By Paula Schlueter Ross
Newlyweds Brad and Kelsey Egberts used to live in Ferguson’s Canfield Green apartments. In fact, the front door of the apartment where they still pay rent but no longer stay is less than 100 yards from where black teen Michael Brown Jr. was shot at least six times by white St. Louis County policeman Darren Wilson and died on Saturday, Aug. 9.
The Egberts, members of Blessed Savior Lutheran Church in St. Louis, were in their apartment and “heard the gunshots and saw the huge crowds that formed after the shooting,” Brad, 23, told Reporter.
The next day, as the couple, who are white, were driving home from Sunday worship, they got a taste of the tension building on the street as “people banged on my truck, yelling ‘black power!’ ” Brad recalled. The two decided to stay in for the night and watch movies.
But their plans were dashed when “all hell broke loose” that Sunday night and they “heard several gunshots outside our doors and feared for our lives,” he said.
As the rioting, looting and destruction intensified on the streets outside, the couple were “extremely terrified” so they called Brad’s dad “to come and help us get out of the apartment,” according to Kelsey, 24.
But by then the city was already closed off by the police, who “were not letting people in or out because of the protests and riots,” noted Brad.
With the news that they were on their own and advised to stay inside for their safety, “our terror multiplied tenfold,” admitted Kelsey, so they made sure the door was locked, closed the blinds, turned off most of the lights and watched the TV news.
They also prayed. Hard.
“The night of the riots was full of prayers for us,” said Brad. “We prayed for peace and protections,” he said, and his confirmation verse — Joshua 1:9 (“Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”) — “was very encouraging for us.”
At 5 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 11, after a sleepless night, they got a call from Brad’s dad, who told them that Ferguson was once again “secure and we needed to get out,” said Brad. The Egberts have been staying with relatives ever since, and — except for cautious, daytime visits to retrieve belongings — have no plans to return to the apartment they once loved.
They blame the continuing lawlessness on outsiders “from everywhere but Ferguson,” said Kelsey, and feel “sad and frustrated” about the violence, which at this writing — 11 days after the shooting — shows no sign of ending.
But they are thankful for the expressions of care they’ve received from Blessed Savior members and friends from all over the country who “have been constantly checking up on us and offering their support,” said Brad. “Anything from ‘Come on over, we can give you dinner’ to ‘If you need a place to stay for a while, let us know.’ The support we have received is amazing.”
Calls for prayer
Although there is no LCMS church in Ferguson, there are three Synod congregations — Grace Lutheran Chapel, Immanuel Lutheran Chapel and Salem Lutheran Church (Black Jack) — in the same North County area of St. Louis. Their pastors have reported no damages to church property or injuries to members — some of whom live in Ferguson — who are understandably upset.
Speaking on behalf of the LCMS Missouri District, President Rev. Dr. Ray Mirly said, “We’re very much in prayer for the people of Ferguson, as well as the peacekeepers and for the Brown family. And we pray that God would help all to resolve the issues and that the community can rebuild and continue to be a vibrant community.”
Mirly hosted a breakfast meeting Aug. 21 with the Ferguson-area LCMS pastors and vicars to make sure they’re doing OK, listen to their stories and give them a chance to “unwind and debrief.”
“Their ministry heart was very evident,” Mirly said, as they are “supporting their own members, but also the community.”
The district president encouraged them to reach out to community leaders and be open to possible partnerships. “If nothing else,” he said, call up the mayor, police chief and fire chief to ask if they can pray with them and “to let them know that they’re in the prayers of the Lutheran community.”
They also discussed “needs” — such as cleaning supplies for the 60 businesses damaged by protesters and looters — and how to respond to those needs.
A $1,000 grant from the Missouri District will be used to purchase such cleaning supplies through an effort coordinated by members of Grace Chapel. Also requested by the congregation are cash donations to provide meals for police officers at the command center in Ferguson.
In an Aug. 19 statement, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison asked Lutherans to pray for peace in light of the continuing unrest in Ferguson.
Harrison called the “fear, anger, animosity between races and a general nervousness” in Ferguson “one more tragic result of a world where sin and death continue their regime. Wars, rumors of war, tension and animosity between peoples we will always have with us (Matt. 24:6, 26:11).”
But, he added, “Christ, whose death atoned for the sins of all humanity and whose resurrection trampled sin and Satan … gets the last Word. His is a Word of peace, despite sin’s turmoil (1 Thess. 5:23).”
The Rev. Matthew Roeglin, pastor of Blessed Savior and circuit visitor for several LCMS congregations closest to Ferguson, said “the tension in North County is very apparent.”
His congregation “will be praying for peace in our neighborhoods, peace in Christ for those mourning the loss of Michael Brown, and peace and safety for the citizens and the law-enforcement officers who are working hard to protect the people and businesses in our community,” he said.
“We also will be praying for the police officer involved in the shooting, not only for safety for him and his family, but also because he has to live with the fact that — justified or not — a young, unarmed man died by his hands, and the fact that his actions started the unfortunate chain of events of this past week.”
