By Andre E. Johnson,
On November 20, 2015, the Spiritual Communication Division of the National Communication Association selected me to present this paper at our annual meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada. Parts of this presentation will appear in a forthcoming book tentatively titled “The Ferguson Fiasco: Communicating the Spirituality of Resistance.”
On January 11-16, 2015, I took a class of Memphis Theological Seminary students to Ferguson, Missouri for a one-week immersion class. In this paper, by way of autoethnography and spiritual reflection, I share my experiences as a professor and pastor while in Ferguson. I also share some reflections from students as well.
According to Carolyn Ellis, et.al, they define autoethnography as an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.” They further suggest that
This approach challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others and treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act. A researcher uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography to do and write autoethnography. Thus, as a method, autoethnography is both process and product.
As a process, autoethnography, “combines characteristics of autobiography and ethnography.” The researcher “retrospectively and selectively writes about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.” Further Ellis et.al writes:
When researchers write autoethnographies, they seek to produce aesthetic and evocative thick descriptions of personal and interpersonal experience. They accomplish this by first discerning patterns of cultural experience evidenced by field notes, interviews, and/or artifacts, and then describing these patterns using facets of storytelling (e.g., character and plot development), showing and telling, and alterations of authorial voice. Thus, the autoethnographer not only tries to make personal experience meaningful and cultural experience engaging, but also, by producing accessible texts, she or he may be able to reach wider and more diverse mass audiences that traditional research usually disregards, a move that can make personal and social change possible for more people.
Autoethnography is closely akin to what religious scholars call “spiritual reflection.” In spiritual reflection, we are engaging and participating in culture and society with an eye towards reflecting at a deeper level. Like autoethnography, the person doing spiritual reflection can have epiphanies and when writing these reflections, many times they too are thick descriptions of personal, interpersonal and intrapersonal experience. Moreover, spiritual reflection, when produced publicaly, also reaches audiences and help lead to personal and social change. When made public through “witnessing” or the “testimonial,” spiritual reflection not only can lead to personal and social change, but the hope is transformation, first from the individual and then society.
In this presentation, by way of autoethnography and spiritual reflection, I share my experiences of “engaged scholarship” and describe my experiences teaching and being a part of the Ferguson class. I then share experiences of some of the students in class. Finally, I suggest implications from the research.
I had already completed the syllabus. The required textbook, reading assignments, videos, and other class material already assigned. Matter of fact, I had already sent the syllabus out to the students so they could get an early start on the reading. I had done everything regarding my syllabus and after my trip to the National Summit on Race in Chicago, I looked forward to having a least a couple of weeks off before the school year started. Then Ferguson happened and I knew my syllabus had to change.
That fall, I taught a class titled African American Religious Thought at Memphis Theological Seminary. Included in the assignments already part of the syllabus, there was one more—all of the reviews and reflections must now focus on what I have called“The Ferguson Fiasco.” I thought this would be important because the issues and problems in Ferguson were reminiscent of the issues and problems in the late 1960’s when, according to Cannon and Pinn, “ministers and academics took a public stand against injustice and demanded a re-visioning of life in the United States that took seriously the humanity of African Americans.” Back then, for many African Americans, the prevailing theology and spirituality of non-involvement of the day did not speak for or to them. As I continued to follow the events in Ferguson, I discovered that many asked for a theological and spiritual response to the unrest and tensions in Ferguson.
