This past weekend I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri as part of the #BlackLivesMatter freedom ride to demand justice for slain black teenager Mike Brown, whose murderer, police officer Darren Wilson is on paid leave and has yet to be arrested. As national co-organizers Darnell Moore and Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac described, “The ‘Black Life Matters Ride’ was a call to action, a slogan under which Black people can unite to end state sanctioned violence both in Ferguson, but also across the United States of America.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Black and Brown people along with white allies, graced the grounds of Ferguson, Missouri, answering this beckoning call from two passionate and unapologetically black community organizers. While there, we saw the grounds where Mike Brown took his last breath. We saw police officers with their hands on their guns staring us down. We saw angry protestors yelling with every measure of their being. We saw black rage expressed in a multiplicity of appropriate and justifiable ways. We even saw and felt the pain glossed over the face of Ms. Leslie McSpadden, Mike’s grieving mother, as she looked into the crowd.
Our eyes and inner spirits bore witness to the visible traumas of contemporary white supremacy and state sanctioned racial violence in Ferguson’s streets. Because white supremacy shifts and evolves with time, “white supremacy” here refers to legal, social and historical constructions that situate white people in positions of superiority, dominance and control over non-white citizens. Said positionality affords white people the space to enact anti-black violence without repudiation. It also allows white privilege to reign unchecked in a society that seeks to camouflage its social sins through the veil of postracial discourse. This is evident in how Fox News described Mike Brown’s unarmed, “large, black body” as a weapon a week ago, to detract attention from Wilson’s wrongs and instead towards Mike’s physicality—a ploy of white supremacy designed to characterize blackness and black bodies as threatening, violent and criminal. Brown came face-to-face with the white supremacist gaze as racially charged bullets grazed and penetrated his black flesh. Brown was unarmed. Darren Wilson was not. These are the facts. I posit that Wilson did not see “Mike Mike” as his family and friends affectionately called him; what he saw was a fungible black body and a canvass to exercise white supremacist power.
American society continues to debate the events that transpired leading to Brown’s death, but what is really significant, is that Brown is no longer with us—his life stolen by anti-black police violence. That detail is the conviction upon which the activism and mobilization of Ferguson residents lies. It is also the foundation of many black civil and human rights organizations that are standing with Ferguson.
[the event described below happened on Saturday, August 30th]
Even though I was moved immensely by how folks came together in Ferguson streets yelling “No Justice, No Peace; No Racist Police!” I was also struck by the disconnection between many of the self-proclaimed, elder black male leaders of the “Mike Brown Rebellion,” and the avowedly radicalized youth. Many of the young folks were unashamedly angry. They had tapped into their God-given right to exude Black rage, but they had also found inventive ways to challenge the status quo, to assert their voices in a sea of Black folks, and to disrupt notions of Black youth inferiority. Even still, the older black male preachers, Muslim brothers and community organizers still found ways to scold the youth—belittling young folks for not assuming the respectability politics many of them had used as a form of resistance throughout the twentieth century, all for the sake of fostering what many believed was racial uplift and a materialization of moral responsibility. Many of these black men told the young folks to “follow leadership,” “to submit to authority,” and “to trust them.” I don’t know who the men were that yelled these hurtful words, but I do know that the language was inappropriate for such an emotional moment. It also made me wonder who appointed these men as ‘leaders’ of this newmovement—perhaps a deeper exploration of Ferguson historical actors will afford me better insight here. Most importantly, though, those men’s words were inflammatory as they policed Black rage, by encouraging young folks to behave this way, be angry this way, live this way. Those men failed to see the dated aspect of their activist strategies and how respectability will not save us.
Determined to achieve justice, a large majority of the young folks continued to protest, calling attention to how the community need not sing Lift Ev’ry Voice in the local park, but rather go down to the Ferguson police department and make those police officers see the pain they had inflicted upon the community, by galvanizing Black bodies in one space to present local and national demands. Police officers stood face-to-face with Black community members, activists, organizers and their allies. Some of them smiled at us. Some of them laughed at us. One of them even took out a camera and snapped pictures of us.
What was shocking to me, however, was how those same black men who told those young folks to wait, were the very same ones who came two hours late to the protest event, stormed through the middle of the street and drew attention away from the police protest to their activities and speeches in the middle of the road. Their words were loaded with Christian imagery, respectability politics, bad theology and a masculinist, patriarchal and heterosexist lens of what constitutes black liberation. Simply put, I saw no black women or any queer-identified individuals with a microphone or behind a bullhorn standing with those black male preachers, brothers from the Fruit of Islam, and other prominent black male community leaders. The youth, however, allowed queer folks and women to have a resounding voice in their own personal protest endeavors. Even with their progressive lens, however, some way or another, the oppressive mannerisms of the elders were also rearticulated by some of the young black male activists.
For example, on a panel put together by Black Lives Matter national co-organizers, four young black St. Louis women—Netta, Alexis, Brittney and Ashley—described how their ‘brothers’ had verbally abused them as they stood with and for them and the Mike Browns of their community. They were told to go home, that they weren’t doing enough, and in many ways, they weren’t given credit for the countless hours they had spent on the grounds fighting for their own freedom and the freedom of their brothers.
