Improvising in Ferguson
Three hours before the first Thursday night session of “Power, Politics and the Pope” (the class with the coolest name on campus), I received an email from our teacher Rick McPeak. “We do not yet know each other, but you will quickly learn that I am a believer in experiential education. Tonight we will be going to Ferguson.”
The events in Ferguson are being discussed by people around the world, and Greenville College sits only an hour away from the street where Michael Brown was killed. “Ministry is like improvisation; the best move is usually the obvious one,” McPeak told us, “and it’s obvious, isn’t it?”.
The first place we stopped on West Florissant Ave, the street on which the majority of the protesting has taken place these past few weeks, was the Burger Bar. It was a fun restaurant. The chef there interspersedly interrupted the customers to recite his motto, “My burgers will tapdance on your tongue!”. At the Burger Bar we met with Fareed, a recent graduate of SIUC who has been in Ferguson since the shooting collecting footage to make a documentary.
As Fareed shared his stories with us, I noticed that his entire forearm was bandaged. When I asked him about it, he said that his arm was badly injured when he had to dive towards a storm drain to avoid being hit by armoured, military vehicles plowing down West Florissant Ave, launching tear gas at the men, women, and children who were protesting. It just so happened that Mrs. Gee, the mother of Vernon Gee (a Greenville grad from this past spring), was with Fareed when this occurred. She escaped with minor injuries- other than experiencing tear gas, which Fareed described as being “like sandpaper rubbing on your eyes and in your throat”.
Leaving the Burger Bar, we drove a few blocks down the street to the site where Michael Brown was shot. The spot wasn’t hard to find. Stuffed animals, roses, hand-written signs, and candles marked a section in the middle of the road. As we got out of the car and walked closer to the memorial, another detail became apparent: beneath the pile of stuffed animals and roses, Michael Brown’s blood was still visible on the pavement.
The scene had a much different feel than the Burger Bar on West Florissant. Instead of police, protesters, military weaponry and tear gas, there were neighbors, parents, teddy bears, and flowers. “Does anybody here know how to pray?” a young African American woman asked. A student in our group quickly volunteered McPeak. Forming a circle in the middle of the street, joining hands with everyone present, and blocking a fair amount of traffic, we prayed a familiar prayer:
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
It was one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard. Each word resonated deeply in a place so heavy with grief and confusion. Later on I heard McPeak remark that he did not feel like he knew how to pray in such a situation, so he leaned on a prayer he prays every Sunday at St. Paul’s.
This wraps back around to what McPeak had to say about improvisation. “Good improvisation doesn’t mean flying by the seat of your pants”. Instead, it requires one to think critically about how to act faithfully as a particular character in a given context. McPeak believes Christians learn how their particular character is supposed to act during worship. In church, we practice the character we’re supposed to be in public.
After praying with the people of Ferguson, McPeak performed another act he had practiced many times in church. Moving around the circle, he hugged each person and said, “the peace of Christ be with you”.
Our chapel theme for the semester is “Christ’s ambassadors of Reconciliation”. I will not soon forget McPeak’s example of what this looks like in the world, nor will I be able to think about our chapel theme without remembering our neighbors in Ferguson.
I would encourage everyone to take at least one trip to Ferguson this semester. We drive to St. Louis all the time for fun, why not drive out for peace, justice, and reconciliation? Also, keep an eye out for Fareed. Once he finishes his documentary, he plans to show it on campus.
We’re talking about being Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation for the world an hour away from a community whose suffering cries are being heard around the globe. It’s obvious, isn’t it?