Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Clergy and Millennials Pursuing Justice in Ferguson

Harold Dean Trulear


By Harold Dean Trulear

December 15, 2014


A recent trip to Ferguson, MO gave me and some forty religious leaders an opportunity to reflect on the integration of spiritual development and social justice. Organized by Sojourners, members of the Faith Table retreat interacted with local religious and civic leaders, and heard (with head and heart) their ongoing responses to the killing of Michael Brown, Jr. and the local grand jury’s failure to indict the officer who shot him.

Although TV cameras have focused on the violent responses, those with whom we met had been peacefully protesting and even putting themselves in harm’s way to dissuade others whose anger boiled over to violence. They have discovered that the issues they face go beyond just the killing itself. While all are clear that an unarmed black teenager should not have been killed, the incident is being viewed through the lens of systemic oppression. The policeman's characterization of Brown as a demon or Hulk Hogan illustrates the entrenchment of systematized stereotypes of young black males and their dehumanization. The young black males we met know that they are more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts.  

They are also connecting the dots between the unjust systems of criminal justice, education, local government, the St. Louis metropolitan economy, and even the local philanthropic emphasis on giving to service projects but not to community organizing for systems change. St. Louis United Way has the third largest United Way budget in the United States, but its giving largely supports charitable services which would be far less necessary if the systems were more just. A group of young leaders has created a document of demands reflecting their understanding of the systemic nature of the issues they face.

The leadership paradigm here for clergy is dramatically different from our popular notions of clergy social justice leadership. The ideas and energy for the protest movement have come from the young leaders of several different organizations, acting in coalition. Clergy, traditional nonprofits, and local professionals have been acting as guides, shepherds, supporters, and friends. Calls for clergy to "keep the calm" do not work when the church and its clergy do not have the ear of youth and young adults. Hence two visible clergy leaders here, Tim Pierson and Traci Blackmun, have been deeply involved, building relationships of trust with the young leaders. They have created meeting space for strategizing and safe spaces in three congregations where anyone can go during these troubled times. They have provided medical care for those tear-gassed, as well as counseling, food, and financial support (in particular for young people who are losing their jobs because of their participation in this movement). Their significant work challenged us to consider whether church leaders can have any influence with the rising voices of discontent among this millennial generation, and if we can replicate the supportive and pastoral roles that Pastors Traci and Tim play here.

The closing story told at our meeting was instructive. At the protest following the grand jury decision, clergy wore orange vests and caps clearly identifying them to police and protestors alike as they provided support to those on the streets. One female clergy had her vest ripped off by police. Any doubt this may have been inadvertent was removed Tuesday morning when the vest appeared as a trophy hung from a pole at the Ferguson police department.

That this millennial discontent has taken the form of nonviolent protest surprises some. It specifically surprises those with violent images of young black men (and women). Yet they have chosen the route of nonviolence wisely, because of its consistency with their vision of justice and peace. They have learned from studying Martin Luther King via clergy and other leaders who have built relationships of trust and earned the right to be heard. They also reflect the reality many close observers have made about this generation of young leaders: they do not want violence any more than the next American. They do not want violence by police, nor do they want violence within their communities. The media showed a minority of persons on the streets resorting to violence, but it did not show the majority of street protesters in classes on nonviolent strategies of dissent. Nor did it show young people actually confronting their peers who had intent to wreak havoc and saying, "Don't do's our community."

Nonviolent protest finds its roots in a nonviolent lifestyle. It transcends strategy and points to the peaceable kingdom, where "the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11:6) For those of us in the “boomer” generation, the last phrase should shine in this hour. The coalition of the clergy and the millennials represents an odd mixture of friends thrown together by circumstance, but knit together by trust, grace, and purpose.


Next week’s article will explore some of the larger principles of nonviolent protest.

-  Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”