Ferguson, Missouri has been in the news almost every day for the past two and a half months. There is an old cliché in the entertainment industry that “There is no such thing as bad publicity,” but that certainly does not extend to cities. I am quite sure that city officials in Ferguson wish they could turn back the clock and make everything the way it was before Michael Brown was fatally shot on August 9 by a city police officer, when Ferguson was just an aging suburb of St. Louis, incorporated a century earlier around an old flag stop on the Wabash Railroad. But things will never be the way they once were. Everything is now carved in granite: Ferguson is a town with a white government and a white police force that oppresses the majority black population. And, to some degree, city officials have reason to complain about being shamed by the press. What happened on August 9 could just have easily have happened in any number of places.
The English writer Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The poem describes how an iceberg kept growing and growing until it was finally ready to take on the grandest passenger vessel ever made: “Till the Spinner of the Years / Said ‘Now!’ And each one hears, / And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.” So it was on August 9. Frustration with police and chronic quality of life issues tied to a declining tax base could describe any number of towns and communities. A shooting by a white police officer, though, just happened to set off this powder keg in a city named Ferguson.
Once upon a time, like most of you, I had never heard of Ferguson, Missouri. However, back in January, 1977, a year and a half before I entered the seminary, I was about to start a library job in St. Louis. A family friend in Memphis had relatives who lived in Ferguson, which was not far from the library where I was to be employed. These people were going to rent me their spare room for a month while I found a place to live. Well, about a week before I was to move in, they changed their mind. So I was never actually a Ferguson resident. This was about the time, though, that Ferguson began to experience change. Like many older suburbs Ferguson had a tremendous growth spurt right after World War II. Thousands of new working class houses were grabbed up by first-time homeowners. As the children born into these families grew up and moved away in the 1970’s, the population started to go down. It also began to change racially. In 1990 the population was still 75% white, in 2000 it was 45% white, and in 2010 it was 30% white.
During the years that I was at our Servite parish in south suburban St. Louis (2000-2006), a coalition of religious groups was formed to address the challenges facing the older or “inner ring” suburbs around St. Louis. While our parish in Affton was at the other end of the county from Ferguson, many of the problems in our community were not that different. The community organizers who came in to assist us pointed out that in a city like St. Louis, government watches out for the central city, since this is where most tourists congregate. Then they showed us a map illustrating how the St. Louis area was continuing to grow in size even though the population remained static. New suburbs not only attract younger and more upwardly mobile people, but they also dictate that funds that might have gone to infrastructure repairs in older areas are being used for new roads and new housing. They pointed out that it is the older suburbs which often get left behind by both the government and the economy. So, as churches we started working together, attending public meetings, lobbying officials, and trying to stem the exodus of people to these newer suburbs.
I would like to think that after all the speech-making by national figures is over, the marches and demonstrations disappear, and the media gets bored and moves on to some other hot spot, that it will be groups like this coalition of churches that will still be working to address the long-term problems in Ferguson and give that city a chance to rebuild its image.