A ministry of presence in Ferguson


** Can't see the slideshow above? Click here. **

Members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition gathered on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the main memorial for Michael Brown in the middle of Canfield Drive in Ferguson.

The group came to pray, then to march about two miles to Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Dellwood, passing the burned-out shell of QuikTrip on West Florissant Avenue -- the flash point for the violence after Brown's shooting death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. was the main attraction, conducting interviews, posing for pictures and leading prayers before the march. Others spoke on a bullhorn about drawing a line in the sand and wanting justice, now.

Through this, Father Robert "Rosy" Rosebrough, the pastor at nearby Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and Father Steve Robeson, pastor at St. John in Imperial, stood in the background. They offered spoken prayers with the assembled clergy, several hundred protesters and a dozen Harley guys, but most of the time, they remained in prayerful silence -- just being there.Bishop Rice at memorial for Michael Brown

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and Bishop Edward M. Rice did pretty much the same thing on consecutive days after that. On Aug. 17, Bishop Rice spoke with a few people as he walked about a third of a mile from the former QT to the memorial. Rice led his small group, which included Monsignor Jack Schuler, in prayers in Brown's memory. On Aug. 18, Archbishop Carlson met with Father Rosebrough, then visited the memorial site for prayer.

Meanwhile, at the police command center in Northlands Shopping Center less than a mile from the memorial, Father Mike Boehm, Father Joe Weber and Father John Patrick Day have been among the chaplains ministering to officers on breaks from the front on West Florissant.

The Catholic Church straddles the line in this skirmish, with priests offering pastoral care to both protesters and police. They've done this quietly, without fanfare.

"It's just a ministry of presence, that's all it is," said Father Boehm, who recently took over as the archdiocesan Vicar for Clergy after serving as pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Washington. "You walk around and maybe talk to them a little bit here and there."

Command center

On Aug. 16, a week into the conflict, Father Boehm did his thing, walking among police vehicles and talking to officers in Northlands parking lot. Mainly, he hung out near the officer's break area, in a storefront between a restaurant and electronics store, where the officers grabbed a bite and something to drink.

When not kibitzing with officers, he made himself useful, at times carrying bags of ice and cases of drinks to coolers. One time, he literally took out the trash, helping dispose of a garbage bag. Mostly, he remained present for the officers.FAther Boem with police

"We just say, 'Hi,' to each other," Father Boehm said during idle time. "I've had many guys come up to me and say, 'Hey, thanks for being here.'

"They don't elaborate on that; they just appreciate the presence."

Father Boehm became a regular at the command center Aug. 13, the fourth day of the violence. The shooting of Brown, who is black, by Wilson, who is white, inflamed passions and turned a mile stretch of West Florissant into something resembling a war zone.

The violence and police action were concentrated in a third of a mile from the former QuikTrip to Ferguson Market & Liquor, where minutes before the shooting Brown allegedly stole a box of cigars and roughed up a worker, as shown on surveillance video and confirmed by the lawyer for Brown's family. Ferguson Market and numerous businesses in the vicinity have been looted, but looting also has occurred at businesses along West Florissant near Chambers Road and at Dellwood Market on Chambers, a third-mile west of Greater St. Mark.

Father Boehm, who grew up in University City and graduated from St. Louis University High School, has been a chaplain for 20 years, serving police and firefighters. He was a firefighter himself in Washington, in addition to being chaplain. He also was the chaplain for the Kirkwood police when two officers and three other people were shot to death at a city council meeting.

"That was a really rough one," Father Boehm said, quietly.

Ferguson is a different kind of rough, with a 24-hour-a-day police presence. Officers often have worn riot gear, shot rubber bullets early in the confrontation and have used tear gas and smoke to disperse violent crowds, all while gunfire, presumably with real bullets, has been heard in the area. Protesters have thrown rocks and bottles -- plastic and glass -- at police, but deny throwing flaming Molotov cocktails as police allege.

Tension increased through the standoff, with peaceful protests in the daylight hours and skirmishes after dark on a nightly basis, save for one night of peace and calm, from Aug. 10 to Aug. 19. Father Boehm has sensed the change in tone; as a result, he added prayer at the police shift roll call to his ministry of presence.

"They were pretty appreciative of that," Father Boehm said. "I got a lot of thank-yous."

Boehm and the others fill a role much as the police in their communities.

"Police presence is 90 percent of what we do," St. Louis County patrolman Rick Eckhard said. "Just being there."

On the street

At the memorial on Canfield and on West Florissant, Archbishop Carlson, Bishop Rice, Father Rosebrough, Father Robeson and Father Schuler have sensed the grief and anger. According to Father Robeson, it was important to be there for the people.

"I've always been involved; that's why I became a priest -- to stand with people hurting for justice," said Father Robeson, who drove 34 miles from Imperial for the march. "Here they are now, and nationwide, too. ... Our parishioners care about this as much as they do here."

Father Robeson formerly served as pastor of St. Simon of Cyrene, which was about 6 miles southeast of Ferguson before it closed in 2005. After the march, protester Angela Boone caught Father Robeson out of the corner of her eye and called out. They shared a big hug and caught up. The final Mass at St. Simon was the funeral of Boone's mother, and Father Robeson officiated. Father Rosy marches with protesters

Before police closed West Florissant to traffic Aug. 16 and prevented protesters from congregating in large groups, protesters gathered on each side of West Florissant in front of QT, and in the center-turn lane of the four-lane street. Traffic inched by with horns and music blaring.

The crowd often stood three and four rows deep in the two blocks of West Florissant from Canfield to the QT at the corner of Northwinds Estates Drive. Protesters chanted "Hands up. Don't shoot," and "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now."

Families brought children in strollers, and people in wheelchairs maneuvered through the crowd. Activists set up folding tables to give out free food and water. Citizens served on trash patrol, keeping the area clean.

The mood was almost festive in daylight hours, but deteriorated at sunset.

The looting and violence "breaks my heart," Father Rosebrough said, noting that "people have hijacked the killing for their own purposes. There is looting of property, but this is looting of the death that took place. You loot because you want to loot."

Rosebrough described the "brokenness" of the community, and he knows of which he speaks. In 1965, Rosebrough lived with a group of seven seminarians at Pruitt-Igoe, the crime-riddled high-rises once north of downtown. They spent the summer there and worked nearby. That was during the race riots in Watts.

Violence occurred elsewhere in the United States at that time, but not in St. Louis "and it needed to," said Father Rosebrough, who described the St. Louis area as segregated. He spoke of cultivating new leaders in the African-American community to address the racial disparity in the Ferguson government and police. In a community that is 67 percent black, the vast majority of elected officials and police officers are white.

"How many people of color are in leadership roles in the city?" Father Rosebrough asked. "They have to develop leaders, so that everyone has a voice."

He also spoke of being "proactive" to accomplish this, as the Bible states.

After being there and praying at the memorial, Bishop Rice described the scene as "heart-wrenching."

"It's devastating to the community," he said on the road beside what's left of the QT. "You can tell the people are hurting; you can just sense it as you walk through. You hear them crying out for justice and peace. It's devastating for them. It's almost like it broke the heart of the community.

"It's going to be a long road to healing."


Read all stories on the unrest in Ferguson at www.stlouisreview.com/ferguson.

No votes yet