goodbye, and headed to work.
As I walked away, I reflected on our conversation, I thought to myself, “Really? Are we really talking about the Underground Railroad in 2014? Did she really think I might not know what that was?” I realized in that moment that the question was not just“Where do I begin?”, but “Where do I fit in?” and “How do I begin again?” This conversation goes on and on. The struggle continues.
Between 1865 and 1870, three amendments to the US Constitution were passed. The 13th amendment (1865) abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment (1868) defined citizenship in a way that included blacks born or naturalized in the US, and the 15th (1870) gave blacks the right to vote. (http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmtimeline.html). Before that, though, the underground railroad, which “reached its height between 1850 and 1860”, allowed thousands of slaves to escape to safe places in the North, “with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_Railroad).
On Wednesday, August 20th, 2014, I – a white woman – had a conversation with a black woman at a protest, in which she thanked me for “showing up”, and referred to the Underground Railroad, a system of moving slaves north to freedom, which was in its height over ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY YEARS ago. The thought of this almost made my heart stop. I could not wrap my mind around this fact! What makes one person’s life and perspective seem more important than another’s? Why, after all these years, is there still so much discrepancy between the black experience and the white experience in St. Louis?
Where do I fit in to the change that must happen? How can I begin to engage in this conversation more thoroughly? These answers don’t come easily, but what I know is this: I entered a community, which was grieving the loss of a young black man at the hand of a white police officer. And I was embraced. I was changed. I felt the love from a hurting community to a person who cares.
Every interaction with someone whose life experience is different than mine, is a chance for me to join the conversation again. So, here is the final question – the challenge: How can I increase these types of interactions in my life?
I implore you to think about this too. Let’s do it. Let’s increase the number of contacts we have with people who are different. Let’s join in the conversation. Let’s listen. Let’s begin here. Or begin again. Over and over until we get it right.
Author: Laura Pierson