How Our Faith Calls Us to Respond to #Ferguson

As we mourn the loss of life and stand present to the pain and outrage caused by this week’s events in Ferguson, MO, Bryan Sirtosky asks, “What does our faith call us to do?” How should we respond? How do we “show up” for Ferguson in ways that are meaningful and lead to lasting change?


Ferguson and Jake
by Franklin Oliver, Sacred Path Member

Choosing Heartbreak
by Alex Kapitan, Congregational Advocacy & Witness Program Coordinator
Unitarian Universalist Association

Talking about Ferguson and the things that happened this week obviously were not planned in advance.  I found myself this week writing and processing my thoughts and feelings about what was happening even before I knew I would be speaking today.

It is not completely clear what happened the day 18 year old Michael Brown, an African American, was killed in Ferguson, Missouri.  It is reported that a 28 year old police officer named Darren Wilson, who is white, was driving his police SUV and came upon Brown and a friend walking on a residential street.  As he passed by, Wilson rudely ordered the two young men to get on the sidewalk. When they did not comply, Wilson blocked their path with his vehicle and initiated contact with Brown. A struggle ensued between Brown and Wilson during which time Wilson pull out his gun and shot Brown.  Brown and his friend ran in fear of their lives.  Wilson got out of his car and pursued Brown, shooting him again.  Brown stopped, turned around, put his hands up, and started to kneel to the ground.  Despite Brown’s actions and being unarmed, the officer then fired several more shots at Brown, killing him in the street.  His body was found about 30 feet from the officer’s vehicle.  This all happened in a span of 3 or 4 minutes.

When word got out about what had happened, people began to gather to protest and to demand information.  Police responded with a militarized presence, driving armored personnel carriers, wearing riot gear, and carrying automatic weapons that were continuously pointed at the peaceful protesters.  This militarized police presence continued for 4 to 5 days, with police using weapons such as tear gas and stun grenades to try to control or squelch protesters.  They shot at people with rubber bullets, including a female minister who had put herself between the police and demonstrators. They intimidated citizens for video recording events.  They even arrested reporters who were trying to report on the events for media outlets.

I think we look at this and wonder what in the world is going on?  Is this what it means to “protect and serve?”  This incident is bad enough on its own, but unfortunately, we know that it is just the most recent event in a long line of similar events that have been occurring throughout the history of this country.  There is a well established pattern of assuming criminal intent among black people that manifests itself in the following ways:  increased police presence in black neighborhoods, following black people in department stores, pulling black drivers over at a disproportionate rate, questioning black people’s presence in white neighborhoods, targeting people of color for frequent stop and frisks, etc.  Over time, this over-policing tends to create serious friction between the police and the black community that results in negative feelings on both sides.  These negative feelings serve to create an atmosphere where it is more likely that the police will be more aggressive and potentially violent when interacting with black citizens.  It also creates an atmosphere where black people will not feel protected by the police and have legitimate fear of being harmed by the police.  This fear is also driven by a disturbing pattern of disproportionate responses to minor incidents where black individuals are seriously injured or killed simply because they looked suspicious, ran away, or committed some minor offense.

We could ask many questions, but the question we are asking today is “what does our faith call us to do in response to this event?”  How do we show up in ways that are meaningful and lead to lasting change?

According to our UU tradition and principles, we are called to do many things, some of which are:

  1. Recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  2. Act with justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  3. Work toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  4. Respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Our own mission and vision call on us to create a compassionate and connected world through acts of radical love.  We are called to cultivate authentic connections and show up for the left out, overlooked, and abandoned.

What does radical love look like in this scenario?  What would cultivating authentic connections look like?  What does showing up look like?  It could look like many different things.  Here are some of the things that came to my mind:

Authentic Connections:  Listen Deeply to Marginalized Voices

Don’t assume you know what the issues are.  Do some research.  Put the responsibility on yourself to proactively seek out opportunities to get information from those who are dealing with the issues firsthand.  Don’t wait for an opportunity to engage to be presented to you.   Reach out and tell those involved that you want to be an ally in dealing with the issues.  Ask them to describe their experiences or listen to people having a discussion about the topic.  Be an active observer.  Listen deeply to what is being said and what is being conveyed through other signals like tone or body language.  Resist the urge to insert your own comments, ideas, solutions, etc., into the conversation.  Resist the urge to defend or explain “your side of the story” when comments are made that make you uncomfortable.  Lean into the discomfort and start to understand that other people have a different lived reality than you do.  Put yourself in the position of being the minority or the other, deliberately moving from the center to the margin.  Offer to be of assistance in efforts to make change but allow the scope of those efforts to be designed and controlled by those experiencing the issue firsthand.

Lori and I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion at the KI EcoCenter last year where black youth and their families discussed systemic racism, microaggressions, and the killing of Trayvon Martin.  It was very enlightening to hear them talk about their experiences and to hear their parent talk about their hopes and dreams for their children, as well as fears which obligate them to have “the talk” about ways to deal with (mostly) white authority figures.  Through that one interaction, we learned about the issues of concern to the families of black boys as well as made lasting relationships with people that have continued to this day.  We now partner with them on many different issues of concern.

Suiting Up:  Educate Ourselves, Recognize our Biases, and Examine our Privilege.

Recognize that what happened in Ferguson is not an isolated incident but one tied to the underlying systemic issues in our society and its institutions.  Seek out resources such as books, media outlets, and individuals that are covering these issues and presenting genuine discussions from multiple viewpoints.  Learn who the leading voices in the black community are on these issues.  Work to determine what our own biases are and how to overcome them.  Examine our privilege and how it affects our lives on a daily basis.  Examine how not having certain privileges affects the daily lives of others.  Learn how to use the privilege we have as a tool to effect change.

We hope to have a listing of books, websites, and other resources available on facebook and our website soon.  We also hope that one of our priorities this upcoming year will be to engage in some trainings that address issues of privilege.

Showing Up:  Bear Witness, Offer Support, and Disseminate Information.

Attend events like the National Moment of Silence event that was held downtown this week.  Be physically present to show support for efforts to make change.  Allow your “whiteness” to convey that these issues are not just important to people of color.  Sign petitions seeking improvements in law enforcement procedures and in community relations.  Put pressure on elected officials to address policing issues.  Send letters of support and solidarity to churches in the area where incidents like Ferguson have occurred.  Be a witness when a person of color is stopped or detained by the police.  Let your presence convey that people care about how the police treat our citizens and that we are watching.  Be prepared to record the incident should there be any mistreatment.  Download the ACLU’s “Police Tape” app, and if you see something that looks off, take a video that will upload directly to their servers, in case your phone is confiscated.  Publicize news and events related to this topic.  Amplify the voices of those who are experiencing the issue firsthand.  Keep your community informed of any news or developments.

Radical Love:  Make the Bold Choice.

Radical love calls on us to love everyone, even those who perpetrate the violence.  Of course, you always want to help people who have experienced abuse, but it is the abuser who is at the root of the problem.  Addressing and helping the abuser overcome his problem goes a long way to making sure that there are fewer victims of abuse in the future.  Pray for the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence.  Press elected officials to provide better training for police.  Press for resources for cultural competency training, anger management counseling, psychological counseling assistance, and training for community relationship building.  Press for more diversity in our police forces such that they don’t devolve into having a single narrow viewpoint. Find other ways that we can be a force for change in this area.

There is much to do to heal this broken world. May we find the courage to steadfastly commit to creating change and loving the hell out of the world.

May it be so.

Blessed be and Amen.

Bryan Sirtosky
Chair, Community Stewardship Circle
Sacred Path, a Unitarian Universalist Church

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