Protests erupted across the United States in late November and early December as Grand Juries in two killings of unarmed citizens by police officers reached the decision to not charge the officers with any wrongdoing. The two victims, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York have since become symbols to some of racial inequality in law enforcement and the American judicial system.
In a recent profile on the Wesleyan Church’s website, Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanHook, the pastor of a Wesleyan African-American church in Oakland, California spoke of the feelings of many in his community about the police and judicial system in America.
“In our community,” VanHook continued, “it’s hard for people to see police and the justice system as their protectors. Although crime is high here, enforcement is so racially biased. All of the studies by scholars in our community bears this out as well. For the same crimes, African-Americans more often get longer sentences as opposed to short sentences or probation for some other groups.”
This viewpoint is not unique. Throughout the United States many are expressing the same feelings of hopelessness and frustration with a system that many feel is harsher for minorities. Many times during these protests these feelings can burn over into anger. This anger, according to Allison Coventry, a pastor in the Free Methodist Church, can often be traced back to a lack of communication – communication within the community, with local government representation and even with God.
“The danger for people who do not lament is that their energy, their pain, their hurt still goes somewhere. The result is often violence, acting out, or destructive behaviors. I’m not surprised to see looting, protests, and violence with what has happened in Ferguson because those are things that happen in the absence of lament, in the absence of pain being expressed and heard. A nation not skilled at lamenting will act out the hurt somehow,” said Coventry in a blog post.
As the streets of many American cities filled and continue to fill with protests, and as reports of violence comes in through many media outlets, the members of our faith community have a unique ability to act and to make their churches places of sanctuary, healing and safety during this trying times.
Rev. VanHook’s church has established “healing centers” in various locations around Oakland. These venues offer an opportunity for people to come in and talk, shout, vent, express themselves among people who understand and will listen. Church members who man these centers are deeply sympathetic with the reasons behind the protests, but work to defuse or channel anger before it becomes violent.
The Rev. Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church in St. Louis has also established his church as a “safe zone” for protestors. 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.
The World Methodist Council prays for the families of those effected by the senseless tragedies involving Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as for comfort for the families of the law enforcement officials involved in both cases.
As the protests and debates continue, the World Methodist Council prays for peace, calm and the protests to be nonviolent. We also pray that a sensible and honest look and the police and judicial system takes place, so that the laws of the nation can be applied evenly to people without racial, religious, gender or class-based bias.