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Faith leaders urge peace, change in Ferguson
As the nation focuses on the grand jury decision over the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, churches are in the spotlight as centers of calm and reconciliation. - photo by Mark Kellner
Religious leaders from across the theological and political spectrum are calling for peace with some adding demands for social change in the aftermath of a Missouri grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, over the Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed black teenager. And, mirroring the divided nature of public reaction, religious leaders were equally divided over the outcome.

The announcement Monday that Ferguson officer Darren Wilson would not be charged in the shooting of Michael Brown ignited new riots in Ferguson and protests around the country, despite calls for calm from Brown's father, Michael Brown Sr., as well as President Barack Obama and other leaders.

At the heart of many activities after the shooting were civil rights activists and pastors of churches that serve the African-American community, a northern suburb of St. Louis. Those faith communities, media reports indicate, have been working to be places of calm in the wake of the decision.

On a national level, some faith leaders bemoaned the decision not to prosecute Wilson. According to a National Council of Churches statement, "An indictment would not have been a conviction nor a (judgment) of Officer Wilsons guilt; rather, it would have permitted him to be tried before a jury of his peers where his innocence or guilt would have been appropriately decided. Without an indictment it now seems unlikely that justice will be done."

The council, which says they represent 45 million people in more than 100,000 U.S. congregations, asserted, "We will not forget Michael Brown nor cease to advocate for justice to be carried out in the matter of his death."

Rev. Jim Wallis, a leading voice of the evangelical left, issued a call for societal change in an article at Soujourners, the magazine he founded. Wallis claimed the justice system must "be subjected to the requirements of racial justice."

Wallis wrote, "How law enforcement interacts with communities of color raises fundamental, legitimate issues that must be addressed by the whole nation if we are to move forward."

Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the 1.7 million Presbyterian Church (USA), said the decision raises questions about the "racial climate" that exists in America. He said, "We need a society where everyone is treated with dignity and valued, where there is no fear of walking down the street."

And the Council on Islamic-American Relations, in a statement, declared, "The tragedy in Ferguson makes it imperative that Americans of all races and backgrounds initiate national action to address the issues of systemic racism and police profiling that the shooting brought to the surface."

Other clerics took a different view in their comments. The Most Rev. Robert J. Carlson, Roman Catholic archbishop of St. Louis, urged calm, saying in a statement he acknowledged feelings of betrayal in the community, but added, "we must accept this decision as the proper functioning of our justice system."

Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who heads the denomination's Ethics and Religious Liberty Center, said greater unity among Christians can help change society. He blogged, "we will need churches that are not divided up along carnal patterns of division by skin color or ethnicity or economic status."

Before the Monday evening announcement, media reports noted preparations by a number of congregations in the Ferguson area aimed at encouraging calm.

"The government has a mighty army," the Rev. Tommie L. Pierson Sr., pastor of the Greater St. Mark Family Church, told approximately 100 worshippers Sunday morning, according to the Washington Post. "But were going to walk anyway. Were going to walk by faith. We are not going to loot, we are not going to break windows. We are not going to do any of that stuff, but we are going to walk by faith. There is change in the air!"

Congregations in the area, including Pierson's, said they woule be available as a place of refuge after the announcement.

According to National Public Radio, Pierson's church planned to offer its "cavernous" Fellowship Hall as "a safe haven for about 200 demonstrators." The report said Pierson said "the church will be off-limits to police and won't be a sanctuary for criminals." Additionally, the Central Reform Congregation, a Jewish community in St. Louis, said its facility would be open as a safe haven as well.

Al-Jazeera America reported, "Organizations including Metropolitan Congregations United, an interdenominational and multiracial community of St Louis-area congregations, and the Dont Shoot Coalition, formed after Brown was killed, (were) creating lists of area churches that have agreed to open their doors to communities immediately following the decision."

The news agency quoted Jim Sahaida, president of Metropolitan Congregations United, as saying, "We all came to realize that churches working together can have a much larger impact than one church trying to deal within its own boundaries. This is one of those times where I think the church really needs to be present."

The openings were to expand throughout the region, the Associated Press reported. In downtown St. Louis, the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral would "open for a 24-hour prayer vigil after the grand jury announcement. Cathedral Dean Mike Kinman cited the 'deep brokenness' in the community after Brown's death."

And members of the North Hills United Methodist Church, where another NPR story reported the congregation of "about a dozen" Sunday was "mostly grey-haired white folk," hoped the case would spur change in the larger community.

"I'm ready for this situation to be over but I don't want to go back to the old normal, I want to go back to a new normal," church member Ken Cieslak told NPR. That would mean "caring about what is happening to everyone in St. Louis County, not just the neighbors on your block or who went to your high school," the report indicated.
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