By Lilly Fowler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
ST. LOUIS — One day last month, protests arrived at the doorstep of the Rev. Teresa Danieley.
Danieley is pastor at St. John’s Church, an Episcopal congregation in the Tower Grove neighborhood of St. Louis, just down the street from where prayer vigils took a surprisingly violent turn on Oct. 9.
Protesters had gathered to mourn the death of VonDerrit Myers Jr., 18, who had been shot by an off-duty police officer just the day before. But by the end of what was supposed to be a prayerful evening, an officer walked away hurt, several protesters recovered from pepper spray attacks and a neighborhood was vandalized. Danieley allowed those trying to escape the demonstrations that night to enter her church.
Now, Danieley and dozens of other clergy members are preparing to once again offer their churches as safe spaces, or sanctuaries.
Clergy anticipate that for various reasons, whether to escape violence or find fellowship, some might seek refuge in places of worship in the coming weeks. The grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot African-American teenager Michael Brown, is expected by the end of the month, potentially triggering further civil unrest.
Organizations like the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which was formed after the death of Brown, and Metropolitan Congregations United, a group of interdenominational, multiracial congregations from around the region, are in the process of creating a list of churches that are volunteering the use of their space. Many of these churches will be packed with supplies such as food, water and phone chargers. Medics, legal observers and counselors will also be at hand.
Some believe that unless officers are needed in an emergency, churches should also function as police-free zones during protests.
The Rev. Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church says that while his church does not intend to harbor criminals, he expects police to keep their distance. The idea is to make everyone, especially protesters, feel like they have a safe place to go. Pierson’s church is near many of the protest staging areas used over the last few months in Ferguson.
“We just want to administer to the needs of the people,” Pierson said.
Other clergy, like Danieley, say that though she considers her church to be a sanctuary, her interaction with the police will be no different from any other time.
Danieley says she and the St. Louis Police have always had a good relationship. She doesn’t expect that to change if and when protests take place in her neighborhood.
She notes, for example, that police have been respectful when she’s asked them to intervene with the mentally ill who visit the church to receive free meals.
“We have our own boundaries and our expectations for the use of our space,” Danieley said.
“I’m not worried about police not respecting our boundaries. I think if you have transparency and communication then this doesn’t even come up.”
Danieley acknowledges, however, that she sometimes feels torn between police and protesters.
“I feel like I’m caught between a lot of different expectations,” she said.
The decision to mark a church as a safe space is not easy under the current circumstances.
“For a lot of pastors it’s a difficult decision,” said the Rev. David Gerth, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United. Pastors, Gerth says, feel obligated to consider how members of their congregation feel and worry about the safety of their property.
“There’s a lot of stuff to consider. It’s not for everybody, and there’s lots of other ways that congregations can be open and supportive without being a sanctuary,” Gerth said. “I think there are a number of congregations that will respond to what’s in front of them.
“If it were a tornado it would be a little more straightforward for folks,” he said.
Denise Lieberman, a lawyer specializing in civil rights who works with the Don’t Shoot Coalition, says churches are still determining where to draw the line.
Although churches are under no special legal protection, there is a long history of them operating as safe houses. The Bible refers to cities of refuge for accidental killings where those accused of murder could safely await trial. In the 19th century, churches stowed away runaway slaves.
In the 1960s, civil rights leaders often gathered at churches. In 1963, for example, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which Martin Luther King used as a meeting spot, was bombed, killing four girls.
And in the 1980s, hundreds of churches supported the so-called sanctuary movement in an attempt to save Central American refugees, fleeing civil conflict in their homeland, from deportation. Some of those active in the movement were put on trial and criminally prosecuted for transporting illegal immigrants.
Churches are also involved in the current battle for immigration reform, sometimes hiding undocumented immigrants.
Local clergy say they hope there won’t be a great need for people to get off the streets when the grand jury decision comes.
But churches plan to be there for the community under all circumstances. On the night of the grand jury announcement, a prayer vigil at St. John’s is set for 7 p.m.
Christ Church Cathedral downtown will host a 24-hour prayer vigil after the announcement. West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Florissant is throwing a freedom rally and prayer service at 7 p.m. on that night.
Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, hopes all the preparation for violence, including Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s declaration earlier this week of a state of emergency, won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, for his part, released a letter earlier this week that specified the city plans to “honor safe houses, and will consider churches to be sanctuaries, except in extremely rare circumstances.”
“We will not use subterfuge such as building inspections to shut them down,” it read.
St. Louis County Police also say officers will only enter churches “under one or more of three conditions: consent, exigent circumstances and search warrant.”
Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation says she know protesters strive to be peaceful.
“The highest priority here is the saving of lives,” Talve said. “Because what started this whole protest movement is the loss of Michael Brown’s life. He became the symbol for all the loss of life that we believe can be prevented.”
The young protesters on the street, she said, are “committed to nonviolence, but they’re also committed to change.”
AFP Photo/Joshua Lott