The new asphalt rectangle in the middle of the 2900 block of Canfield Drive, Ferguson, Mo., seemed like a scab formed over a deep wound. It was where the fallen body of Michael Brown lay for 4½ hours in 107-degree temperatures on Aug. 9, 2014.
Stuffed animals had been piled oh, so tenderly upon the site. Our interracial group formed a circle around the memorial and prayed.
Ten other women had joined me on a mini-pilgrimage to Ferguson I had envisioned and planned since May. It was our free day out of a one-week global assembly of women in religious life held August 2-7 in St. Louis. While others went to tour the arches or explore other more entertaining venues, we left the beauty and comfort of the Mercy Retreat Center and headed toward Ferguson.
Driving around Ferguson we could see where damaged buildings had been repaired, but in the atmosphere one could feel lingering brokenness, anger and pain. Since the Michael Brown tragedy, any healing of the Ferguson community was disrupted, like a scab torn open again and again, by the nationwide wave of similar shooting deaths that followed, including Samuel DuBose, Walter Scott and more. Added to that was the traumatic shock of the June 17 massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.
Canfield Drive is a very busy street. Our ability to form a prayer circle was only possible because two African-American men kindly offered to direct traffic as we stood mid-street around the makeshift shrine. They said they were part of a pool of neighborhood residents dedicated to protecting visitors there. They said they anticipated unrest during the upcoming weekend and anniversary of Brown's death. The welcoming men expressed with deep conviction they did not want any more violence but that they join with the other residents who continue to seek justice in Ferguson.
Maria Hamilton (mother of Milwaukee's Dontre Hamilton, whose life ended here similarly to Brown's) introduced me to Yvette Harris of St. Louis. After the shooting death of Smith's unarmed 17-year-old son during a weekend visit home from college 14 years ago, Yvette Smith founded and now leads Mothers Against Senseless Killings.
Yvette Smith told me tensions in Ferguson had never lessened because there had been no reforms and nothing had changed.
Three days after our group left, the streets of Ferguson were filled with peaceful demonstrators. Then a very small group of people took things to extreme. "Calling a state of emergency was unnecessary," said Yvette Harris. "Sending in the National Guard was uncalled for. Nothing has changed, we're back where we started."
During last May, city officials there said the makeshift memorial on Canfield Drive was a safety hazard. To reroute public attention, a bronze plaque commemorating Brown's death was installed on a nearby sidewalk. Repaving came after the removal of the stuffed animals. Asphalt replaced the bloodstained concrete, which was removed and given to the Brown family.
However, the mid-street "teddy-bear memorial" sprang up again quickly. Residents say it is there where Brown died; it is there where his body lay for so long. Why place a plaque somewhere else? This location on the street is the sacred ground.
There we 11 stood by a children's toy menagerie in a spirit of hope expressed by Langston Hughes in his poem "Kids Who Die." Its lyrics go "Listen kids...the day will come/You are sure yourselves that it is coming/When the marching feet of the masses/Will raise for you a living monument of love/And joy, and laughter/And black hands and white hands clasped as one...."
We stood in true solidarity with all Americans who want to end racial injustice by peaceful means. Our numbers count as many. As we stood and prayed there, cars rushed by us on both sides but we were protected.
Not so the millions of Americans who are standing in the "intersection of race and poverty" described by renowned African-American scholar Cornell West. "This intersection is where our century is in its worst collision," he says.
We pray for solutions. Racial injustice in any form is violence even when no shot is fired. Bridges must be built across incalculable anger, trauma, feelings of powerlessness, fear and mistrust.
Here, numerous faith communities and coalitions are trying to extricate Milwaukee from the wreckage of the intersection of race and poverty. We are trying to overcome racial discrimination. We are trying to overcome segregation. We are trying to remove barriers and open doors of opportunity lest the dreams and futures of the majority of black children in our city remain broken.
Despite all these efforts, our public still includes individuals who label all peaceful demonstrators for racial justice looters or terrorists. There are many people whose response to an open conversation about race relations is either shut-down or indignation. These persons do not join in the soul-searching of our nation after a heinous event such as the massacre in the Charleston church.
Any prayer or action to further a new history of peacemaking and unity is a living memorial to Michael Brown and all those senselessly killed based on skin color.
Sr. MacCanon Brown (SFCC)