It was the summer of 1977. I had just arrived in St. Louis, fresh from a week of orientation for summer missions, inspired, and anticipating my first real summer of full time Christian mission service. The four hour drive from the retreat center where we spent the week getting ready offered some time for visiting, reflecting and preparing for the summer, but wasn’t much of a buffer between the protected, sheltered environment of the retreat, and the inner city where we were about to be dropped off. The team of about 20 college students were split between three housing units, one in the center part of the city at a ministry center called “Friendship House,” in an older, Victorian style home used for neighborhood ministry by a local church, the second group upstairs in a couple of rooms with a bath in a church’s former parsonage that was currently vacant, and myself and six others in two first floor flats of a four family building on St. Louis’ north side.
It was going to be a hot summer.
It was the first time I had ever encountered racism. And I mean, genuine racism. There was a line across the city of St. Louis that separated African American neighborhoods from white neighborhoods, and the church where I served for two summers was right on that line, trying to minister to both communities. There was a sense of Christian responsibility to share the gospel and minister in the community, but there was very little trust, especially among the African American community, and not much interest in the church to go further than a Vacation Bible School that brought in about 500 kids from the housing projects down the street. A couple of former pastors had staked their ministry on integrating the congregation, instituting a bus ministry and a summer project that required assistance from the mission board, hence my involvement. But they had left in disillusion, and the remnants of their attempted ministry hadn’t actually integrated the church.
But in the surrounding community, the racism was worse. It’s not something that I can explain, even now, but the hatred and oppression was visible. And while there was a level of that kind of feeling toward the whites on the part of some in the African American community, it was nothing like the attitudes and actions expressed the other way. There really was limited opportunity for African Americans based on the color of their skin, and they were treated differently. And I never really did see the justification for that.
I guess, because I didn’t know any better, I made my way around the city like most people did, on foot or on public transportation. It was about a forty minute bus ride from our flat in North St. Louis to the church, on Lafayette Square. It took one transfer, downtown at Washington and Grand. Most of the time, in the late afternoon, I was the only white person boarding the bus headed north that stopped a block from our flat. And of course, we stayed in the Hyde Park neighborhood, which was about two thirds African American. Over the two years I spent making that trek almost every day, I never felt threatened, and people were friendly and talkative. Most of them warmed up quickly when they discovered I was a Baptist “missionary” and I had a lot of conversations about Christian faith. The only time I felt uneasy was the first time I came home late one night after a Cardinals game, and the bus was almost empty. I worried a bit about who might get on, or what might be going on in the neighborhood, but after the first time, I never worried again.
Sometimes, a local church would prepare a meal for us, and we would walk the mile to Fourth Baptist Church, where they used the kitchen and fellowship hall. And one of my mission partners and I would sometimes go to the playground at the school around the corner on a Saturday night and play basketball with the neighborhood kids. They invited us, after seeing that I was 6’4″. Sometimes, I suspected that some of the guys we were playing with could be rough, and they were certainly street wise, but with us, they were always friendly.
And it was from these relationships that I slowly came to understand that as a white person, I would never be able to relate to the circumstances in which these people lived, what they and their families had endured because of racism and discrimination. In fact, I learned a lot. I learned that these are people, just like me, and they have the same desires and dreams that I do. I learned that skin color and racial background is most definitely an impediment to freedom and progress, that discrimination is real, and that our culture has figured out a lot of different ways to perpetuate it. And I learned that while discrimination and racism have caused some African Americans to become defeated, and to react in ways that aren’t productive, and only serve to make things worse, most of them are working much harder than I am to make things better for their children.
In 1977, Ferguson, Missouri was one of the suburbs where whites had fled to avoid sending their children to integrated schools, and to escape the inner city, where they felt that blacks had “taken over.” But as things in this culture slowly changed, more African Americans became affluent enough to escape the inner city as well, and Ferguson was one of the places they headed to find opportunity. They still weren’t welcome, and they’ve encountered the racism and discrimination that moved out of the city a couple of decades ago.
I don’t know how to evaluate the death of Michael Brown, because I don’t know all of the facts. What I do know is that this is an incident that is a symptom of a much greater problem that has existed for a long time. It’s a problem that the Christian church has had ample opportunities to resolve, or at least to put itself in a position to be the resolution. It can’t do that until it stops worshipping at the throne of wealth and power.