Billy Graham’s Civil Rights Work Picks Up In Ferguson

Billy Graham’s Civil Rights Work Picks Up In Ferguson

By Lilly Fowler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

ST. LOUIS — Ferguson is testing the civil rights legacy of famed televangelist Billy Graham.

In a region still roiled by the death of African-American teenager Michael Brown and a recent U.S. Department of Justice report that found a pattern of racial bias among police, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, an organization based in Charlotte, N.C., and headed by son Franklin Graham, is attempting to make a difference.

An emergency team of the ministry’s chaplains has already made two intermittent stops in Ferguson and is prepared to return at a moment’s notice.

Now, the project is taking the next step.

Working with One Church Outreach Ministry, a group that seeks to bring together various Christian leaders and pastors, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has helped launch an adopt-a-block effort in Ferguson.

For the next six months, a community of Christians hoping to help transform the area will canvass dozens of distinct blocks in Ferguson, offering prayers and assistance.

There are also plans to introduce an adopt-a-school initiative modeled on a national program designed by Tony Evans, a pastor in Dallas at the 10,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.

The outreach efforts aim to advance the work Billy Graham began decades ago in the civil rights era.

Billy Graham’s Rapid Response Team, a nationwide group of 1,800 chaplains, races toward disasters, often using tractor-trailers to set up makeshift offices in devastated communities.

The team, specifically trained to deal with crisis situations, first formed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York. A total of nearly 100 chaplains from different parts of the country have been deployed to Ferguson.

Jack Munday, international director for the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, says when people experience trauma, they start asking the hard questions.

“People are looking for hope. They’re looking for answers. Quite frankly, they start asking God questions,” Munday said.

The first time Billy Graham’s Rapid Response team landed in Ferguson was in November, when a grand jury opted not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Brown.

A large, black truck with the words “SHARING HOPE IN CRISIS” could be seen on West Florissant Avenue. Chaplains mingled about, allowing folks from the area to climb into their temporary office and talk about their troubles.

“Our mission is to ask good questions,” Munday said. “What they are hearing from us is we’ve recognized that they’ve gone through something and then we listen.”

Chaplains traveled to Ferguson again after two officers were shot last week in front of the police department. The ministry has made an effort to not take sides, reaching out to first responders and protesters.

Stories of success have emerged from the streets.

Chaplains say they have prayed with about 2,000 residents, 100 of whom have chosen to follow Jesus Christ.

There have also been some dramatic moments.

One of the team’s chaplains married a couple, who had been together for nine years and who, in an unrelated incident, had lost their home in a fire, in a Ferguson parking lot.

Chaplain Kevin Williams called the wedding “a signal … to everyone that is paying attention. A change is coming.”

Other times have been more tense. When protesters recently clashed in front of the Ferguson police department, one chaplain was forced to step in, pulling out one woman pinned against a wall by the wrist.

On a recent snowy Saturday, about 50 Christians gathered in a Baptist church in Ferguson. Representatives from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association told those gathered that at that very moment there were hundreds around the country praying for them.

They asked that the Holy Spirit guide the meeting. Among those in the crowd was NFL Hall of Famer Aeneas Williams, a former Rams player who is now pastor of The Spirit Church in Ferguson.

John Galvin, an attorney in St. Louis who has volunteered as a chaplain for seven years, stressed that it was important the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s efforts in Ferguson not end with the Rapid Response Team. An adopt-a-block program was one way of continuing their work.

“We stay there until the job is done, and we do it right,” Galvin said.

“Follow-up is the process of giving continued attention to new Christians until they are at home in the local church … develop their full potential for Jesus Christ.”

The plan was for volunteers to painstakingly visit each block in Ferguson, if possible on a weekly basis, and knock on doors. They weren’t necessarily there to spread the Gospel but to show love and offer help.

“You’re not going to force the Bible or Gospel down their throats,” said Jose Aguayo, a chaplain with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Galvin added, “We don’t compromise on the truth, but we don’t go in with all the answers. If we come in with too much of an attitude, it’s not going to work.”

Those who opened doors would be given information on free early childhood education in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, a summer job league for young adults, and even for a federal energy assistance program.

“I told the mayor, in a year’s time you’re not going to recognize your town, because God is going to take over,” said Aguayo, referring to James Knowles.

(c)2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Genna Adkins, far left, 23, and Leah Coblentz, second from left, 26, listen as Rev. Jose Aguayo addresses participants in the adopt-a-block program at First Baptist Church of Ferguson before they go out into the community on March 14, 2015 in Ferguson, Mo. (Cristina Fletes-Boutte/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

St. Louis-Area Churches Plan To Act As Safe Houses For Those Seeking Refuge During Protests

St. Louis-Area Churches Plan To Act As Safe Houses For Those Seeking Refuge During Protests

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

Pastor Paves Her Own Way To Ferguson’s Front Lines

Pastor Paves Her Own Way To Ferguson’s Front Lines

By Lilly Fowler, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The first time the public heard the name Renita Lamkin in the same sentence as Ferguson was probably the day she was shot.

In early August, four days after Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, Lamkin, a pastor, stood with Ferguson protesters, attempting to mediate. Police had warned the crowd to disperse and in an effort to buy a little time, Lamkin shouted, “They’re leaving!”

