'Ferguson can never go back,' local pastor says

by Ben Hawkins, |
After a night of looting, burning and destruction on Nov. 24, Little Caesars Pizza restaurant (on the right) was destroyed by fire, while across the street, First Baptist Church is untouched. The church's pastor, Stoney Shaw, told The Pathways, "Ferguson can never go back to the way it was." THE PATHWAY/Brian Koonce

FERGUSON, Mo. (The Pathway) -- The shooting of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 ignited racial tensions and weeks of sometimes violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier this fall. But Stoney Shaw, pastor of the local First Baptist Church, never imagined that protestors would wreak so much havoc after a grand jury announced its decision, Nov. 24, to not indict Wilson.

"Ferguson," Shaw said, "can never go back to the way it was."

Although First Baptist, Ferguson, was untouched by protesters, Shaw said that evidence of violence from the night of Nov. 24 surrounds the downtown church building: An abandoned Kentucky Fried Chicken restaraunt next to the church was pockmarked by bullets and the Walgreens pharmacy across the street was looted and set ablaze. A Little Ceasars Pizza across the street from the church's parking lot was destroyed.

"I really didn't think that what happened last night would happen," Shaw said the morning after the grand jury announced its decision. Since August, Shaw and other Missouri Baptist leaders have worked with city officials, community members and protesters, hoping that they could help revitalize suffering businesses and prevent further destruction to downtown Ferguson.

"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," he said. "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 Missouri 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 especially are "walking a tightrope." Indeed, after protests began in August, many national media outlets lambasted the Ferguson police force for what they said was "militarization" and for using too much force.

According to Kristi Neace, director of women's ministries at the First Baptist Church of Villa Ridge, Missouri, many Missouri police officers feel the strain of this situation—especially because of the racial tensions and large scale social and political discussions that the events in Ferguson have prompted.

"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," said Neace, whose husband and son are police officers and who also founded Badge of Hope Ministries to reach out to the spouses and families of law enforcement officers.

"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 therefore 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."

For this reason, Missouri Baptist churches have served and prayed since protests began in August. Members of First Baptist, Ferguson, and Passage Church in nearby Florissant, Missouri, have served in multiple cleaning projects.

First Baptist, Ferguson, has also served as a house of prayer for people from across the state and nation. In September, the National Day of Prayer bus stopped at the church and led a prayer service for the community. Then, on Nov. 13, Missouri Baptists from around the state gathered at the church to pray for revival and spiritual awakening.

Additionally, the church -- along with other churches in the area -- opened its doors to school-aged children, since the local school district decided to cancel classes because of the violence that followed the announcement of the grand jury decision. According to Shaw, parents who still needed to work dropped their kids off at the church, confident that they would be cared for and fed.

According to Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Director John Yeats, "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," he 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. 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, MBC evangelism/discipleship strategist, said that he hopes recent 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," he said. "And may that revived spiritual zeal splash over into the streets, bringing spiritual awakening to St. Louis' communities and beyond."

--Ben Hawkins is associate editor of The Pathways, the official newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

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