The week of August 9, 2014, the entire country was talking about Ferguson, Missouri. Except, it seemed, for people in my affluent town, Kirkwood, 18 miles away. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. As a newcomer, I had quickly learned the question everyone asks around here: “What high school did you go to?” Your answer tells them where to place you by class and race. It’s an in-joke in St. Louis, and part of the accepted non-conversation about race.
Kirkwood has had its own recent history with racial tension boiling over into violence. Seven years ago, before I arrived as minister of Eliot Unitarian Chapel, a black contractor named Cookie Thornton shot and killed five white people at a city council meeting. Afterwards, many people in town came together for interracial dialogue and much healing took place. But when Ferguson erupted, Kirkwood went very quiet. Nobody wanted to breathe, to bring all that scary stuff back.
I yearned for us to do something, and I wondered what our church could offer. I thought about Christmas Eve, when our chapel—a graceful, gray stone building near the town center—draws overflow crowds for our candlelight services. We could hold a candlelight service to remember Michael Brown and to stand with the people of Ferguson.
Volunteers and staff came together splendidly to plan a service for August 14. About 150 people turned out, black and white, about half from our church. It was a lovely service. But the true witness began once we stepped outside with our candles for a silent march. I was nervous. How would people respond? I had called the police to let them know, and an officer helped me create a route. We waded through a summer concert in the town square. People gathered on the church lawn afterward and talked for a long time.
Stepping outside that night got me thinking. I saw my own limitations. I didn’t feel able to protest in Ferguson, where tear gas and rubber bullets interrupted many marches. I thought there were probably many people like me. Maybe we could stand on the church lawn on our well-traveled street facing the farmers’ market. I proposed a weekly vigil. A couple in the church immediately agreed to organize it.
We gathered every Tuesday for seventeen weeks.
My vigil pictures show us in August, sweaty in shorts and bright yellow T-shirts. In September we have put our T-shirts over light shirts and pants. By mid-October, it’s completely dark by 6 o’clock, and we look bulkier. One miserable week of cold rain, all you see are slickers and umbrellas. Then you see snow on the ground, and we are so bundled up you have to study faces to recognize people. Week after week, thirty to forty of us. Little children. Old people. Aging hippies. Gen-Xers. Teens. Young moms. I was moved by the faithfulness I saw.
I asked people what they learned from their experience. “One small act, holding a sign, can feed a soul hungry for hope and connection,” said Angela Grace. Passers-by gave us a thumbs-up, honked their horns, or waved. One week, a middle-aged white woman walked up to us, looking quite serious and asking who was in charge. She started to tell me what an impact our presence made on her biracial daughter, a college student. “She and I drove by you last week, and she went around the block to drive by again, so she could honk and wave at you. She has been very depressed,” the mother said, tearfully. “You give her hope.”
We have learned how to be visible. Some participants had never carried a sign in their lives. Dotty Storer had always supported social justice, but said she had never been an activist. Now she has become part of all kinds of demonstrations and actions.
Social media forged connections. People whose work and family lives didn’t let them participate followed us on Facebook. Those of us over 50 had to get over our resistance to Twitter if we were going to connect with the young civil rights leaders in Ferguson. We tweeted pictures directly to a few of them. One particularly tender image showed two white women holding signs saying “Standing on the Side of Love” and “Black Lives Matter.” I wondered what a black young adult in front of the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson would think. By the next morning, our photos had been retweeted 50 times, some by people with thousands of followers.
We have learned something about privilege. Susan Hayman said, “My parents moved from the city of St. Louis to Webster Groves before I was born, because they wanted access to good schools. They were able to buy a house in a decent neighborhood because they were white. I was able to attend my neighborhood grade school, in the ’40s, before Brown v. Board of Education, because I was white. I had never thought about this.”
We have also had a taste of what it’s like to be vulnerable, and to relinquish privilege for a moment. People in cars and on foot have sometimes given us the finger or cursed at us. One man angrily called out, “White lives matter!”
We have learned to see ourselves and our church in a new way. One woman said, “It’s surprising how a church that has been at a corner for more than 150 years can suddenly become visible to people when you stand in front of it.” Because of our visibility, we were asked to host “Mother 2 Mother,” a panel of African American women explaining to white mothers “the talk” that they have with their sons about police. The stories they told, echoed by black women in the audience, felt like a conversion more than a conversation to many of us present. The Mother 2 Mother evening led to other connections and possible partnerships with black organizations.
The practice of silent witness has felt to some of us like a spiritual discipline. “In three months, I have learned to be still for an hour, to watch and to listen,” Bruce MacKenzie said. “And I see and hear mostly good news: many passersby signal their support. But this is a somber occasion, so I have tried to learn humility. I have learned not to take for granted the security we have to stand here, making a statement, not fearing being shot or arrested, not fearing our church being burnt for our stand. And I have learned, once again, standing on the raised ground in front of the chapel, and looking out over a peaceful scene—the farmers’ market, the steeples of neighboring churches, street lamps along Main Street, and across the railroad tracks to the cupola of city hall—to hope.”