The Rev. Adam Filipek, pastor of Salem, called all 26 member families on Aug. 11, the day after the rioting and looting broke out, to make sure they were safe.
He also made sure they — and the parents of students at Salem’s elementary school — had his cell phone number so that if they felt like they were in danger they could “contact me immediately and I would provide temporary housing” and “help them recover lost, damaged or stolen property.”
Vicar Chris Chandler serves fewer than five miles away from the Ferguson protesters, at Immanuel, an integrated congregation of mostly African-American members. Many of the 50 or so worshipers have friends and family in Ferguson, with ties to law enforcement as well.
“Because of the diversity at our congregation, we have a diversity of viewpoints,” Chandler told Reporter. “So I think our task here is to respect the various viewpoints that are held, honor them, give them dignity and a voice, while at the same time directing people to what we believe is the ultimate Power of change and reconciliation and healing, which is the God that we serve.”
Chandler began his vicarage at Immanuel this summer and he’s been a Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, field worker there for two years. He’s hoping, he said, that the current media spotlight on Ferguson will help people become more informed about the “preconditions” of the community and others like it nationwide. For example, he just learned that more than half of Ferguson’s young people are unemployed, he said, and having such knowledge could foster solutions to help turn the negatives into positives.
One idea the church plans to implement involves its daycare of 50-plus children ages 2 to 5. At a special prayer service Aug. 20 and at Sunday worship Aug. 24, each Immanuel member will be encouraged to choose a name of a daycare student “and just commit to pray for that child, to bring that child before the Lord — their physical needs, their spiritual needs,” particularly that “they would know how to refuse the evil and choose the good, and walk with Jesus all the days of their life,” the vicar said, quoting Isaiah 7:15.
“Our children are living signs from God of a future and a hope,” he said.
“We really do believe prayer does change things,” he added. “The most practical thing you can do is pray, and we are hoping that through those prayers God will grow and create opportunities for increased interaction” between the congregation’s members and the daycare students and their families.
The Rev. Nate Ruback is pastor of Grace Chapel, a congregation of some 350 worshipers that is within 2.5 miles of the Ferguson violence and, like Immanuel, has an ethnically mixed membership as well as members with ties to the Ferguson community and police officers who are serving there.
Some businesses close to Grace were damaged and looted in the melee, and congregation members “are very, very anxious — there’s a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety,” Ruback told Reporter. At the same time, “the neighborhoods are safe [but] you don’t want to be in [that] half-mile-by-half-mile block in Ferguson after dark.”
Grace’s elementary school opened on Aug. 20, right on schedule, noted Ruback. “The news media make it seem like the entire North County is burning down to the ground, and it’s not,” he said.
What’s changed at Grace is that Ruback finds himself ministering more “one on one” with members — perhaps a dozen so far. “A lot of individual care, reassuring people. What does Christ say about living in fear? Where does our hope lie?”
On Aug. 22 some members of the congregation plan to go door to door in Ferguson, handing out dozens of buckets with cleaning supplies to businesses that have been damaged or looted.
“We’re doing that [in] partnership with other denominations … to walk the streets and share Jesus’ message of love and grace with people, and to be a visible face of Christ in the community,” Ruback said.
Grace members also are teaming up with other local Christians to collect food and money to help feed the law-enforcement officers who are serving in Ferguson.
“The face of Ferguson, the face of North County that people see on the news, no way reflects the community,” according to Ruback. Most of the people who are causing the disturbances in Ferguson “are not even from Missouri,” he said. The ones who are from the “caring, tight-knit” communities in North St. Louis County can be seen “as soon as the sun comes up. … They’re pounding the streets, cleaning up,” he added. “That’s the encouraging thing that people need to see.”
The Rev. Bob Briggs, a chaplain with Lutheran Senior Services, St. Louis, who also has served as a chaplain to the St. Louis County Police Department for more than 5 years, helps out at the command post, a few blocks from Ferguson’s so-called “ground zero.” Briggs led the prayer that began a televised early-morning press conference Aug. 19.
“It’s just amazing to be able to be there and take care of serving those officers that are serving us,” he told Reporter. “When they come in they are tired, they are worn out, they need something to eat, something to drink. … I just give them a pat on the back, ask them how they’re doing, is there anything I can do to help, that sort of thing. And we keep everybody looking positively and we keep building each other up.”
Briggs agrees that “all of the chaos that we have been seeing is the result of people who are not Ferguson residents, coming in and stirring up the pot and destroying a community just so they can make law enforcement look bad and try to create a racial divide.” These “criminals,” he adds, “have found an opportunity to take something that could be a time for discussion, a time for healing, a time for compassion — and just turning it upside down on its head.”
He calls the officers “the bravest men and women serving our area” and says “each and every one of them should receive a commendation, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve been with them every single day, and I’ve watched them come in and go out over and over and over again. … Always keeping a very vigilant eye out to make sure that people are safe and to do what they can without getting themselves killed. And it has been a very fine line,” he said, particularly since it has gone on for so long.
In spite of the night-time violence, Briggs says “there’s still much unity” between the law officers and the people who actually live in Ferguson — “who want to be a part of making their community whole.”
