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A response to Ferguson: grief, frustration, fear, hope

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column by the Rev. Vergil Brown contains a racial slur that is necessary to the context of his message.

I and many other African Americans are saddled with grief as we process the situation in Ferguson, Mo.

My grief is about more than the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. My grief is about more than the impact of the shooting on the Brown family and the family of officer Darren Wilson. Ferguson is more than an isolated incident, Ferguson is a part of a much larger narrative.

The Rev. Vergil BrownThe shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in a city that is 67.4 percent black (according to the 2010 census) but has a police force that is overwhelmingly white highlights the difference in power between blacks and whites.

In this way Ferguson is reminiscent of the Jim Crow South and the history of the black struggle.

The shooting of Michael Brown also brings back to our minds the shooting of Trayvon Martin, though the situations differ greatly. And with that comes a flood of emotions that press on a wound that we thought was healed.

On top of all of this are the years of personally being discriminated against, of being called nigger, the instances of being stopped by cops without reason, having to excel beyond your white peers to be treated equally, etc.

All of the feelings associated with those negative experiences are thrown into the mix as well.

This is why the black community cannot just look at the facts of the trial and judge that the grand jury’s verdict was sensible. My heart breaks for Officer Wilson. He most likely got caught up in a very unfortunate situation. I appreciate the service that law enforcement provides to our community.

But I cannot divorce a history of marginalization and systemic racism from the evidence presented in court. I have to ask, “How did we get here in the first place?”

Ferguson was a ticking time bomb. Racial tension has been brewing in the greater St. Louis area for years. And a slanted power structure has bred resentment and animosity toward those in authority. It was only a matter of time before something blew up.

I have frustrated myself and others while trying to help my white friends understand why Ferguson has inflamed African Americans. The knee-jerk reaction of many is to be defensive, as if I am angry with them or blaming them in some way for the injustice of our time.

Some are dismissive. They are quick to note the social progress that our nation has made and point to the man who occupies the Oval Office.

And others deflect. Instead of dealing with the problems at hand, they much prefer to talk about the “bigger” problem of black-on-black violence.

A much better path is to seek to understand the narrative of marginalized people.

Entering into someone else’s story or “walking a mile in their shoes” is how we learn to sympathize with the disenfranchised. This requires relationship and a willingness to listen and understand. Sadly, the varied responses to the outcry of the black community reveals that many, too many, don’t care to understand and aren’t willing to listen, because they don’t have to.

This compounds the marginalization of an already marginalized people.

As I look ahead I am fearful of what the future holds. I am raising black children in a society that does not yet view them as equal. I am bracing myself for the first time one of my kids comes home from school and tells me that someone called them a nigger.

I hate knowing that in school and in the community and on their job they will face discrimination. And always lingering in the back of my mind is the thought that someone’s hate will seriously harm one of my kids.

But amid my grief, frustration, and fear, there is hope.

I pastor a church in Gresham that is 90 percent white. Other pastors in the area, black and white, are amazed by the demographics of our church.

I am blessed to be a part of the change that many before me labored for, but never tasted. My hope is that what I am experiencing will continue to grow and affect successive generations. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

Vergil Brown is lead pastor of Gresham Bible Church.

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