As our hearts break for Michael Brown, his family and friends, and the good citizens of Ferguson – and as we are horrified by the photos and news reports of militarized police altercations – it seems to me that confession is a good place to begin reflecting. I should have communicated with you within a day of this incident – because it was immediately obvious that this tragedy had the potential to test us as a nation. Please forgive my delay.
The witness of two others has both clarified and inspired my own reflection – and in the months ahead will inform my responses.
The first is from an NPR interview of the Rev. Dr. Willis Johnson, senior minister of the Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, a predominately African-American intergenerational urban church plant. Dr. Johnson’s interview was for me the most moving NPR interview I have ever heard. His testimony, courage, commitment to non-violence all fueled by his vision and hope could inspire a dozen sermons. Listen or read the interview here. And an opinion piece by Dr. Johnson can be found in the current issue of Time Magazine: “Ferguson Pastor: How to Handle a Confrontation With the Police.”
The other witness that is just as deep and for me, as a white person, more directive, comes from Janee Woods, a former attorney who is working for a nonprofit focused on supporting community engagement, strengthening democracy and fostering racial equity. I’m so grateful to Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, former chair of the MACUCC Board and Executive Director of the Boston YWCA, for sharing it with me. Ms. Woods' piece is entitled “12 things white people can do now because Ferguson.” Again, there is material enough here for a dozen sermons and/or weeks of adult education conversation. Here’s an excerpt that for me rings true:
A lot of white people aren't speaking out publicly against the killing of Michael Brown because they don’t see a space for themselves to engage meaningfully in the conversation so that they can move to action against racism. It’s not so much that they have nothing to say but rather they don’t see an opportunity being opened up for them to say something or to do something that matters. Or they might not be sure what to say or how to do it. They might have a hard time seeing a role for themselves in the fight against racism because they aren't racist, they don’t feel that racism affects them or their loved ones personally, they worry that talking about race and differences between cultures might make things worse, or they think they rarely see overt racism at play in their everyday lives. And, sometimes, they are afraid. There’s a real fear of saying the wrong thing even if the intention is pure, of being alienated socially and economically from other white people for standing in solidarity with black people, or of putting one’s self in harm’s way, whether the harm be physical or psychological. I’m not saying those aren't valid fears but I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of those fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people.
Ms. Woods then goes on to identify 12 actions white people can take to become white allies in the fight against racism – thoughtful and critical actions that white people can engage to stand on the side of justice and equity.
In a few weeks, your MACUCC Board and staff will gather for a retreat that will focus on racism. I hope that each of our churches can engage some opportunity appropriate for you and your community to use the tragedy of Ferguson to strengthen our resolve and trigger our collective action to dismantle racism and racial inequity.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Jim Antal is a denominational leader, activist and public theologian. He led the 360 churches of the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ from 2006 to his retirement in 2018. An environmental activist from the first Earth Day in 1970, ...