Flames raged so close to Adrienne Hawkins’s home that she thought her neighbor’s backyard was on fire. She could feel the heat and smell the smoke from businesses burning on nearby West Florissant Avenue, a central road running through Ferguson, Missouri.
Hawkins, 46, a Ferguson resident for most of the past 27 years, pulled away from the window. She replied to messages from concerned friends to assure them that she was fine, despite the riots. Meanwhile, her mom baked sweet potato pies for Thanksgiving while her 20-year-old twins played Xbox games.
“It was faith that allowed me to leave the window and do other things,” Hawkins said. “Even though the fires were aglow, we went to bed, because we knew everything would be okay and we would rebuild.”
The rest of Ferguson didn’t sleep that night. It was November 24, the day the news broke that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the August shooting death of Michael Brown. In response, rioters destroyed and burglarized buildings, leaving a trail of damage along West Florissant.
This is the Ferguson featured on TV for the past five months—the warzone of burning buildings, militarized police, and angry protesters. But it’s not the Ferguson that Hawkins and many other residents know as home.
St. Louis is no longer in an official state of emergency. The news cameras and protestors have trickled away. And many Ferguson residents—including Christians—are determined to rebuild.
In It for the Long Haul
Hawkins is one of them. She’s a Christian who attends Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, a 60-year-old congregation on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in north St. Louis, where Michael Brown’s funeral was held.
Hawkins is one of the primary organizers of ONE Ferguson, a community group “built by residents for residents.” She says the group is unique in that it comprises Ferguson residents working toward systemic improvement rather than outsiders trying to impose their own solutions.
ONE Ferguson sprouted from the many community meetings held in the city of 21,000 since Brown’s death. As Hawkins and other organizers attended more meetings, they started to recognize familiar faces. Those residents met on their own to discuss solutions, soon growing from a handful of people to a 23-person steering committee. At an October Ferguson City Council meeting, ONE Ferguson officially introduced their organization to the community.
Together the group identified three C priorities of development: community, commerce, and children. Hawkins notes that ONE Ferguson, unlike other St. Louis groups, is diverse—both white and black—and meets in neutral areas rather than historic downtown Ferguson (traditionally white) or West Florissant (traditionally black).
“There is this blossoming sense of community,” Hawkins said. “It’s not the warzone you see on the news. There are real people here. They’re hurting, but they’re reaching out.”
ONE Ferguson is not a faith-based organization. “We’re called to work with everybody,” says Marc DeSantis, a church worship leader on ONE Ferguson’s steering committee. But like DeSantis, many participants are Christians. And there are at least two pastors, a deacon, a worship leader, and a theology teacher on the steering committee. Other pastors have endorsed the group.
Every once in a while, the faith in Christ that drives many ONE Ferguson leaders comes through. At a November meeting, for example, a Presbyterian pastor led a corporate prayer. “It was moving, and so necessary,” said DeSantis.
At three months old, with about 100 people involved, ONE Ferguson is in the planning and brainstorming stage. The group has hosted cleanup days and supported community resource fairs to address short-term needs, while holding focus groups at churches and community centers to discuss long-term ones.
This month, five focus groups are meeting to brainstorm ideas for 1) police and court reform; 2) community relations and development; 3) economic development; 4) citizenship support and progress; and 5) resident education advocacy.
A recent focus group met at the Ferguson Community Center, a relatively neutral location in a residential area across the street from a horse farm. Fourteen residents gathered—seven white, seven black. By the end of the meeting, residents had volunteered to contact colleges to inquire about scholarships and internships for Ferguson youth.
“That’s the beauty of being resident-led: we’re listening to the residents,” Hawkins said. “We’re giving everybody a sense of accountability, of what they can do. ‘What do you have to offer?’”
Meanwhile, Hawkins and other ONE Ferguson volunteers are checking up on Ferguson businesses affected by the riots and asking what they can do to help them stabilize. There’s a community fund set up just for that—not through ONE Ferguson, but through a partner, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson, and their community-based ministry, The Vine.
St. Stephen’s rector Steve Lawler created the Ferguson Community Development Fund to help these local businesses (see, for example, its GoFundMe page and a local calendar fundraiser). ONE Ferguson helps identify hurting businesses, whose owners can then apply to the fund. About $5,000 has been raised so far, Lawler said.
One of the pastors and earliest organizers on ONE Ferguson’s steering committee is F. Willis Johnson Jr. of Wellspring Church, a predominantly black United Methodist congregation. Located down the street from the Ferguson Police Department, Wellspring has hosted many critical public conversations with residents over the past few months.
“Much of the leadership and voice [in Ferguson] has been misappropriated to people who are not residents or not vested in the system change of Ferguson,” Johnson said. “You can care and have sympathy, but you’re not embedded.”
Take the protests, which have featured “die-ins” where organizers lie on the floor in silence, and have sometimes seen the police’s controversial use of tear gas. Hawkins and DeSantis said only one Ferguson church is known for hosting protest meetings, and others haven’t been part of organizing demonstrations. Individual pastors have provided a peaceful presence at the protests, they said, but they’re not always speaking officially for their congregations.
Bryce Marner, a youth pastor at Salem Evangelical Free Church in neighboring Florissant, came out to some of the protests, joining a group of clergy present to prevent conflict between police and protestors. But he didn’t see many other pastors from his area.
“It’s not that North County pastors don’t care,” Marner said. “But we’re exhausted from everyone coming into our community and saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ We’re here every day.”
SOURCE: Cat Knarr in Ferguson, Missouri