At least 20,000 African-American men packed the streets of St. Louis on the first Sunday in June, marching one of the historic Annie Malone May Day Parade routes through “The Ville” and ending in Tandy Park.
The participation exceeded the dream of Dr. F. James Clark, senior pastor of the Shalom Church (City of Peace), an American Baptist Church. It was “A Call to Oneness.”
Dr. Clark said: “When you are one of the cities which leads the nation in homicides, you don’t have many options in terms of thinking about doing something. When we march through north St. Louis, we hope to create a moral climate. We hope to reclaim, through the vehicle of reconciliation, respect for one another and the sanctity of life.”
Clark’s vision grew out of the disturbing homicide statistics for St. Louis, especially the statistics related to the historic African-American community where he attended Sumner High School. Incidentally, Sumner was opened in 1875 as the first high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi.
Clark shared his concerns with Eric Rhone (a board member of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association). They agreed it was time to say “Enough!”
An invitation was extended to other African-American religious and community leaders to form a planning committee. Minister Donald Muhammad (Nation of Islam Mosque #28) eagerly joined the group as did other American Baptist pastors in St. Louis. As things progressed, participation was opened to all African-American men.
Their mission was clear: We will create a moral climate in which we will reclaim respect for one another and the sanctity of life through the vehicle of reconciliation.
Their strategy included a State of Emergency Panel Discussion on Friday, May 30. This was held at Shalom Church. The panelists included business leaders, educators, social service providers, politicians and entertainers. The purpose of the panel was to shine a spotlight on the crisis of violence. During the question and answer session, young persons were given priority to the microphones.
Saturday was claimed as a Day of Information and Implementation. Classes were held in churches and other settings across the city to address the issue: “How do we confront the moral issues and concerns that face black men in our community?”
Sunday was a Day of Worship, Witness and Reconciliation. Participants were encouraged to worship wherever they were comfortable and then meet at the Roberts Plaza (the old Sears Building) to march the parade route to Tandy Park. In the park there were more speakers who made it clear that they were in it for the long haul and challenged others to the same. This was not just a weekend media event.
Women formed a “Circle of Support” co-convened by Minister Ethel Byndom and Rev. Muriel Johnson, associate regional minister for the American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region. The Circle of Support lined the parade route to encourage their men. As the Call to Oneness grows, it is anticipated that there will be a growing role for and focus on women.
In addition, a Children’s Center at the Antioch Baptist Church near Tandy Park was coordinated by Rev. Johnson. The Children’s Center was supported by grants from the Great Rivers Region and National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. Revs. Marilyn Turner and Brenda Halliburton from National Ministries were present for the weekend. Executive Director Aidsand Wright-Riggins was also present for some events.
Yes, politicians were on stage and had their say. But let’s be clear, this event–this movement–is rooted in the religious institutions of the African-American community in St. Louis. They understand this as a moral issue. They are bringing their leadership to bear in order to leverage young men out of the gang-based culture of violence that holds people hostage in their own homes. The reconciliation comes in the confession of these religious institutions that they have “left these young men behind,” and they repent.
While this was an interfaith event, the disparate groups did not come together by discarding their faith distinctives. Baptists did not become Muslims, and Muslims did not become Baptists. Instead, each held to their own faith motivation and looking from that position saw a concern that was shared with someone else looking from another position of faith motivation. The integrity of all was maintained.
This is a powerful call to the religious institutions of the African-American community to reinvigorate themselves and reclaim their role in shaping the moral climate of their neighborhoods. In particular, Dr. F. James Clark has established himself as a visionary organizer in St. Louis to be reckoned with.
This has a larger scope, however. It is not just about St. Louis. Other places, small and large, are also infected with the virus of violence. This is not just about African-Americans. Violence is an equal opportunity pandemic. This may well be a model for other religious leaders to adapt to their own setting.
In a sad addendum and immediate test of seriousness, two young women were shot at a gas station Sunday night. One died, the other is in serious condition. Over 100 men, including Bishop Courtney Jones, showed up at the gas station as an intervention to this culture of violence. They mourned with and supported the families in their loss. They encouraged the neighborhood to stand together as one against this kind of crime.
Dwight Stinnett is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region.