The first time the public heard the name Renita Lamkin and Ferguson in the same sentence was probably the day she was shot.
In early August, four days after Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, Lamkin, a pastor, stood with Ferguson protesters, attempting to mediate. Police had warned the crowd to disperse and in an effort to buy a little time, Lamkin shouted, “They’re leaving!”
“That’s when I felt a pop in the stomach,” Lamkin says now of the rubber pellet that hit her. The pellet left a ghastly wound — large, deep and purplish — and created a social media frenzy. Tweet after tweet showed Lamkin, 44, with short, light-brown hair and a wide smile. She wore a T-shirt with an image of a cross that she lifted up just slightly to show off the ugly bruise. In the coming days, critics said police had already managed to shoot a white Christian lady.
Lamkin says she didn’t really have a plan when she ventured out to Ferguson but that “the whole being shot thing was probably the best thing that could have happened.” The injury had cemented Lamkin in the struggle for racial equality.
“They say, ‘You took a bullet for us.’ I have no sense of taking a bullet for someone. My sense is that I’m in the struggle. I’m in it. We’re in this together, and I was playing my role,” Lamkin says.
Fast forward nearly three months and Lamkin continues to deliver the same message of defiance as pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Charles. The AME denomination is a religious movement born out of the resistance to slavery with approximately 2.5 million members, most of them African-American, today.
“We can boldly resist those who try to silence us. We can and should be defiant,” Lamkin told her congregation on a recent Sunday at St. John AME Church. “There will always be those who discount the voice of the poor.” But “we don’t have to accept the conditions of this world.”
Although Lamkin is mother to two African-American children, her role as a white leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church is unusual.
“She’s a rare breed of person to be both white and female in an overwhelming black denomination where the ministry is overwhelming male,” said Michael Joseph Brown, academic dean at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. Brown said Lamkin, who graduated from Payne in 2014, was the only Caucasian in her graduating class.
Dennis C. Dickerson, a history professor at Vanderbilt University who taught Lamkin, says the “social protest and social insurgency” ethos that’s “baked into the church’s DNA” clearly appealed to her.
While the church’s philosophy informs her work in Ferguson, Lamkin acknowledges the experiences her children had growing up in St. Louis also influence her decision to continue to be actively engaged in the protests.
“My kids would be suspended for things that other kids would just have a detention for,” Lamkin says when describing the treatment of African-Americans in schools.
“It’s the education system. It’s the job situation. Lack of resources. It’s painting all these kids as if they’re these gangsters who are out killing everybody.”
Lamkin says she’s also outraged by what she sees as unnecessary police brutality, even in cases where the victim may have been guilty of certain crimes.
“Does that require a death sentence? And how did the police on the street get to be judge, jury and executioner?”
Lamkin was sitting next to her mother in the front seat of the family’s car when on a rainy day in 1975 a pickup truck slammed into them. Her mother died in the wreck. At the time, Lamkin was just 4. Lamkin says she and her three siblings were reared by their grandmother, though she was already in her 60s and clearly done parenting, resorting sometimes to both physical and verbal abuse.
Still, Lamkin says that from an early age she read the Bible three or four times a year and could rattle off scripture on command.
“First person I led to Christ, I was like 8 or 10 or something,” says Lamkin, who grew up in the Pentecostal church in Kansas City. “I was out knocking on doors after church asking people if they knew Jesus Christ.”
As a child, Lamkin says, she even ran a Bible school in the yard.
“I made my brother bring his friends,” Lamkin said with a laugh. “I went, rounded them up, and beat them up and made them come.”
But Lamkin’s involvement with religion was not always so playful. She said she was sexually abused by a youth pastor, as well as a cousin. She was also severely mistreated by the father of her children. The two met in high school and were together for seven years. Lamkin knew she had to leave him when one day, he threatened her with a gun and accidentally shot himself instead.
“That is when I said to God, ‘You got to get me out of here, one of us is going to die,’ ” Lamkin says. “I’m either going to kill him trying to stay alive, or he’s going to kill me.”
Lamkin’s escape route was a secret P.O. box. There she collected the checks the state sent her as reimbursement for the meals she served at her home day care. When she had enough money to put down a payment for a rental property, she and an old high school girlfriend loaded up a Pontiac Trans Am with everything they could and left.
Because she grew up in a faith that wasn’t particularly friendly to female leaders, Lamkin says, she expected to be a missionary or a pastor’s wife. Yet because of her knowledge of scripture, Lamkin was repeatedly invited to preach. She says her fate was sealed when in Bible study she met a woman pastor in the AME church.
“I talk too much, you know, I get on people’s nerves, I’m abrasive, so my personality — sometimes it takes a little bit to warm up to,” Lamkin says. But “people trust me with their stories and trust me to speak from God’s heart to theirs, and I don’t take that trust lightly.”
Ferguson has complicated Lamkin’s life as a pastor. On more than one occasion she’s been followed home, Lamkin says, and some in her congregation worry the church could be targeted next.
When asked if she’s fearful of what might happen when the grand jury’s decision on whether or not to indict Wilson is released, Lamkin says police comportment remains her primary concern.
“I will say that in general that regular group of protesters that are normally out there, they’re not violent. They’re angry, they’re loud, they’re intense, they say a lot of cuss words, but they’re not violent.”
Lamkin says the simple act of arresting Wilson would send a badly needed message.
“Even if it didn’t go anywhere, the arrest itself would say that we are making a shift and that there is accountability. It would be a start,” Lamkin says. “The way things are now, police are protected, and they can act on their opinion and be protected.”
“If you’re so afraid of the people that you are serving, then you need to stop serving those people.”
They can’t, Lamkin says, “shoot first and figure it out later.”