By Bob Allen
A white Baptist pastor in St. Louis says he cannot condone rioting in nearby Ferguson, Mo., but he understands the anger about a black teenager killed by police Aug. 9.
On Wednesday police used teargas to disperse protestors in the fourth-straight night of violence since a Sunday candlelight vigil to honor 18-year-old Michael Brown turned to vandalism and looting affecting more than a dozen businesses.
Observers say the shooting death of the unarmed young man who was excited about heading to college set off long-simmering tensions between Ferguson’s mostly African-American population and a police force that is predominantly white.
Scott Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church, said in an Aug. 12 blog post that the killing and its aftermath serve as a reminder of the city’s fragile and fractured race relations and calls for ongoing understanding.
Kirkwood Baptist is one of several white and black churches in five cities across the country paired in “Covenants of Action” to collaborate on local ministry projects aimed at breaking down barriers of race, theology and geography among Baptists in the United States. The effort is part of a New Baptist Covenant movement started by former President Jimmy Carter in 2007.
Stearman, who is paired with Pastor Jimmy Brown of St. Luke Memorial Baptist Church in St. Louis, said a week before Brown’s death he attended a meeting of the predominantly black Progressive National Baptist Convention.
While there he heard Tracy Martin, father of slain African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, speak about trying to make something positive out of the tragedy of his son’s untimely death and civil-rights leader Otis Moss Jr. denounce “Stand Your Ground Laws” as contemporary lynching.
“The violence in Ferguson this week is easy to condemn,” Stearman said. “It is unproductive and evil, in that innocent bystanders are always hurt in this kind of protest. It hurts the cause of the protestors more than it helps.”
That said, Stearman insisted it is essential for people who have been born in privileged historical circumstances to “understand that while the violence is never justified, the anger is.”
He challenged church members to imagine what it’s like living in circumstances where they are more likely than others to be stopped and searched by police, few decent jobs exist, payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates and disproportionate numbers of young males are serving time in prison.
“None of these circumstances, or many others I could elucidate, excuses violence,” Stearman said. ”Nor do they explain away a life of bad decisions. However, they do present compassionate people a reality which empowers our understanding.”
He said New Yorker Executive Editor Amy Davidson stated it succinctly: “The community’s trust was broken before any windows were.”
Stearman said people of faith must follow Jesus’ example of crossing racial and cultural boundaries to extend healing and compassion and seek to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
“This is part of the reason I’m such a fan of the New Baptist Covenant,” Stearman said. “It is an attempt to get racially distinct churches working together on projects. We can do more together, and we need to know each other.”
In 2008 Stearman joined Jeffrey Croft, pastor of predominantly black Harrison Avenue Missionary Baptist Church in Kirkwood, in reaching out to a racially divided city after an African-American activist barged into a city council meeting and killed two police officers and three city officials before authorities shot him to death.
At a 2011 screening of the Baptist Center for Ethics video titled “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,” Stearman said the process taught him two things: “Racism is very personal,” and “while we have moved beyond some of the racism, what we are not beyond is encoded, or institutional, racism.”
“It is only with relationships and understanding that we can get past these kind of dichotomies,” Stearman said in his blog.