The shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed African American 18-year-old, by a white police officer has forever etched the name of “Ferguson, Missouri” into public consciousness and memory. For some, the name of this township in St. Louis County inspires fear; for others it creates feelings of disappointment or frustration; and, for some, it has helped bring awareness that racism still exists in the United States despite a dominant cultural narrative suggesting otherwise.
And yet, for others, like Rev. F. Willis Johnson, “Ferguson” is not just a hashtag but a place they call home. In 2011, Johnson moved to Ferguson and helped launch Wellspring Church, a new church start of the Missouri Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. A predominantly African-American congregation, Wellspring sits just one block from the Ferguson police station, the site of several protests last fall and on the first anniversary of Mike Brown’s death.
Like our faith, the city of Ferguson is both local and universal. Ferguson has resonated across the country and the world because many of the conditions and factors surrounding Ferguson are all too familiar. Ivan James, pastor of the largely African American Asbury UMC in the historic Ville neighborhood north of St. Louis insists that many communities are “one police stop from being a Ferguson.”
One year since the death of Mike Brown creates a natural moment for reflection. What has changed since August 9, 2014?
Where have we seen God? One change has been the consistent news focus on race-related tragedies— from the streets of New York to the sanctuaries of South Carolina to a jail in Texas. The spotlight on the pain has been grueling for some faith leaders and activists. Like 1950s civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, many are “sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
Despite the grueling year, Johnson and others insist that there is indeed hope in Ferguson, Missouri. There is hope for all of the “Fergusons” around the state and the country. This year’s events have become a catalyst for conversation and action concerning equity, empowerment, and systemic injustices across the nation.
One sign of hope is the new Center for Social Empowerment and Justice that will be housed in the educational annex of Wellspring Church. Thanks to the work of many across the connection, the new Center will serve as a hub for discussing and discerning community solutions, the study of urban context issues, and the exploration of ethical faith formation and practice. With Bishop Robert Schnase, Rev. Bob Farr, and other leaders present, the Center was officially launched on August 9, 2015.
This launch occurred with a week full of events, including a national conference for black scholars, a conference for doing ministry in crisis scenarios, a school supplies drive, and a symposium about what’s next in the business community for Ferguson.
With an understanding that problems and solutions are both local and national, the Center will focus on three primary components: education, enterprise, and engagement.
To learn more about how the Center is seeking to lead community growth from a faith center, check out the Center’s website at www.fueledtochange.com.