By all accounts, the class went over well. Students really engaged the readings, did deep theological and spiritual reflection, and pushed their own theological and ideological boundaries. However, this is not to say that students—many of them church leaders—came to the class with some of the same questions others had when talking about Ferguson. Many of them asked about the looting, destruction of property and the “violence” of protesters. Some wanted us to address “black on black crime” while others wondered aloud what would marching and protests do anyway. While we did address those and other concerns, I kept asking the class, “What should be the theological response to the killing on an unarmed Michael Brown and how can the church can help facilitate that discussion?” “Does the church have a role?” These and others questions kept us focused on the role of the church and how the Black religious thought tradition had spoken to injustices in the past. After much reflection and discussion, on the last day of class, we put together our response to Ferguson. In part, this is some of what we wrote:
Ferguson is not solely a black and white issue; it is an issue of equal rights for all human beings. The failure to resolve the issue of recurring injustice against black people perpetuates and reinforces a divide between the races. We believe the solution to societal ills come from the bottom up rather than the top down. Therefore, we seek solutions from a communal grassroots perspective, while continuing to further our cause by engaging in the pursuit of freedom and equality……..Therefore, we who are representatives of the church must commit to listening to our communities in order to identify pressing issues and further commit to walk side by side with that particular community in an effort to assist wherever we can…..Moreover, the church must help individuals critically discern the lived realities around them. A church that does not value the lives of all its people and black people specifically, can no longer serve as the mouthpiece for any of the people.
For our J-term semester and building upon the African American Religious Thought class, I decided to offer our Urban Theology class. Typically, classes in urban theology explore and focus on the current dynamics found in urban society that call and challenge the church to re-examine ways of ministry. In addition, it allows students to examine their own theological positions as they specifically relate to urban situations of poverty, addiction, racism, sexism, violence, unemployment, environmental toxicity, prison, and inadequate education.
Drawing from their particular ministry location and realizing that any authentic theology must be contextual, I expected students to examine their own theological positions through the contextual lens of the Ferguson Fiasco. In this class, among other things, we examined how an urban theology would speak to the events and happenings in Ferguson. Additionally, we also examined how people constructed the “sacred” in all that occurred in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.
While I thought I had the making of a good class, there was something missing. Then it hit me—we needed to be in Ferguson. In other words, this class needed to be an immersion experience. We needed to get out of the classroom and experience—as much as possible, the sights, sounds, and situations that make up Ferguson.
We needed to listen to protesters and activists. We needed conversations with pastors and church leaders who have been ministering in this situation. We needed to see the place where Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown. We needed to see the burned and boarded up buildings. We needed to talk with people tear gassed and shot with “rubber bullets” by law enforcement officials. We needed to listen to guest speakers who would come to and give us testimony. We needed to stand with those who stand in the street and experience life through their eyes. We needed to see how people are coming together and standing with each other against all odds. We needed to see how those who protest still find time to relax, have fun, and enjoy each other’s company. We needed to see this and much more if this class was to be meaningful for any of us.
So collaborating with Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis and their academic dean, Deb Krause, we began to make plans to head to Ferguson. However, little did I know just how much impact this class would have on my ministry. Little did I know just how much this class would (re)shaped my theology. Little did I know just how much this class would reorient my teaching. Little did I know just how much transformation was about to happen.
We arrived at Eden Theological Seminary Sunday evening January 11. After settling in our rooms, we then prepared for the 15-minute ride to Ferguson, Missouri where we were to meet some of the activists and protesters for dinner at the Ferguson Brewery. We wanted to hear stories and reflection from people who were there the first days and nights after the killing of Mike Brown. Our host, Deb Krause, contacted a couple of people to come and share their stories and experiences of events after the death of Mike Brown. Those invited brought others. Little did I know we were in for a good time of food, fun, fellowship, and some fussing!
After meeting everyone and hearing their stories, the highlight for me, the highlight for me was when everyone shared from a question I posed to them—what brought you to the movement? I asked because there had been other shootings, there had been other abuses and atrocities, there had been other times when injustice happened in the street, so why now? I wanted to know what made this time so special.
When the people began to share their stories, they sounded familiar. No, not familiar in that I heard these particular stories before—after all, I just met these people. The stories sounded familiar because I have heard them before—I have shared stories like this. What the people around the table shared were “call stories”—there on personal call stories. When asked what brought you to the movement, each person answered as if they felt called, pulled, “something moved me in that direction.