“That’s when I felt a pop in the stomach,” Lamkin says now of the rubber pellet that hit her. The pellet left a ghastly wound — large, deep and purplish — and created a social media frenzy. Tweet after tweet showed Lamkin, 44, with short, light-brown hair and a wide smile. She wore a T-shirt with an image of a cross that she lifted up just slightly to show off the ugly bruise. In the coming days, critics said police had already managed to shoot a white Christian lady.

Lamkin says she didn’t really have a plan when she ventured out to Ferguson but that “the whole being shot thing was probably the best thing that could have happened.” The injury had cemented Lamkin in the struggle for racial equality.

“They say, ‘You took a bullet for us.’ I have no sense of taking a bullet for someone. My sense is that I’m in the struggle. I’m in it. We’re in this together, and I was playing my role,” Lamkin says.

Fast forward nearly three months and Lamkin continues to deliver the same message of defiance as pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Charles. The AME denomination is a religious movement born out of the resistance to slavery with about 2.5 million members, most of them African-American.

“We can boldly resist those who try to silence us. We can and should be defiant,” Lamkin told her congregation on a recent Sunday at St. John AME Church. “There will always be those who discount the voice of the poor.” But “we don’t have to accept the conditions of this world.”

Although Lamkin is mother to two African-American children, her role as a white leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church is unusual.

“She’s a rare breed of person to be both white and female in an overwhelming black denomination where the ministry is overwhelming male,” said Michael Joseph Brown, academic dean at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. Brown said Lamkin, who graduated from Payne in 2014, was the only white person in her graduating class.

Dennis C. Dickerson, a history professor at Vanderbilt University who taught Lamkin, says the “social protest and social insurgency” ethos that’s “baked into the church’s DNA” clearly appealed to her.

While the church’s philosophy informs her work in Ferguson, Lamkin acknowledges that the experiences her children had growing up in St. Louis also influence her decision to continue to be actively engaged in the protests.

“My kids would be suspended for things that other kids would just have a detention for,” Lamkin says when describing the treatment of African-Americans in schools.

“It’s the education system. It’s the job situation. Lack of resources. It’s painting all these kids as if they’re these gangsters who are out killing everybody.”

Lamkin says she’s outraged by what she sees as unnecessary police brutality, even in cases where the victim may have been guilty of certain crimes.

“Does that require a death sentence? And how did the police on the street get to be judge, jury, and executioner?”

Lamkin was sitting next to her mother in the front seat of the family’s car when on a rainy day in 1975 a pickup truck slammed into them. Her mother died in the wreck. Lamkin was just 4. Lamkin says she and her three siblings were reared by their grandmother, though she was already in her 60s and clearly done parenting, resorting sometimes to both physical and verbal abuse.

Still, Lamkin says that from an early age she read the Bible three or four times a year and could rattle off scripture on command.

“First person I led to Christ, I was like 8 or 10 or something,” says Lamkin, who grew up in the Pentecostal church in Kansas City. “I was out knocking on doors after church asking people if they knew Jesus Christ.”

As a child, Lamkin says, she even ran a Bible school in the yard.

“I made my brother bring his friends,” Lamkin says with a laugh. “I went, rounded them up, and beat them up, and made them come.”

But Lamkin’s involvement with religion was not always so playful. She said she was sexually abused by a youth pastor, as well as a cousin. She was also severely mistreated by the father of her children. The two met in high school and were together for seven years. Lamkin says she knew she had to leave him on the day that he threatened her with a gun and accidentally shot himself instead.

“That is when I said to God, ‘You got to get me out of here, one of us is going to die,’?” Lamkin says. “I’m either going to kill him trying to stay alive, or he’s going to kill me.”

Lamkin’s escape route was a secret post office box. There she collected the checks the state sent her as reimbursement for the meals she served at her home day care. When she had enough money to put down a payment for a rental property, she and an old high school girlfriend loaded up a Pontiac Trans Am with everything they could and left.

Because she grew up in a faith that wasn’t particularly friendly to female leaders, Lamkin says, she expected to be a missionary or a pastor’s wife. Yet because of her knowledge of scripture, Lamkin was repeatedly invited to preach. She says her fate was sealed when in Bible study she met a woman pastor in the AME church.

“I talk too much, you know, I get on people’s nerves, I’m abrasive, so my personality — sometimes it takes a little bit to warm up to,” Lamkin says. But “people trust me with their stories and trust me to speak from God’s heart to theirs, and I don’t take that trust lightly.”

Ferguson has complicated Lamkin’s life as a pastor. On more than one occasion she’s been followed home, Lamkin says, and some in her congregation worry the church could be targeted next.

When asked if she’s fearful of what might happen when the grand jury’s decision on whether or not to indict Wilson is released, Lamkin says police comportment remains her primary concern.

“I will say that in general that regular group of protesters that are normally out there, they’re not violent. They’re angry, they’re loud, they’re intense, they say a lot of cuss words, but they’re not violent.”

Lamkin says the simple act of arresting Wilson would send a badly needed message.

“Even if it didn’t go anywhere, the arrest itself would say that we are making a shift and that there is accountability. It would be a start,” Lamkin says. “The way things are now, police are protected, and they can act on their opinion and be protected.”

“If you’re so afraid of the people that you are serving, then you need to stop serving those people.”

They can’t, Lamkin says, “shoot first and figure it out later.”

AFP Photo/Joshua Lott

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