That’s “the most impressive thing I’ve seen,” he says, seeing residents who “keep coming back and … keep supporting us. They still keep saying ‘Please, hang in there. You’re the only ones that we have to really depend on when we need you.’ ”
Adds Briggs: “Seeing such compassion and camaraderie in the midst of such chaos — it is truly a human paradox.”
Visits to ‘ground zero’
“Luther,” a “comfort dog” from Addison, Ill.-based Lutheran Church Charities, made a visit to Ferguson on Saturday, Aug. 16, a week after the Michael Brown shooting.
“We were hugged and thanked by so many people for coming in [and] helping them in their confusion and hurting,” LCC President Tim Hetzner wrote on his Facebook page. “It was another experience I will never forget.”
On Friday, Aug. 15, three pastors from the Synod’s International Center in Kirkwood, Mo., visited Ferguson for a little over two hours to offer prayer and spiritual support, to listen and to “connect” with hurting people, according to the Rev. Roosevelt Gray Jr., director of Black Ministry with the LCMS Office of National Mission. Accompanying Gray were the Rev. Steven Schave, director of LCMS Urban & Inner-City Mission, and the Rev. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response.
“Everybody said they were glad we were there,” Gray told Reporter. In addition to praying with dozens of people during their afternoon visit, the trio also ministered to other clergy, community leaders and police officers at the site — the burned-out QuikTrip, or “ground zero” — asking “How do you feel about what’s going on?” and “How can we pray for you?”
Hundreds of people were in the area — some were demonstrating and chanting, some honking their car horns as they drove by — and the LCMS leaders saw lots of vandalized buildings, broken windows and littered sidewalks, the result of previous nights’ violent protests.
Said Schave: “We just wanted to go down and be a ministry of presence — to listen and pray.” He, Gray and Johnson — along with the Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez, director of Church and Community Engagement with the LCMS Office of National Mission — returned to Ferguson on Aug. 18, again to pray and listen, and told Reporter they may make additional visits.
In an Aug. 19 interview on Worldwide KFUO Radio, Johnson said he was a little nervous about what to expect in Ferguson. But the LCMS pastors “were treated with open arms, not a rude look, not a rude tone of voice, with nothing but smiles and thankfulness,” he told host Rev. Craig Donofrio.
The people they met “had so much gratitude” for the pastors being there to listen, Johnson said. “They appreciated the comfort and our presence being there. And for us, as the church, that’s what a lot of times we need to do — is just be present with people that are going through different things in their life.”
Gray, who is black, sees “two problems” that he believes ignited the mayhem in Ferguson: “We’ve got a problem with young people who have lost respect for authority, and they’re not going to back down anymore,” he said. “And then we have authority that’s kind of lost respect for the community.
“So now, when you bring these two together, what you have is people who really don’t respect each other. The kids aren’t going to back down, and the police aren’t going to back down” and so “something terrible is [bound] to happen.”
Gray believes the Synod should establish a more permanent “presence in that community” to talk with residents and determine what their needs are so that it can help the community address them.
“At the end of the day, the church is the only group that’s going to make a difference,” Gray said. “And the church needs to encourage, empower and equip people in that community,” he said, by linking them to the physical and spiritual resources that can help them find solutions to their problems.
Schave noted that LCMS leaders’ purpose for being in Ferguson “was not to take sides. … We were there to bring [Christ's] peace and His healing. We were there to listen and to care for people who are hurting and afraid.
“So there was no tension for us, in terms of taking some side or the other. We were there for everyone that’s involved and affected by this tragedy, to be Christ in that place.”
Gray said it’s important to have “trust relationships” in communities, “understanding both sides of the story,” with everyone working together as one “community.” And, he said, that’s something the church can help foster.
Added Schave: “Bringing people together … as one body of Christ” is what “the church can bring into this kind of tension and frustration and fear and doubt.”
Said Gray: “There’s no reason in the world why we can’t do something in Ferguson and do something positive with this. Our church body can do that. We have an opportunity [in Ferguson]. … We need to be there.”
In his Aug. 19 “Faith Perspectives” column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled “Trying to see clearly in #Ferguson’s haze,” the Rev. Travis Scholl explores the value of “seeing clearly” the viewpoints and experiences of those who are different from ourselves.
Referencing Mark 8:25 — where Jesus lays his hands on the blind man’s eyes a second time in order for the man to “see everything clearly” — Scholl, managing editor of theological publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, gives examples of “particularly destructive institutional blindnesses” and maintains that “new sight is given only when we are met by something, or someone, outside of ourselves, when we encounter someone who is different from us.”
Scholl recalls a high-school basketball tournament — between his all-white team from the St. Louis suburbs and an all-black team from the north side of St. Louis city — that ended with misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
“In hindsight, I wish we would have sat down with our Bethlehem rivals after that championship game, the last time we would play each other,” Scholl writes. “Maybe over a stack of pizzas or a few malteds from Crown Candy. I wish we could have sat down together and talked with each other.
“I am convinced our eyes would have been opened wide.”
Posted Aug. 21, 2014 / Updated Aug. 22, 2014