Three Ways to Engage with Ferguson

By Jon Hietbrink and Howie Meloch

It’s been more than a week since Michael Brown’s tragic death at the hands of police in St. Louis and in the midst of the continuing escalation of violence on the streets of Ferguson, it’s still hard to know how to engage. For some of us, his killing has (again) ripped open a wound laced with incredibly painful memories of personal and systemic racism—“How can this keep happening?!” For others of us, the shooting and its aftermath have provided a window into an experience that feels hard to understand.

There are many (some of whom are linked below) who have written deeply thoughtful and intelligent reflections in the wake of Michael Brown’s death—calls to action and advocacy, response and repentance. We don’t presume to have much to add to what’s already been said, but as we’ve prayed, mourned, and engaged during this difficult week, we wanted to share three brief thoughts for those of us who might feel paralyzed by uncertainty, unsure of how to engage at all in a situation that is so volatile and so painful for so many. Though there is of course much more that needs to be said and done in the wake of this tragedy, here are three humble first steps modeled on the life of Nehemiah that we hope might be an “onramp” for those of us looking for meaningful engagement around this painful situation.

LISTEN :: “I asked them…” (Nehemiah 1.2)

One of the greatest temptations of our age is to speak—decisively and quickly—before we’ve first taken the time to listen, and experiences of crises like this have a tendency to amplify that temptation. As white men who are used to a measure of power, it’s easy for us to start offering opinions, issuing statements, and making proclamations about what is, what isn’t and what should be in a situation like this, but a key part of God’s invitation for folks like us in situations like this is to be quiet and listen. Listen to the pain of a people. Listen to the litany of injustices. Listen to the narrative of oppression. Listen to the voices of those whose pain and anger are palpable. For our white brothers and sisters who experience a degree of distance from what’s happening in Ferguson, may we encourage us to listen well to the voices of our black brothers and sisters and other people of color around us rather than listening only to folks who look like us? Let us (for once) be slow to speak and quick to listen that we might gain wisdom and begin to stand in solidarity with members of Christ’s body that are in tremendous pain.

There are of course hundreds of articles being written about what’s unfolding in St. Louis, but here are a few that we’ve found helpful over the last week—voices we’ve sought (and needed) to listen to.

LAMENT :: “I sat down and wept and mourned for days…” (Nehemiah 1.4)

Part of what happens when we listen is that we start to get in touch with levels of incredible pain, and if you’re like us, you quickly find yourself struggling to find the words to pray. Yes, we pray for justice, yes, we pray for peace, but part of the invitation in these moments is to embrace the prayers of lament that are laced throughout the scriptures. After we’ve listened, we often jump to try and find solutions, but may we suggest that a better next step is to mourn? To lament that a young man on his way to college was killed in the street. To grieve the loss of a son, a brother, a friend. To mourn the tragic endurance of racism in America. To lament the shockingly disproportionate use of force against Michael and his community. To grieve the systematized oppression of a people. To mourn the utter despair that plagues so many in our cities. 

I (Jon) for one, am not good at this type of prayer, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been waking before dawn and praying Psalm 130, a prayer of lament. Here’s a great spoken word piece from my friend Ashley Moore that I used to pray this morning: <>

REPENT :: “I and my father’s house have sinned…” (Nehemiah 1.6)

As we listen and lament, we will start to recognize that this is not just an “out there for those people”reality, but that each of us, to one degree or another, bear ownership of this situation (and me, as a white man, more than most). Whether for things we’ve done, things we’ve left undone, or the systems our people have created and continue to benefit from, we are complicit in the sin of racism in America, and we must repent before God—personally and corporately—that his kingdom might break through and the stronghold of racism might be undone. After listening to the report of the remnant and mourning for “some days” before God, Nehemiah’s prayer of repentance is instructive:

I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.(Nehemiah 1.6b) 

At the heart of the A.P.E callings is to see the gospel extended across boundaries—to embrace a “whole field” responsibility, and as such, we cannot sit by passively in situations like this, NO. We must find ways to take first steps out of uncertainty and into engagement—to listen, lament, and repent—that our hearts might be broken anew for the full redemption that God promises. 

Of course, there is far more that needs to be said (and done) in response to what’s unfolding in these days. As such, we’ll be releasing some follow-up posts over the next week that we believe will help us turn this conversation into action.

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus.

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About Jon Hietbrink

Jon works with InterVarsity/USA as the Regional Director for the Central US where the vision is to see "a movement of missional communities planted in our 'Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth': 500 Cells, 50 Chapters, and 1 overseas student movement". Jon and his wife Steph have been married for 10 years and have two children, Elijah (6) and Abigail (4).

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