As Missouri governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency yesterday in anticipation of the imminent indictment, or lack thereof, of officer Darren Wilson, the National Council of Churches (NCC) gathered in St. Louis for a meeting of its governing board. The atmosphere was tense in the room as the governor’s order to ready the National Guard came during a panel discussion featuring four pastors and community leaders from Ferguson, Mo.
Today members of the NCC board including Stanley J. Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, stood on the line with demonstrators in Ferguson as they awaited news from the grand jury proceedings. Also today, the NCC issued a statement from Ferguson, which was read publicly before a media audience at Wellspring United Methodist Church.
Quoting from Isaiah 58:12, the statement said, in part: “We are in partnership with pastors and congregations who are preaching, seeking justice, and providing pastoral care in Ferguson’s churches in the midst of the current tensions. We celebrate the long-standing presence of members and leaders of this community that care for, and have cared for, the welfare of their congregations and the community at large….
“Love of God and neighbor motivates us to seek justice and fairness for everyone. We wish to see a society in which young people ‘not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). This vision is jeopardized by issues that revolve around mass incarceration. The trend toward privatization of prisons creates monetary incentives for incarcerating people for minor crimes, the vast majority of which are young black men. The national militarization of local policing increases the likelihood of grave injustice. Time and time again we are witnessing the use of lethal force against unarmed persons….” (See the full text of the NCC statement below.)
Noffsinger comments on experience in Ferguson
The media imagery of violent protest “is not what I experienced today,” Noffsinger reported this afternoon by telephone. “There is a real high level of anxiety whether the officer is indicted or not, but it looks like any of our cities at the moment. But listening to church leaders and talking with demonstrators the tensions are real and the potential for violence is just under the surface.”
He said his experience in Ferguson has enhanced the call of scripture for the church to move outside of its walls and be active in the neighborhood. “This event has drawn the churches in Ferguson out into the neighborhood,” he said. “Why aren’t we out there listening to the youth in our cities, about the abuse of force and the militarization of police? The church is called out of its four walls into the neighborhood.
“No matter what the outcome is,” Noffsinger said, referring to the grand jury case, “the way forward for us is to accompany the oppressed.”
NCC board hears from Ferguson church leaders
The speakers at the NCC governing board meeting yesterday were Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ, Florissant, Mo.; James Clark of Better Family Life; David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, St. Louis; and Willis Johnson, pastor of Wellspring Church, Ferguson, Mo.
Each of these leaders has played a key role in the unfolding events in Ferguson, and all have affiliations with the National Council of Churches (NCC) and its member denominations. The panelists gave a variety of perspectives on the role of the church in Ferguson and other places where systemic injustice occurs.
Roy Medley of the American Baptist Churches in the USA, and chair of the NCC governing board, introduced the speakers. “Regardless of the color of our skin, we all have skin in this game,” he said.
Blackmon welcomed the out-of-town visitors. “There are no outsiders in the pursuit of justice,” she said. As she reflected on the violence many fear if officer Darren Wilson is not indicted by the grand jury, she said, “My prayer is that there is no violence, because violence never wins.”
Clark, a key leader working to build peaceful relations, gave the most alarming assessment. He spoke of a “new era,” one in which injustices in the “urban core” will be responded to differently than in the past. “The new era started on August 9th. And young men are armed to the teeth,” he warned the church leaders. “And their mentality is very anti-establishment.”
Johnson joined Greenhaw in calling the church to be active in communities at risk for violence and injustice.
The NCC meeting reconvened today, Tuesday, Nov. 18, at 11 a.m. at Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson where the NCC statement was presented to the media. The full text of the statement follows:
NCC Statement on Ferguson
We live in the hope expressed by the prophet Isaiah:
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:12).
The National Council of Churches is a fellowship of Christian communions that seeks justice for all and stands with all those who are oppressed. We are in partnership with pastors and congregations who are preaching, seeking justice, and providing pastoral care in Ferguson’s churches in the midst of the current tensions. We celebrate the long-standing presence of members and leaders of this community that care for, and have cared for, the welfare of their congregations and the community at large. We are led by their love and by their stories and counsel. We are also inspired by the young people who, in their quest for justice, are embodying a faith and courage that we find to be an example to our churches.
We join the community of Ferguson, and all of those who seek justice and fairness for all people. We applaud those who practice the very best in Christian tradition by responding through prayer and nonviolent, peaceful action, and we join with other faith traditions who urge the same. It is our hope that the city and its citizens, churches, law enforcement officials, justice-seekers, and media, will all be shepherded by the teaching of Jesus to love God and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love of God and neighbor motivates us to seek justice and fairness for everyone. We wish to see a society in which young people “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). This vision is jeopardized by issues that revolve around mass incarceration. The trend toward privatization of prisons creates monetary incentives for incarcerating people for minor crimes, the vast majority of which are young black men. The national militarization of local policing increases the likelihood of grave injustice. Time and time again we are witnessing the use of lethal force against unarmed persons.
Loving neighbor does not include exploiting others. We call those who exploit emotions surrounding this grand jury action in ways that bring further division to consider their motivations and act compassionately. We urge all parties, in all things, to be guided by the words of the apostle Paul, that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22-23). Where the Spirit of God is, God motivates us to live this way.
Peace is not merely the absence of conflict; it is also the presence of justice. Peace is found in the ability to dialogue, to see each others’ side, and to come to a point where relationships are transformed from those of conflict to conversation. The bridge between justice and peace is mercy and grace, and as people of faith, we affirm this bridge, and that the Church, its pastors, and its members, must be those who proclaim it.
In the weeks that will follow these days of anger, indignation, and accusation, we call for peace–one full of robust love that utilizes our best qualities as human beings. We call on the member communions of the National Council of Churches in Ferguson to stand in solidarity with the community to stand in solidarity with the community to seek liberty and justice for all.
— A release from Steven D. Martin, director of Communications and Development for the National Council of Churches, contributed to this report.