For instance, one person knew that when the protest started, protesters would be hungry and needed to eat. So without getting anyone permission, she created her own outdoor diner for hungry protesters. Another person, who felt the push to get involved resisted at first. She gave any and every excuse she could find not to get out in the street and protest. However, after finally agreeing to take a safe approach and deliver water to protesters and activists, police tear-gassed her and her friends. Standing in the midst of tear gas, rubbing her eyes so that she could see where to run, she realized that being a student, being gainfully employed and not wanting to start any trouble—with all of that going for her, she realized that she too was not safe. More importantly, she realized that the people who she attempted to bring water to were never safe. It was at that moment that she acquiesce to that feeling and joined the movement. She is so much involved that she has now quit her job to begin work full time in the movement.
Yet another after getting the call that police shot and killed Mike Brown, came to console family members but when she saw Mike Brown’s dead body, it had a profound impact on her. As she shared with us, she had never seen a dead body “out like that” before. To see his body lay on the ground, to see Mike Brown’s family and friends distraught, to see the community in an uproar and to reflect on her own 2-year old son and the future he will have, all of this affected her like never before. She later felt the need just to sit down and by sitting down at the police station that day, she, in essence stood up and found herself in the movement. Today as I write this, this same person, college student, mom, and young activist goes all over the world sharing her story and learning from others who are in the midst of the struggle.
After listening to these and others stories about the early days of the movement, I begin to realize something. First, despite feelings to the contrary, this is a movement, a movement that is not going away anytime soon—and a movement with spiritual overtones. Even though from many of the young protesters there is a healthy suspicion and distrust aimed at religious institutions, from listening to these call stories, I sensed a deep spirituality. Call makes you get up and go out again. Call gives you hope and strength.
Second, again even with the heavy suspicion of religious institutions, there were clergy still there on the ground with protesters. These clergy provided not only support but also help with understanding of the times. Third, despite the differences between the 60’s Civil Rights movement and today’s movement, there are MANY similarities. There is internal strife—just like in the 60’s. There is a generational divide—just like in the 60’s. There is distrust just like in the 60’s. There was even disagreement this night at the table, but we were all still there—listening and learning.
After our time at Ferguson Brewery, some of us went across the street to another pub and continued our discussion. When we started to head back to Eden Seminary, one of the students asked what time tomorrow morning does class start. I paused and said, we meet at 9:00am, but class has already started.
When we got up Monday morning, we headed to class to start the “classroom portion” of our time together. After a rundown of the syllabus and an explanation of the class and assignments, our host, Deb Krause shared her involvement with the movement. She started by telling us how the movement has shaped and influenced her actions—offering a powerful testimony of how this movement connected with her work as an academic and New Testament scholar. In addition, Deb also offered us a concrete corrective to a pervasive narrative that clergy were not present during the early days of the movement. To the contrary, clergy were not only present but also present afterwards creating space and place for activists to share their experiences. While it is true that the majority of clergy did not respond to the early events in Ferguson by standing with protesters in the street, some did and continue to do so.
What Deb also did for us was to help us to see how churches COULD get and stay involved. She spoke of not only the prayers that clergy offered in the streets and in some cases becoming human shields between grief-stricken and angry protesters and overzealous law enforcement, but also the follow-up meetings, workshops, and continued dialogue. What however, really inspired and captured student’s attention is that despite all of this and despite her work as academic dean at Eden Theological Seminary and as well as a host of other duties (wife, mom, etc.); she also found time to engage her body in the streets of protest. For Deb, the bible in not some ancient text, but more of a “popup book” that when one opens it and one is in tuned with the Spirit, things in it just pop up at the right time (and many times in inopportune times), leading, pushing, and calling us to live authentic and whole lives.
After our classroom time and after lunch, we headed towards what I knew would be a powerful moment for us—to the place where Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown. I knew we had to see the site for two reasons. First, I had been before and found the site—the sacred space so moving and powerful and I believed that others would as well. I can only imagine what the community must have felt as they saw someone lay dead on the pavement for four and a half hours. As I reflected again on seeing the memorial, I also noted that if I had known someone in Mike Brown’s family, they could have called me in Memphis, telling me that “Mike Mike” was shot, I could have gotten in my car, drove four hours to Ferguson and the body would have been still there. The people in this community felt disrespected in the highest order.
