On Feb. 7, 2008, a man walked into Kirkwood City Hall in Missouri and killed six people. It was a large enough, shocking enough crime to make national news. It even ranked a paragraph in the Saturday New York Times. Undoubtedly it made so much press because of the sheer quantity of those shot and because it happened in city hall. But the ugliness of that night is only part of the story. What needs to be told is what has happened since.
Or, in a sense, before. In August 2007 my wife, Cecelia, began a community gospel choir as a way to bring blacks and whites “together in song.” Since moving here in 2003, we have been disappointed in the segregated nature of St. Louis, and we both felt a call to do our small part to help. In January 2008 we went together, with staff and members from Kirkwood Baptist Church, to the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta. It was a beautiful experience, and we sensed a continued call to work on the racial divide. A few days after getting home from Atlanta, I attended a neighborhood meeting in our “African-American section” of town. The mayor, who I knew fairly well, and one of the local council members were both present.
A couple of weeks later, the mayor would be in the hospital from a gun shot to the head and the council member would be dead. The mayor would live a few months. Five victims (two of whom were policemen) would die that night. The shooter, a local man known quite well by several church members, was a black man. All of the victims were white.
It isn’t just the villain/victim skin color that made the massacre a racially charged event. Charles Thornton came from a section of Kirkwood that was historically African American. In 1990 it was annexed by the city. In the process of annexation, promises were made, or implied. Some of those were not kept. In the already segregated reality of St. Louis, tensions were heightened. Like many such stories it’s complicated. But suffice it to say that Thornton’s act cannot be divorced from, nor explained by, the history of race relations in St. Louis. This kind of act has no rational explanation, but on the other hand, to remove it from our American historical context makes no sense.
But again, from ashes, beauty. On Feb. 23, 2008, Kirkwood Baptist Church hosted a city dialogue, inviting African Americans from this section of town to talk with their neighbors. Out of that meeting we created an organization called “The Community for Understanding and Healing,” which has subsequently enlisted hundreds in multi-racial dialogue. We’ve taken a serious look at issues like white privilege and the white/black achievement gap. It has been a rich, sometimes fraught, but beautiful journey. The new mayor, elected not long after the shooting, and all city council members have been at the majority of meetings. Recently the organization sponsored an essay contest for local children. There were well over 300 entries. Nine winners were chosen, and the top three (one each from grade school, middle school and high school) read their essays in front of a diverse crowd of 200, including the mayor and a majority of the city council. Again, Kirkwood Baptist Church was honored to serve as host.
Out of this effort, a good many relationships were formed. I now have a friendship with Rev. Jeff Croft, pastor of the Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist Church. In October we joined together for a one-day missional effort called “Hands on Kirkwood” (our version of “Operation Inasmuch”). And in January we met on four successive Wednesday nights to watch and discuss “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,” produced by EthicsDaily.com. This was an exceptionally moving time. This is why I’m writing. The rest is necessary background.
The community-wide dialogues were instructive and helpful. Many good relationships were formed. I believe the organization we began will continue its good work in the community. But I must admit that for me as a pastor, the most powerful moments of this last year occurred when two congregations came together—one very white, one quite black. We met trying to grapple with the ideals of the gospel we preach and the reality of the past we’ve experienced. Having the commonality of a vibrant Baptist faith led us to a level of discussion that was substantial, moving and potentially life-altering. There was an honesty and openness I’d never seen in a setting like this.
After watching the section of “Beneath the Skin” where issues of institutional racism are explored, some of the older black participants talked about our local Spencer’s Grill, where not so long ago they were forced to stand at the back door to get a hamburger. Skin color determined that they had to stand at the back door. Not many white people knew how recently this was the case. An older white member told about growing up in a “sundown town,” where only whites were allowed after the sun set.
But on our dialogue evenings, we all felt as if we were eating at the same table, knowing that the sun was setting on our divided journey.
The night of Feb. 7, 2008, will be forever etched on my brain. Every time I hear a helicopter, my mind goes to that night of circling helicopters and a futile, rushed trip to the hospital. I’ll not soon forget. Neither will many in our town. We mourn those who were lost. But we also celebrate that out of this tragedy our complacency has been shaken, and our sense of common cause has found new life.
To see the efforts in the community of Kirkwood, visit www.cfuh.org.
For three decades, Stearman has served as a pastor in the Christian (Baptist) tradition. His experience includes congregations in Athens, Greece and Paris, France. Most recently, he has been a pastor in New York City where he represents the Baptist global body at the United Nations (supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist World Alliance). He is active in helping to lead NGO committees related to human rights and the freedom of religion and belief, has been active in civil societies advocacy at the High Level Political Forum around the UN’s Agenda 2030 (SDGs), and is a trustee on the board of the Parliament of World Religions.