Ferguson prayer procession takes a humble route

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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On the morning of Nov. 2, it seemed as if the short prayer procession from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to Ferguson City Hall might not come off at all.

Concern had been expressed that the event, simply titled "Lean-In Prayer Procession," might be perceived as yet another in a long line of protests -- sometimes violent -- in Ferguson since the shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9.

Community residents are weary of those.

Father Robert "Rosy" Rosebrough, pastor of Blessed Teresa and the leader of the ecumenical procession, had the blessing of Mayor James Knowles III and counted former Mayor Brian Fletcher among the marchers. He also had the necessary permit. Still, there had been talk of a blockade to prevent the procession from even leaving the Blessed Teresa parking lot.

But, after assurances of the peaceful intent, the procession and 45-minute prayer service at city hall went off without a hitch, and Father Rosebrough was delighted.

"Awesome," he said, simply.

Maybe it helped that he had called on friends in high places to guide this day.

"I prayed this morning (to) our patron, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Paul, St. Peter -- 'Come through, baby!'" he said, with a laugh. "It was just awesome."

About 250 people participated in the procession, which had been in the planning stages since late August as a way for the Ferguson churches to show solidarity, to pray for the city and its officials moving forward and to offer up prayers for Brown, Darren Wilson, their families and friends. Wilson is the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown, and the Blessed Teresa community and the Archdiocese of St. Louis have prayed for him from the beginning.

Prayer has been at the center of the Catholic Church's pastoral care in Ferguson since the tragedy. Blessed Teresa held a Rosary service at its outdoor grotto on a weekly basis from Aug. 11 through Oct. 27. Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish held its Hispanic Festival on schedule, with Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Rice celebrating Mass a week after the shooting, and also spearheaded a monthly Rosary for priests and religious at January-Wabash Park. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson led the second, on Nov. 5, with another slated for December.

Blessed Teresa's new Life Teen group brought in Catholic musicians Ike Ndolo and Emily Wilson for a night of prayer, Catholic priests such as Father Rosebrough and Father Steve Robeson walked with marchers, and priests such as Father Michael Boehm, Father Joe Weber and Father John Patrick Day ministered to police officers as chaplains.

Unlike national religious figures who come to St. Louis for photo-ops and press conferences in addition to prayer, the Archdiocese of St. Louis has given pastoral care largely under the radar, not by design but not attention-seeking either.

The prayer procession grew in a similar way, with Father Rosebrough organizing the walk and prayers for the Ferguson Ministerial Alliance, which was represented by 10 churches Nov. 2. Catholics and non-Catholics walked side by side in the half-mile procession, with Ferguson police officers blocking traffic along the route.

The first line of the first song marchers sang in the walk to city hall made the purpose of the gathering clear: "It's me, it's me, it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer."

The group picked up members from First Presbyterian Church, then gathered on the parking lot behind city hall for the service.

"We come, not in righteousness or in arrogance, but, humbly as earthen vessels, knowing we, as church communities of Ferguson, have to open our hearts to the same challenges we are seeking from our civil leaders," Father Rosebrough said. "We come challenging ourselves and our civil leaders to 'Lean In' as we begin our conversations over the next three years."

Father Rosebrough explained that he chose three years because it corresponded with the time Jesus had with his disciples before His death and resurrection. "Lean In" simply means to lean forward and really listen to what people are saying. He noted positive steps that have occurred since early August.

"Body cameras for our police officers; seeking cameras for the police vehicles," he said, adding, "Municipal courts are adjusting some of the fines of poor people. A review board for the police department is being set up. Summit meetings are planned for the citizens to gather and give direction for the future of the City of Ferguson. The hiring and training of a more diverse police department is now being initiated."

He called the churches of Ferguson "co-partners with our civil leaders in the task before us."

There followed music and song with ministers taking turns at the microphone for remarks and prayers. Perhaps most poignant was Rev. Conley Gibbs of Ferguson Heights Church of Christ reading Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Appropriately, the gathering closed with a song that describes efforts moving forward: "Go make a difference in world."

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