Aeneas Williams began his Easter sermon wearing a “DUKE” baseball cap. Lest we congregants think he was an overzealous fan giving into the sin of pride, the pastor of the Spirit Church had a purpose related to NCAA basketball fervor and was wearing the cap to underscore a simple point to his flock in Ferguson, Missouri: Stop the madness.
Williams reminded the congregation seated in the McCluer South-Berkeley High School auditorium of the oft-ridiculous way in which we accept lies about race, noting that we’re not that far away from the United States being, as he termed it, “majority-minority.”
“Most of us are mixed,” he said. “All this old, crazy stuff. You’re mixed with something! ‘I’m all black’; ‘I’m all white’—the devil is a liar. You got something in you!” The crowd laughed with recognition as the pastor went on to counter some particularly egregious racial stereotypes. “Stop this foolishness and this madness, OK. We’re all crazy, all right? We all have some stuff we’re working on, we’re all under construction. Stop this madness, OK? Stop this madness. Stop this madness. Stop this madness. This stuff is hurting people.”
A former NFL defensive back, Williams was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one week before last August’s killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. As such, he may seem an unlikely person to be leading a ministry in a city that, since that day, has become the racial flashpoint of America. But he reportedly was one of the first people Mayor James Knowles III called after Brown’s death, asking for help healing the North St. Louis County community as anger and sadness swelled into a protest which was met with violent, over compensatory opposition from law enforcement.
Should these churches be leading and guiding these protests, whether they manifest as a march, as a demonstration—or as a vote? On Tuesday Ferguson will hold its first civic elections since Brown’s death, giving residents a chance to remake their influential City Council, a decision all the more crucial in light of last month’s damning Department of Justice report about the local police and courts. This Easter weekend, the question came to the fore of how involved black churches must be, going forward, when it comes to stirring up the pot of protest in Ferguson, and elsewhere.
I first met Williams on Saturday, about 24 hours prior to attending his Easter service, at Wellspring, a church a few blocks from the Ferguson Police headquarters which was hosting a day-long Leadership and Advocacy Seminar. Consultants and experts were speaking to local activists and voters about how to engage effectively in the political process. Sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Institute and taglined as “Building a New Political Future,” it resembled a Politics 101 crash course for residents of Ferguson and two neighboring North County communities, Florissant and Jennings. Slides displaying outlines for increasing political engagement and social media facility were projected on screens next to a giant wooden cross which hung on the wall behind the Wellspring sanctuary lectern.
“I’m hoping people take away practical tactics that allow them to move their message forward,” said Kansas City-based political consultant Michele Watley, one of the presenters. “We’re sort of at a standstill with that. There’s an awareness at the local, national, and even an international level—but there’s no clear understanding of what the next steps are.”
One of the more flippant criticisms of the burgeoning civil rights movement that has risen out of Ferguson has been that the anger did the talking, and that there hasn’t been a tangible political advocacy plan to pair with the consistent protest actions. Whether or not the criticism was unfair seemed irrelevant on Saturday; given the importance of this election in Ferguson, the CBC invested $15,000 and brought along some headliners. Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota gave me the brother-nod as he and I made eye contact at the decimated bagel and coffee table. Lacy Clay, the United States representative for the congressional district that includes Ferguson, was there, as was Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, the former mayor of Kansas City, and chair of the CBC since 2010.
Source: New Republic | Jamil Smith