As a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, makes international headlines following a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed African-American teenager, most Baptist churches have responded with silence while some attempt to build peace and reconciliation.
EthicsDaily.com examined the websites and social media accounts of a few dozen Baptist churches in the St. Louis area, finding that most of them included no mention of the controversy swirling from the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
EthicsDaily.com also contacted several pastors of Baptist churches in or near Ferguson, most of whom did not respond.
A few churches offered generic statements about needing to pray.
August Gate Church, a church in St. Louis affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), urged people to come to their Wednesday night service to “pray for our city and the great tragedy.”
“Angry? Confused? Scared? about the events happening in our city? Let’s pursue #HopeforSTL together as we pray tonight,” the church added without ever naming the controversy or the shooting of Brown.
The SBC-affiliated First Baptist Church of Ferguson held a “prayer service for Ferguson” on Wednesday night.
A couple of other SBC churches encouraged members to attend that service, though the calls for prayers usually referred to the crisis in generic terms.
While most Baptist churches in the area avoid publicly commenting on the crisis in Ferguson, a few churches offered words and actions to advance the common good.
The morning after the shooting, Central Baptist Church in St. Louis mentioned Michael Brown’s death on Facebook and urged positive steps forward.
The church is affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. and the American Baptist Churches, USA.
“We enter into this sacred place this morning with heavy hearts, seeking the joy, comfort, strength, and peace of the presence of God,” the church offered on Sunday morning before most of the protests, violence and police actions that have sparked headlines.
“We pray for focused efforts and calm strength in the days ahead as we come together to ensure that this day forward we no longer allow the spirit of destruction to take the lives of our youth,” the church’s statement added. “We acknowledge the presence of anger in those of us who stand as witnesses to these brutal acts of death and dehumanization. Let our anger lead to constructive conversations, that lead to positive partnerships, and finally that lead to life affirming actions.”
A few days later, the church issued a call for church members to support peace protesters, adding, “It’s time to pray with our feet!”
Other National Baptist churches in St. Louis have also encouraged peaceful protests and gatherings to raise concerns about the shooting or police treatment of protesters.
The SBC-affiliated Passage Community Church in the nearby suburb of Florissant tied its calls for prayer with work efforts to help clean up in Ferguson and “minister to the shops that were looted.”
“We are hoping our presence will encourage and bring hope to many lives!” the church added on its Facebook page about the cleanup effort on Wednesday.
The church is planning a food and school supply drive this weekend. More than 120 people from multiple churches attended cleanup effort, which attracted some positive media coverage.
“Our biggest thing is to be the hands and feet of Jesus and to be known for what we do more than what we are against,” Joe Costephens, pastor of Passage Community Church told EthicsDaily.com.
“We must be humbled by God and see his Kingdom come in a real way,” he added. “That kingdom comes through salvation leading to transformation. Transformation occurs when God moves his people to pick up trash, to help a neighbor out, or when we take the opportunity to preach the gospel.”
Scott Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church in another suburb of St. Louis, addressed the Ferguson crisis in an Aug. 12 blog post on the church’s website. Kirkwood is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“The violence in Ferguson this week is easy to condemn,” he wrote. “It is unproductive and evil, in that innocent bystanders are always hurt in this kind of protest. It hurts the cause of the protestors more than it helps.”
He then added, however, that having been “born in privileged historical circumstances” as a middle-class white American, it is “essential” to “understand that while the violence is never justified, the anger is.”
Stearman offered several statistics to note racial disparity in the St. Louis area and beyond.
“Imagine living in neighborhoods with few decent jobs where the Payday loan industry is allowed to run rampant charging triple digit interest,” he added. “Imagine living in a country where private prisons lobby for stricter laws, to put even more young black males in jail for minor violations created by lawmakers sometimes paid off by the industry.”
Stearman insisted that “[n]one of these circumstances, or many others I could elucidate, excuses violence.”
Instead, he offered them as a way for Christians to move forward with cross-racial relationships based on better understanding each other.
“It is essential that we, who seek to follow the Jesus who crossed all racial and cultural boundaries to extend healing and compassion, do the same,” Stearman added. “Following the command to ‘do unto others’ means seeking understanding of what we’d want in the other’s circumstance.”
In 2009, Stearman wrote an EthicsDaily.com piece about efforts by Kirkwood to bring people together to bridge racial divides in St. Louis.
Part of the church’s work included showing the award-winning EthicsDaily.com documentary “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism.”
The film explores how Baptists can work together in proactive ways to live out the Bible’s moral vision and break down racial and ethnic dividing walls.
As the streets of Ferguson fill with teargas, protest signs and SWAT teams, perhaps more Baptists in the area will leave the quiet sanctuaries and address the community’s crisis.