Like many church plants, Midtown Church in St. Louis has been looking for ways to connect to its community. The young congregation of about 135 people recently formed an outreach team to plan quarterly events and encourage the church to build local relationships. After a fun chocolate tasting in July, the team was scheduled to meet in mid-August to discuss ideas for the fall.

On Aug. 9, the Saturday before the meeting, a tragedy occurred in the nearby suburb of Ferguson. Just after noon, police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot and killed an 18-year-old black man named Michael Brown. The shooting quickly became the catalyst for several days of civil unrest, followed by months of national media attention that has highlighted racial tension and controversial police tactics.

Amy Fishbein, a member of Midtown’s outreach committee, thought Ferguson should be the focus of the next event. “It was on our hearts immediately,” says Fishbein. “We wanted to do something relevant, but we got the sense that a lot of Christians weren’t sure what to do.” The first idea the committee agreed on was to stage a “buycott” — an intentional, organized shopping event aimed at businesses in Ferguson and adjacent Dellwood, especially those damaged or affected by looting in the days after Michael Brown’s death.

We Wanted It to be Big

The wheels started turning for Fishbein, a sponsorship services coordinator for the St. Louis Blues hockey team who knows how to promote events. “We thought we should have a party in the park and a concert as well,” she explains. “We wanted to amp it up — we wanted it to be big!” At this point, a partnership much bigger than Midtown Church started coming together.

Ferguson 1Aaron Turner is Midtown’s director of outreach. He is also a friend of Christian hip-hop artist and St. Louis native Marcus T. Gray, better known as FLAME. When Turner reached out to him about playing a concert in Ferguson, FLAME was enthusiastic. In addition to lending his name and promotional efforts to the event, FLAME brought a connection to his church, The Gate Church, which quickly joined Midtown as a sponsor of the event. Soon Fishbein had also secured support, including free advertising, from local radio stations Joy FM and Boost Radio, who were drawn both by FLAME’s presence and the opportunity to be constructive in Ferguson. The team settled on Oct. 18 as the date for the event, which they named “Hope for Ferguson.”

As the event drew near, Fishbein and Turner approached some of the local businesses to let them know what to expect and ask if they’d like to be on a list given to participating shoppers. They also posted fliers in the laundry room at Canfield Green Apartments, the site of the shooting. “One of the lasting images I have of the rioting was of a beauty-supply shop, “ recalls Turner. When told about the buycott, the skeptical workers asked how much it would cost them. “They were happy when we told them it cost nothing, and that they didn’t even have to be on our list if they didn’t want to,” Turner says.

Participants in the buycott began arriving in Ferguson at noon on Oct. 18. They picked up maps and T-shirts at a booth and then set out to shop for about two hours. “We had been concerned that protestors would show up,” says Fishbein, pointing out that other events had been disrupted. “We prayed about that. None came.” But hundreds of shoppers did. Several businesses reported that they had never had been so busy. The crowds, mostly Christians who had come from around St. Louis, seemed unconcerned by the long waits and occasional shortages. Commerce became tangible healing.

We Wanted to Bring Peace

At about 2:30 p.m., the festivities began at Forestwood Park, which locals indicated had not hosted a party since the weekend of the shooting. Boost radio played music, a sports ministry led by Brad Wos set up soccer and kickball, and there were inflatables for young children. Face painting, a prayer table, and free food from a food truck were also available as visitors to Ferguson mingled with those who lived nearby. At 4 p.m., FLAME performed, rapping about grace and forgiveness and making a point to pray between songs for the families of both Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. “It was uplifting,” says Fishbein. “Some people were talking afterwards about what a great city Ferguson is and how they planned to come back.” Altogether, she estimates that 500-700 people attended at least part of Hope for Ferguson.

In the aftermath of the successful event, Mark Tucker and Kenny Petty — pastors at Midtown and The Gate, respectively — reflected on its ultimate purpose and what still needs to happen in St. Louis. “The mission of the church is to love God and love people, and this was both,” says Tucker. “We were excited to be a part of it.” Petty agrees, calling it an honor to be invited to participate. “It was beautiful to see two church plants, one Presbyterian and one Baptist, working together.”

Both men are grateful that Hope for Ferguson’s purpose was not corrupted or co-opted by any outside interest. As Tucker put it, “Taking sides was not our goal; we wanted to bring peace into the situation. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for a vocal cry for justice, but that’s not what this event was about.” Petty again concurs: “It signified nothing but our desire to serve the community with a half-day event for the whole family.”

Those who participated in Hope for Ferguson still recognize that the underlying issues remain, and they still need to be addressed biblically and with great love. The event was a good first step for the congregation at Midtown, which is about 90 percent white.

“I know that people in our church disagree [about the case],” Tucker says. “Some have wanted to protest against the police. Others believe the shooting was justified. It’s a tense issue.” The week after the shooting, Tucker asked Aaron Turner, who is black and a full-time pastor on Midtown’s staff, to speak to the congregation.

“I talked some about how believers with sincere hearts can differ on the specifics of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson,” Turner recalls. “We still don’t know everything that happened.” Turner pointed out that all believers ought to agree that violence against people and businesses in the aftermath of the shooting is wrong, which served as the basis for the buycott. He also reminded everyone of the basis of Christian unity. “It’s easier to deal with differing viewpoints when Jesus is the foundation and we are submitting to the same authority, the Word of God,” Turner says. “It’s a lot harder when the church tries to play referee to the world.”

Justice and Peace Come Through Christ 

In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, shining Gospel light holds personal significance for The Gate’s Kenny Petty, who is from Old North St. Louis. “I became a Christian at 23 while I was incarcerated,” Petty explains. He and a friend were running from the police one night when the police opened fire, killing his friend. As he tells it: “I was bitter, full of hate toward the police. The Gospel confronted me with my sin. I came to see that the greatest injustice was me versus a holy God. That is the message that I hope gets out. Yes, we should speak out against injustice. But the reality is that when we are confronted with our sin, we will have compassion.”

Ferguson 2Petty thus boldly encourages his predominantly (but not exclusively) black congregation to pray and build bridges. Tucker and Turner do the same, reminding the people of Midtown that both justice and peace come through Christ.

As the area awaits the decision from a grand jury on whether or not Darren Wilson will stand trial, justice and peace are needed. News reports have convinced most people at Midtown and The Gate that an indictment is unlikely, and they admit to being nervous about what that means. According to Tucker, several churches are putting together a plan that includes opening their buildings as places of refuge, prayer, and counseling. Some pastors are also discussing how they can be a peaceful presence in the midst of demonstrations.

Aaron Turner recognizes both the hard work and the necessity of the Holy Spirit in making peace a reality. “A lot of people have the desire to be heard, but not an equal desire to listen,” he says. “The Spirit needs to work patience and kindness in us so that we will seek to understand each other’s histories and perspectives.”

As Kenny Petty puts it, “The headlines don’t change our mission: proclaiming the person and work of Christ.” Even when believers disagree, they still carry with them the transformational power of the Gospel, which is the true hope for Ferguson.

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