Brian Heffernan / Al Jazeera

St. Louis churches to offer sanctuary when grand jury decision announced

Churches to offer shelter to protesters and others as town braces for decision on indicting cop who shot unarmed teen

FERGUSON, Mo. — As the St. Louis region warily awaits a grand jury’s decision on whether to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teen in the suburban community of Ferguson, churches are trying to offer some comfort by promising to open as 24-hour sanctuaries when the decision is announced — which many fear will ignite widespread unrest. Major protests raged in Ferguson for weeks after the shooting, and some turned violent.

More than 15 churches have pledged to be safe spaces for protesters and congregation members alike. Many will offer food, water, phone chargers, medical supplies and counseling.

The Greater St. Mark Family Church in Ferguson became involved with protest groups when it was asked to hold a prayer rally for 18-year-old Michael Brown, just a few days after he was killed. The death ignited weeks of unrest that occasionally turned violent in Ferguson as protesters and police clashed. Vandals burned a convenience store and some storefronts were looted.

“I thought [our participation] would only be one day — it’s evolved into months,” said the Rev. Tommie L. Pierson, pastor of the Greater St. Mark Family Church. He said he will be ready to lead prayers and offer support to those who walk into the church, a couple of miles from where Brown was killed.

“There are times in our lives when we face new challenges, and this is one of those times,” Pierson said Sunday in his sermon.

“Yes, the governor has amassed an army, but we are going to walk anyway,” he said. “And we’re going to walk by faith. We are not going to loot. We are not going to break windows. We’re not going to do any of that stuff, but we’re going to walk by faith.”

Pierson said he would not allow on-duty police into his place of worship — unless they have a warrant, as the church is “not here to harbor criminals.”

April Taylor, who sings in the church’s choir, said she feels anxious not knowing what the grand jury decision will be. Opening the church “brings security for the community,” she said.

Avis McGhee, a member of Greater St. Mark congregation for 25 years, said she fully supports opening the doors. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. People need somewhere to get water and use the bathroom,” she said. “It’s Christian-like.”

Organizations including Metropolitan Congregations United, an interdenominational and multiracial community of St Louis-area congregations, and the Don’t Shoot Coalition, formed after Brown was killed, are creating lists of area churches that have agreed to open their doors to communities immediately following the decision.

“We all came to realize that churches working together can have a much larger impact than one church trying to deal within its own boundaries,” said Jim Sahaida, president of Metropolitan Congregations United. “This is one of those times where I think the church really needs to be present.”

Every congregation must decide for itself whether to join the list of safe spaces, Sahaida said. He couldn’t think of any church that had criticized the plan, but said he assumes “it’s difficult for pastors to decide what they’re going to do.

Compton Heights Christian Church in the Shaw neighborhood of South St. Louis is another congregations that has decided to open its doors. It’s near the site where another black teen, VonDerrit Myers Jr., was shot on Oct. 8 by an off-duty police officer who was working a secondary detail. Police said Myers had first fired at the officer. Protests were held in the neighborhood following the killing.

The Rev. Dr. Jacquelyn Foster, pastor of Compton Heights Christian Church, said the congregation’s elders all agreed to open the building to the community. “In our understanding, our place is to be active in helping people bring peace. That is what the gospel says,” she said.

Besides protesters who may seek refuge, Foster said she anticipates “there may some people who are just scared and don’t want to be alone.” Foster said she has not heard any criticism from her congregation about the church’s decision.

But opening places of worship in this way can be a “difficult decision for pastors and their congregations,” said Karen Knodt, interim pastor at the Immanuel United Church of Christ in Ferguson. Knodt, whose church won’t be opening as a safe space, said there wasn’t much discussion about it because two other churches nearby — First Presbyterian Church of Ferguson and Zion Lutheran Church of Ferguson — had already announced that they would remain open 24 hours a day following the grand jury decision.

“I think people view their holy spaces differently. Some people view it as a very personal place and you wouldn’t want any thing to happen to it. Other people take a more utilitarian approach,” Knodt said.

“I’m glad that to some extent this has renewed a discussion about not only churches, but also synagogues and mosques, as being sanctuaries and faith places in the midst of difficult times.”

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