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Clergy-led protest raises questions over nature of repentance

Clergy-led protest raises questions over nature of repentance


The rain pounding the pavement made no difference to those urging repentance.

With or without umbrellas, a gang of clergy from various faith traditions marched to the Ferguson Police Department on “Moral Monday,” the last day in a weekend of protests dubbed FergusonOctober. Clergy advanced on South Florissant Road determined to force one question on a community of officers: Will you repent?

They gathered in the parking lot of the police station and created a memorial to Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager fatally shot by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, by drawing a chalk outline of a body on the pavement. Candles were lit.

A line of police officers quickly formed a perimeter around a crowd of hundreds who had come in support of the clergy. Some guarded the police department’s side door. Officers soon changed into riot gear, equipping themselves with shields and batons.

Then, in the midst of the unrelenting rain, one protest leader cried that officers would be given the chance to confess their sins and repent. One by one, clergy approached the officers on guard, asking them to — for at least a moment — forget their duties and reflect instead on America’s system of racial injustice.

There were signs of tenderness and understanding, such as a rabbi holding hands with an officer.

Others, however, said the protest reflected a more fire-and-brimstone kind of theology, with some in the crowd yelling “In Jesus’ name, repent!,” which sounded less like an invitation and more like a threat.

Sgt. Tim Harris of the Ferguson Police Department, who has been an officer for almost 30 years, was facing the front lines of the protest. Harris said that although he tried, he had a difficult time hearing some of the pastors who spoke to him because of all the shouting.

“You could tell some of them were trying to be sincere, but this isn’t the place,” Harris said. “They wanted to force this on us.

“If they respected us, they wouldn’t have come at us the way they did.”

Harris said one rabbi had approached him with a “face scrunched up like I was disgusting.” When he pointed it out, he said, she apologized. He said that in the end, they were able to have “an OK conversation.”

David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, who participated in the protest, said he, too, could have done without that part of the demonstration.

It was “dramatic but unrealistic to think that a police officer would offer their confession,” Greenhaw said. “You know, I wasn’t crazy about that. I didn’t think that was the best element.”

Repentance, Greenhaw said, isn’t “coercive, I think it’s invited, and there was a coercive element.” Greenhaw said the protest reflected a doctrinal divide in the theology of repentance.

Others said the call to repentance wasn’t meant as a condemnation of any one individual but of American society as a whole. Before the march to the police station, clergy themselves were asked to repent for their complicity in a system of racial disparity that continues to hurt African-Americans.

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation said the officers were “part of the system that use young black people as an ATM,” referring to the disproportionate number of traffic tickets and fines inflicted on African-Americans.

But Talve also admitted clergy had been part of that structure for too long. The protest, she said, was one step toward earning “the trust back of a generation that feels like we’ve neglected them, not heard them, and betrayed them.”

The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian magazine Sojourners and a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama, said that despite the noise, he managed an intimate conversation with a 36-year veteran of the police force — a fellow Christian — who described the last two months as the hardest of his life.

Wallis said that although he does not believe every officer is engaging in brutality, “You can’t say you’re not a racist if you accept and support systems that are.”

“There’s no doubt that racialized policing is occurring.”

One officer even seemed to confess as much.

“My heart feels that this has been going on too long,” Ferguson Officer Ray Nabzdyk told the clergy, according to the Associated Press. “We all stand in fault because we didn’t address this.”

Wallis said repentance isn’t about saying you’re sorry or feeling guilty but about change, which he has yet to see in the police department’s policies. The faith community, Wallis said, won’t rest until that change comes.

Greenhaw said his hope was “that we not put a cork in it, but repent in the best sense of the word, actually do better as a community.”

“Repentance is not about the police officers,” he said. “It’s about all of us. Repentance is to recognize (that) where we are is wrong.”

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Lilly Fowler is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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