Children, don’t grow weary / Children, don’t grow weary / Children, don’t grow weary / till your work is done — African American spiritual (Keep your lamps trimmed and burning)
Last night we were going to go to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. It seemed like just the kind of escapist thing I needed after expending most of my spiritual, social and mental resources at the Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred gathering of LGBTQIA+ Mennonites in Chicago over the weekend.
But sometimes the spirit calls us to stay present for a little bit longer. During the day we received news that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri case would be announced imminently. Clergy, activists and the local NAACP invited the community to gather at Second Missionary Baptist, and we decided that was actually the place we were supposed to be. So that’s where we went.
We arrived and began to visit with friends (old and new). As the time for the decision approached, we all began to sing:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes — Sweet Honey in the Rock (Ella’s Song)
After the non-indictment was announced and after we shared four and a half minutes of silence at the request of Michael Brown’s family the leaders of our local movement revealed their fear and anxiety. They argued among themselves over whether to march or not, fracturing into factions. Some left and some stayed.
As people left the church, Jamie and I decided to join the outside demonstration, which was led by students from Mizzou. We walked up on an energetic and passionate crowd. It takes me awhile to lower my inhibitions and join the chanting, but I was ready by the time they got to this refrain:
Indict. / Convict. / Send that killer cop to jail. / The whole damn system / is guilty as hell.
So many people I’ve talked to here in Columbia understand the complexity of this unfolding story. Of course it’s about one young black man and one young white police officer, but of course it infinitely larger. The first three lines of the stanza aside (that’s another topic), I’m in awe of the lucidity of those last two lines of this chant heard ‘round the country. The whole damn system is guilty as hell. I don’t know what else to say but that this is the truth. We are embedded in a violent, racist, evil system. It’s a brilliant way to turn the question onto the system itself, which is deeply fallen. The system is guilty. We need to continue to expose and challenge, renew and transform.
Someone asked me to speak for Columbia Mennonite Fellowship at the next day’s rally. Tonight I really do needed to stop and rest, so instead of me, it will be another from our group. Together she and I wrote this message for our community:
If you know one thing about Mennonites, know this: we are people of peace. But peace should not be confused with passivity. The Jesus kind of peace does not mean avoidance or acquiescence. The Jesus kind of peace does not mean we sit back and leave the work to others.
Ferguson calls us all to remember that peace must be active. Nonviolence is something to live and be, something to choose every day.
Today we choose peace by questioning the violence of the state. Yesterday it was once again declared legal for a police officer to wield lethal force. The logic of violence is embedded in the ruling that said it is lawful to take another person’s life. By questioning the use of violence by police, today we choose peace.
Today we choose peace by challenging the violence of racism. We know the grand jury decision is the product of a system and culture that does ongoing harm to black bodies and black lives. By naming this injustice, by calling for a different reality, today we choose peace.
Today we choose peace through unity — perhaps the hardest task of all as we come with vastly different histories and experiences. We stand with you, friends of all ages, colors and faiths with the certainty that we must bring to bear not only tenacity and passion, but every creative thought and action in order to make our community and our country safe, life affirming and enriching for every citizen. At times we may need to help one another stay on track in order not to fall into the sometimes tantalizing trap of consolidating power for the sake of our religious, civic, or educational institutions. If we are to free our children from the terror of racial oppression and hatred, we must begin to show them peace through unity the likes of which they have never seen and we have never lived.
We, the Columbia Mennonite Fellowship, stand with you in Columbia, Ferguson, St. Louis and beyond. We as people of peace stand with you in unity. We recommit ourselves to choosing peace. Today, with you, we choose peace.
One of many transcendent moments at Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred involved clapping and dancing through the aisles of the sanctuary at our Catholic retreat center host site. And I think what we were singing about there connects to what we are singing about here today in Columbia, Missouri:
Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long — South African traditional
So step by step, we keep walking.