A town that knew anger and violence found some harmony in a church parking lot Sunday night as the #HealFerguson Concert for Peace and Unity brought just that.
“We’ve taken a page from the civil rights movement. We’ve brought people together to sing. Song is soothing and it brings calm,” said the Rev. Conley Gibbs of the Ferguson Heights Church of Christ, which hosted the event.
A racially mixed crowd of about 300 — from Ferguson and beyond — gathered to hear music as diverse as the town — rap, rock, soul, rhythm and blues, a performance from an opera singer and players from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The concert was planned by Brian Owens, a St. Louis soul musician, youth pastor and ordained minister. Its purpose was to “bring people together around the gift of music,” said Owens, who lives in Ferguson.
The mood was laid-back on a gentle summer evening. “We wanted to show we’re not divided — we’re all one,” church member Delores Bentley-Mitchell said.
Former Mayor Brian Fletcher was at a table selling $10 “I Love Ferguson” T-shirts for the newly founded I Love Ferguson citizens committee. The group’s namesake yard signs have sprouted all over town.
The group has sold 10,000 T-shirts, a number equaling half the population of Ferguson. “We’ve gotten orders from France, Denmark, Hong Kong. We’ve gotten notes from California saying, ‘Happy to help, hope you heal.’”
Some felt their town had been unfairly maligned through three weeks of international coverage of protests, looting and “militarized police” following the shooting death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, by a white Ferguson police officer.
“People love Ferguson. The national media made us look like a city in crisis,” Fletcher said. “We’re all heartbroken. I’ve been in tears.”
Dan Duncan was part of a civic group formed in 1994 to discourage white flight and promote racial harmony in Ferguson. Despite last month’s violence, he thinks they largely succeeded through most of the town.
“Most of Ferguson is successfully integrated,” he said. “Now it’s become emblematic of a city that went wrong with race. It’s not true.”
Owens brought the soul to the concert schedule, along with Theresa Payne and Japanese soul singer Nao Yoshioka. St. Louis composer-musician Adam Maness wrote a piece for the event called “Divides that Bind,” to be played by himself and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The concert was sponsored by Sterling Bank.
Owens said the goal of the concert was “healing through engagement.” That engagement, he hopes, will include 100 more volunteer “mentors” for the Ferguson Youth Initiative. The program holds events for teens and offers free computers and bicycles to students who complete classes.
Last month’s protests and disturbances were the reason for the concert. But Owens hopes to solve a broader problem by bringing people together
“There’s too much violence in our city, period – with the cops, with the kids, black-on-black, whatever,” Owens said. “It feels like a lack of humanity sometimes and it’s sad.”