I have no answers for how we might reimagine a black liberation movement to tackle contemporary iterations of white supremacy, while disallowing ourselves from using the historically heterosexist Civil Rights Movement as our onlyframework for mobilization and racial justice work. All I know is that our contemporary moment is not the Civil Rights Movement and thus, a new day means creating new tools. What I saw through the young folks in Ferguson, however, gave me hope for how we can productively structure our movements to end racialized and gendered violence.
The spirit of the young folks in Ferguson was a spirit that traversed the boundaries of geographical space, as it informed the “Black Life Matters Ride,” which gathered folks from across America. BLM was an inclusive, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, and feminist crusade. In many ways, the St. John’s United Church of Christ in St. Louis, Missouri, who hosted BLM during our time in the area, was the linkage between the theological attempts of those elder black men earlier in the weekend and Christ’s message of inclusivity. Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, the pastor of SJUCC, embraced all of the bus riders with love and on our last day in St. Louis, his Sunday morning sermon was entitled “The Politics of Jesus.” Before the sermon, we read “A Litany for Children Slain by Violence and Traumatized by Those Called to “Serve and Protect,” which in many ways set the tone for the rest of the service and politically charged the worship atmosphere.
Wilson’s sermon came out of Luke 4:14-19, and focused on the 18th verse:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free”
After reading the scriptural text, Wilson explained how the purpose of the church is “to proclaim the politics of Jesus in public” and that “churches have a tendency to put their names on movements, but that’s not the politics of Jesus.” He reasoned that Jesus was radical and revolutionary. He broke through the chains of a Roman occupied police state, managed to flee the claws of an anti-Semitic King Herod and reprimanded the Pharisees and Sadducees for enacting poverty taxes in their local temples. Jesus would even be “publicly lynched” / crucified next to two social bandits. Wilson then connected the suffering of the cross with the lynching tree of American history—“Jesus’ climate was similar to ours so we must not forget the revolutionary politica of our religious roots”—which illuminated the racialized violences that both Jesus and Mike Brown experienced in their respective communities—from Galilee to Ferguson.
My attempt to summarize Wilson’s sermon does not do it justice. If you would like to listen for yourself, please downloadhere. Thankfully, I got a chance to interview Rev. Starsky Wilson via phone.
Below please find an abridged transcript of our conversation.
AG: When did you become pastor? What led you to the gospel ministry?
SW: I discovered that I was called to the ministry when I was 19 years old in college at Xavier University of Louisiana. There, I earned a bachelor of arts in political science and realized that there was something on my life that I couldn’t shake. Back home, I started preaching in a local Baptist church. I eventually attended Eden Theological Seminary and graduated from there in 2009. I became pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ “The Beloved Community” on June 1, 2008.
AG: While we were in Ferguson, your sermon was entitled, “The Politics of Jesus.” What inspired that message?
SW: The sermon was inspired by Obery Hendricks’ book, “The Politics of Jesus,” in which he shows us in great deal how Jesus was a radical and a revolutionary. We invited Hendricks to come speak at our church a couple years ago. He gave a lecture, taught some classes and preached an impactful message. All the leaders at our church have read his book. It has reshaped the way we teach Christ and take on social justice issues within our church and local community.
AG: In many black churches, many folks describe loving the cultural aspects but disliking the theologies and politics within those very same churches. How do you use theology as a means of enhancing social justice work?
SW: Theology is the foundation of everything we do. With a historical-critical biblical approach and more progressive theology preached and taught, our social ministries changed from service-oriented to justice oriented. So, we find ourselves spending more time working with faith-based organizing groups and strategizing policy change. We learn in Bible study about the criminal justice system and work to inform the community about the important of getting tested and ministry in light of HIV/AIDS.
AG: How do you see St. John’s fitting Black Christendom in St. Louis? How is your church unique? How is it transforming lives?
SW: St. John’s is one of three black churches in the United Church of Christ denomination in the St. Louis region. Our ministry, like the denomination, is very progressive. The UCC was the first of the Protestant mainline denominations to ordain African Americans, women and gay people, to take a stand for marriage equality, and to work against systems of oppression that work against people of color.
We also live within the historic Black church tradition. And here, our ministry tends to be more progressive on the St. Louis landscape. We believe in faith-based organizing, that is tackling issues as systems that need to be torn down.
AG: At the end of your service you led “A Call to the Movement” instead of “A Call to Discipleship.” Why?
SW: This is informed by the writings of Rev. John Perkins of the Christian community development movement. He reminds us in a book, entitled “Welcoming Justice” that the revivalists of the Great Awakening, preaching on the frontier were not inviting people to rehearse a salvation formula. They were recruiting people to grow a movement for God. In many ways, I think the church is back on the frontier. The progressive voice within the American church is definitely needs to recruit people committed to living Jesus’ politics in the world in powerful ways. This is what we ask people to commit to.
Dr. Wilson’s ministry is unique. It is an example of how the love of Christ can compel people to movements. Jesus himself was an activist. Our time at SJUCC was the perfect ending to a weekend of black love, black self-care and black solidarity. Though I wrestled with a number of emotions while in Ferguson—that of sadness and rage—I also found myself disappointed in some of the ‘leaders’ of this new movement. Rev. Wilson and the young black women and men gave me hope. Ferguson is grieving, and rightfully so, but there is a brighter day coming.