How Does Ferguson Make You Feel?
There is a gaping chasm between the feelings and emotions experienced by whites and blacks in this country.
By Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota
Recently, I watched the video of a young black man being shot by police. As shots hit his body, the victim’s legs gave way as he stumbled to the sidewalk. A couple more bullets hit his body as he fell to the ground. A second or two later, his arm lifted as he tried to roll over. The two police officers at the scene still had their guns trained on the young man.
The pedestrian who recorded the incident on his cell phone spoke in stunned horror and with expletives, disbelieving that he and the other bystanders in the midday sun just watched a young man die.
I feel sick just thinking about the images. I’m revolted by the memory of how his body stumbled and crumpled to the ground. I wonder why the man was acting defiantly. I question why both officers fired so many shots.
But mostly, I feel sickness at watching a life snuffed out so quickly.
We need to cross the emotional bridge and sense the feelings of those oppressed by racism.
Seeking the facts doesn’t make the sick feeling in my stomach go away.
But the feelings are real no matter what the facts are. A man was killed. He was a black man. He was confronted by police and within 20 seconds, he was dead.
This video was not the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but it happened four miles away and two weeks later.
The protests in Ferguson and the discussions on social media continue to reveal that there is a gaping chasm between the feelings and emotions experienced by whites and blacks in this country: in police interactions, experiences in schools, looking for employment or having voices heard and understood.
There is a racial divide in our society, and “the way forward is not an appeal to the facts as a first resort, but the attempt to get inside each other’s skin as best as we can to feel what they feel, and understand it,” wrote the Rev. Bryan Loritts in Christianity Today.
As Loritts wrote, if his wife approaches him and shares how she is feeling and he just responds to her with facts, their relationship can never be close. The one fact that would be helpful for white people to understand is that African Americans feel confused, afraid, victimized and oppressed.
I and other white evangelical leaders and our organizations can be rightly faulted for not encouraging “a groundswell of evangelical call for action,” as the Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile wrote for The Gospel Coalition. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to say or how to participate.
Since then, I’ve taken time to read what some African American evangelical leaders have shared, and I’ve talked with African American leaders with whom I know.
I would encourage you to do the same.
In any relationship we must understand how each other is feeling.
Try to understand the feelings in their stories.
The Rev. Efrem Smith wrote that it’s painful to share his own experiences of being racially profiled: driving with two other African American males and being stopped by police because they fit the description of someone who robbed a house nearby.
When preparing to move back to the U.S. to plant a new church in Washington D.C., Anyabwile said his one fear was, “This country destroying my boy. Ferguson is my fear. I could be the black dad approaching a white sheet stained with his son’s blood.”
Pastor Leonce Crump told the story of being stopped while driving through Texas. As he was being removed from the car by one officer and frisked, the other officer asked his wife—who is white—if she was “being held against her will.”
He added, “The police have stopped me, both walking and driving, nearly once a year since I was 15 years old. Though I have been asked to leave my vehicle, thrown to the ground and against my vehicle, interrogated, frisked and cuffed on these occasions, I’ve not been cited. Not once.”
And Loritts who first said that we need to learn how the other person is feeling wrote, “I need my white brothers to know how I felt as I sat in the preaching classes in Bible college and seminary not once hearing examples of great African-American preachers. I need you to know how I felt when I was forced face down on the hard asphalt of Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, 1993, all because I was nineteen and driving my pastor’s Lexus, a year after the Rodney King riots. I need you to ask how I felt when I walked into a Target recently behind a white woman who took one look at me and pulled her purse tightly.”
In the days following Michael Brown’s death, I was in rural Wyoming on vacation with my family. I struggled to reconcile the sense of peace, tranquility and order surrounding me at that moment with the distrust, confusion and hurt being felt by acquaintances and others more closely affected by Brown’s death.
To my African American brothers and sisters, most days I still don’t know how to respond, but I do want to try and understand your feelings.
And to my fellow evangelicals, Anyabwile calls us to “understand that justice and mercy flow inextricably from the gospel—both at the cross of Christ as well as in the daily carrying of our crosses.”
I would encourage white evangelical leaders and the evangelical church in general to adopt a posture of listening: to the feelings and experiences of our African American brothers and sisters. By doing so, we can understand the pain, frustration and the challenges they face each day.
But we must not stop there. Listening and understanding should be precursors to action. The specific action might be different for each person or church, but Jesus’ words about injustice, oppression and restoration don’t leave us with a choice to sit on the sidelines.
- Interview with Rev. Richard Coleman, board member.
- Silence Says Something, earlier article by Rev. Edrin Williams
- Time for the Church to Talk Candidly About Race, earlier article by Nekima Levy-Pounds
- Our Responsibility to the Ministry of Reconciliation,earlier article by Rev. Terrance Rollerson, board member
Other recommended reading
Le Que Heidkamp (local pastor, co-author of article in Time Magazine): Multi-Ethnic Churches Lament America’s Racial Injustice.
Efrem Smith (Minneapolis native, author, president of World Impact):Ferguson and the Church, and Racial Profiling, Thug-ology and the Church.
It’s Time to Listen – African American evangelical leaders contribute to an online series at Christianity Today: (Link to all stories here.)
- Bryan Loritts: Feeling the Pain Despite the Facts.
- Leonce Crump: Will White Evangelicals Ever Acknowledge Systemic Injustice?
- Philip Fletcher: How Can We Learn from One Another?
- Lisa Sharon Harper: The Lie.
Thabiti Anyabwile (Council member of The Gospel Coalition): Why We Never “Wait for All the Facts” Before We Speak, plus additional articles.
NY Times: (Recommended by other evangelical leaders): Racial History Behind the Ferguson Protests – The Death of Michael Brown.
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