On the Saturday after a grand jury decided not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the Rev. Thomas Perchlik and about nine others from First Unitarian Church of St. Louis gathered in front of a Target store on the south side of the city for a peaceful vigil. Within half an hour, they were surrounded by the National Guard and local police with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
The group, holding a Standing on the Side of Love banner and other signs, not blocking traffic or obstructing shoppers, continued to stand quietly. “There were more police officers than protestors,” said Perchlik about the November 29 vigil. “They finally sent some representatives over who said, ‘What are you doing?’ We said, ‘A peaceful protest, like we said online.’ They said, ‘Oh, you can do that.’ We said, ‘We know.’”
Perchlik added, “They were kind of surprised we were non-confrontational.”
Over the next hours, as the group grew to about 70 and attracted the attention of traffic going by, “I’d say 80 percent of cars that made acknowledgement were waving, smiling, honking happily, shouting encouragement,” Perchlik said. Others shouted racist comments, he said, and one man got out of his car and began heckling the group. The man calmed down after they let him vent, and eventually got into a conversation with a black protestor who described his experience of police harassment, Perchlik said.
“We said that this wasn’t just about Michael Brown but a lot of other stuff going on, and he started to hear that,” recalled Perchlik. “For me, that was the most meaningful, powerful moment” of the day.
As protests and rallies continue around the country in reaction to the November 24 decision by a grand jury not to indict Wilson, Brown’s death has focused social justice efforts for UU congregations in the greater St. Louis area for the past four months. Through vigils, rallies, fundraisers, and food collections for the people and businesses in Ferguson, UUs are expressing a renewed commitment to fighting racism and racial injustice in the criminal justice system, ministers say.
Meanwhile, the December 3 decision by a New York grand jury not to indict a white police officer for the suffocation death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, intensified calls for racial justice across the country. “The fact that the grand jury failed to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner would be a miscarriage of justice at any time,” said Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales. “Coming so soon after the all-too-similar failure of the grand jury in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the New York decision throws into stark relief the growing mistrust many of us have about the ability of our legal system to deliver justice.” UUs joined protests and vigils in many cities, demanding justice and reforms to police practices.
UUs in the Ferguson area are continuing to work for change. The Bi-State UU Ministers Association, which includes UU clergy in Missouri and Illinois, has joined Hands Up United, a major organizing body led primarily by young black leaders that emerged from the protests in Ferguson in August. UU clergy are also part of three interfaith alliances engaged in on-the-ground work, and individual UUs have participated in many direct actions, including a shutdown of a major intersection in St. Louis to protest the grand jury decision.
UUs “have been having conversations about racism for long time, but it’s something different now,” said the Rev. Barbara Hoag Gadon, lead minister at Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Mo., which is very close to Ferguson. “We have this vivid, lived experience to talk about. My hope is that more white people can really understand what racial profiling is, how we’re complicit in systemic racism, so we can speak up in situations where we have influence and build more bridges.”
Just days after Brown was fatally shot, Eliot Chapel held a vigil to stand in solidarity with the people of Ferguson. The congregation has continued the vigil every Tuesday evening for the past 17 weeks—including the night a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for Brown’s death. UUs from other area congregations also join them.
“At first it was just about standing with the people in Ferguson, then it became standing with the larger civil rights movement that’s starting to bubble up here,” said Gadon. In the wake of the grand jury’s action, she said, “For me and a lot of people, it’s saying black lives matter.” The vigil became “a way to protest the non-indictment.”
Eliot Chapel will continue to hold Tuesday night vigils—which typically draw about 30 people from within and outside the congregation—for the foreseeable future, Gadon said. She has tweeted photos of the vigil, showing many UUs holding Standing on the Side of Love signs, to some young black leaders of protests in Ferguson, “to show them that Eliot is with them every single Tuesday night,” said Gadon. The Ferguson leaders have retweeted the photos to their followers, who number in the thousands, she said.
On a recent Sunday, Gadon shared her pulpit with Brittany Farrell, a young black leader with a civil rights group called Millennial Activists United, who discussed racial issues and got a standing ovation. At another event Eliot Chapel hosted, black women with the Ethics Project’s “Mother 2 Mother” program described incidents of police violence and harassment towards their sons and male family members. Gadon, who said the congregation may continue to partner with the group, called the presentation “transformational” and said it highlighted “the heart-rending fear that black women live with that their loved ones will be pulled over and harassed or shot or jailed.”
Emerson UU Chapel in St. Louis is also holding weekly vigils each Saturday at the Chesterfield Commons, a major shopping mall in the affluent community of Chesterfield, Mo. Ten to 25 people show up each week, many holding SSL banners and signs saying “Black Lives Matter,” said the Rev. Krista Taves, Emerson Chapel’s minister. The vigils, which began in October, will continue at least through Christmas, said Taves, who is also a volunteer for a jail support hotline for protestors and others arrested in conjunction with ongoing actions around Ferguson.
First Unitarian Church is hosting a multicultural competency workshop in January, is featuring multicultural children’s books at its annual book sale in December, and is discussing creating a fundraiser they would call Spend Christmas in Ferguson, to help small businesses damaged during violent protests in the city.
“My hope is that all these coalitions, connections, and movements continue until there is clear feeling by the African American community that police are treating them differently and the city has shifted in terms of its ability to include all people completely and fully,” said Perchlik.
Photograph (above): Unitarian Universalists at the September 30 vigil outside Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Mo. (Ann Ruger).