Ferguson tensions prompt First Baptist to action
FERGUSON, Mo. (BP) -- Stoney Shaw, pastor of First Baptist Church in Ferguson, Mo., never imagined that protestors would wreak so much havoc after a grand jury reported their decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown.
"Ferguson," Shaw said, "can never go back to the way it was."
Although First Baptist Church was untouched by protesters, Shaw said evidence of violence from the night of Nov. 24 surrounds the downtown church building: The Walgreens across the street was looted and set ablaze while an abandoned KFC next to the church was pockmarked by bullets.
"I really didn't think that what happened last night would happen," Shaw said the morning after the grand jury announcement.
Shaw and other Missouri Baptist leaders have worked with city officials, community members and protesters since Brown's Aug. 9 death to help revitalize suffering businesses and prevent further destruction to downtown Ferguson amid racial tensions and weeks of sometimes violent protests in the St. Louis suburb.
"I thought that protesters would march up and down the streets, maybe light a few fires, but I had no idea it would be this bad," Shaw told The Pathway newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. "I'm very upset at our local and state authorities for allowing looters to burn and loot."
Shaw was not alone in expressing his disappointment that neither law enforcement nor the Missouri National Guard protected local businesses, many of which were owned by black members of the community. In a Nov. 25 press conference, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles voiced the same concern and urged Gov. Jay Nixon to "deploy all necessary resources to prevent the further destruction of property and the preservation of life in the city of Ferguson."
Although he grieves for local business owners, Shaw admitted that state and local law enforcement officers are "walking a tightrope." Indeed, after protests began in August, many national media outlets were critical of the Ferguson police force for its show of force with its military-like equipment.
Kristi Neace, director of women's ministries at the First Baptist Church in Villa Ridge, Mo., said many Missouri police officers feel the strain of the tumult -- especially because of the racial tensions and large-scale social and political discussions that the events in Ferguson have prompted.
Neace, whose husband and son are police officers and who also founded Badge of Hope Ministries to reach out to spouses and families of law enforcement officers, said, "They're often on the edge of a knife. If they do one thing, they're wrong. If they do another thing, they're wrong. There is no right answer for them.
"A lot of times, we see officers become discouraged," she added. "We see officers that become very jaded and very calloused because the good that they want to do is stifled."
Neace encourages Southern Baptists to reach out to and encourage law enforcement officers. Southern Baptists, she said, can offer the only solution that will comfort law enforcement officers while also addressing racial tensions that are running high across the nation.
"Only one person can bring healing here," Neace said. "And that is Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can bring true healing in this community and in this nation."
Missouri Baptist churches have served and prayed since protests began in August. Members of First Baptist in Ferguson, and Passage Church in nearby Florissant, Mo., have served in multiple cleaning projects.
First Baptist also has served as a house of prayer for people from across the state and nation. In September, the National Day of Prayer bus, sponsored by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, stopped at the church and led a prayer service for the community as part of its 34-day tour through 14 states coast to coast.
Additionally, First Baptist -- along with other churches in the area -- opened its doors to school-aged children, since the local school district decided to cancel classes Nov. 24 because of the violence that followed the announcement of the grand jury decision. Parents who still needed to work dropped their kids off at the church, confident that they would be cared for and fed, Shaw recounted.
John Yeats, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said "Missouri Baptists are united in prayer for the people of Ferguson."
"While it is clear that the grand jury decision cannot possibly satisfy everyone, Christians can commit our words and our deeds to the Lord Jesus," Yeats said. "He's the Great Physician upon whom we must call to bring peace to our hearts, gracious words to our lips and conciliatory action to our feet.
"Our churches in and around Ferguson have served as the hands and feet of Jesus to an anguished community, and for that we are deeply grateful," Yeats said. "Our prayer is that the Lord brings to every heart the peace that passes all understanding so that we set our minds on honoring Him in the midst of every storm."
Mark Snowden, the state convention's evangelism/discipleship strategist, said he hopes events in Ferguson will change the community and nation for the better.
"My prayer before the Lord is that racial reconciliation will lead Missouri Baptists to a new revival in their walk with Christ," Snowden said. "And may that revived spiritual zeal splash over into the streets, bringing spiritual awakening to St. Louis' communities and beyond."