Second, and more importantly for the class, the site offered an opportunity for theological reflection. Since a major emphasis of the class was theological reflection, I wanted students to offer reflection at this site. Therefore, when approaching the sacred space, many students immediately became quiet, stood still, or just got away for a moment to gather themselves. I remember as I quietly reflected on my time there, I said to myself, “This here is sacred space.”
I suggest that these “roadside,” “urban” or “street memorials,” are sites for theological reflection because, as I shared with the class, it gives insight on how people constructed ideas of the sacred in the aftermath of a tragic and sometimes senseless death. It is the way people attempted (and continue to attempt) to make sense out of a messed up situation. I wanted to know what students saw and/or heard. To probe a little further, I then asked how the readings shaped students’ reflections. I sometimes asked students to offer one or two words that describe their experience or just simply ask, “Where did you see God/Spirit today?”
The roadside memorials and the art that people attach to them do three things. First, they remind people that death happened here. In a society that does not like to talk about death or wants to move away from death as quickly as possible, memorials force us to remember that a death happened here. Second, these memorials remind us that the community does not forget the person who has died. They proclaim that the community not only remembers the deceased, but that the community also loved the person. This may help with the grieving process.
Finally, I suggest that these memorials offer church leaders creative ways to do liturgy and other worship activities within their own congregations. For example, this may lead some to offer “services” on the street while people are creating memorials or to offer prayer services and reflections on not only death, but also life as healing continues—for both individuals and the community.
The site of the Michael Brown memorial—as well as the Vonderitt Myers Jr. memorial, and the art associated with them had a profound impact on the students. First, some discovered the “Divine” in what they typically do not think of as “art.” With this discovery, students can see, expand, or construct the Divine in much bigger and deeper ways. Second, seeing the Divine in these memorials reminds students, if they had not realize before, that we do not “bring” the Divine to anyone—but if we are still enough, with ears to hear and eyes to see, we can discover that the Divine is already there.
Many of the students had transformational experiences as well. One student, who is a first year seminary student, felt a call to go to Ferguson even before the class. The class then gave the student an opportunity.
Early on in the process before learning about and actually enrolling in the class I wanted to come to Ferguson. Something inside of me kept tugging at me, saying get to Ferguson. I am still not sure yet why coming to Ferguson had such an overwhelming urgency for me. I felt called to go….I had a natural curiosity about what was happening here and I preferred to “see for myself,’ but more so than that I felt the spirit beckoning me to come.
Another student though excited about the class and having to go to Ferguson, did not know what to expect. “Before leaving for Ferguson, the student wrote, “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if the “movement” was just hype or something truly organic. From the evening I got there, I realized the latter was true. I learned that the spirit is truly alive and well.”
One student had a healthy suspicion of well-meaning whites who were part of the movement. The student reflected:
My first impression was that of another well-meaning white person who wanted to say they helped. Then [this person] will go back to life as usual with no real accomplishments other than feeling better. However after observing [some] for a while, I no longer hold this opinion. Some appear genuinely to care for people and the people of this struggle. [They have] been in the trenches working for the betterment of humanity and community and has done it quietly in a support role.
Another student in noting white clergy’s presence in the movement wrote, “I paid close attention to the involvement on behalf white clergy.”
It was good to see that we have at least reached the point in history where this would be more expected. We saw in the film “Selma” how diverse groups of clergy came to support the cause of the Civil Rights Movement. And we were able to be a part of and see how some of the same interactions and involvement was taking place in Ferguson not only on a mass movement level in terms of protesting but now we see it moving forward in terms of political and social language that can be used in the rebuilding of the old and constructing of new possibilities for citizens of Ferguson and abroad.
The young people in the movement impressed my students. However, one student offered a word of caution in reflecting about the youth and their role:
One thing I was glad to keep hearing is that this was truly a movement of the young people and that they had the respect of key clergy and community activists and leaders. I personally find this to be a blessing and a curse. Often times when one is given a large amount of power or responsibility, then it gets polluted quickly and can end up doing more harm than good. I think it is good that he young people have power and the ability to organize and maneuver, but as I tell my young people as often as possible, if you have no identity or history and spiritual core, than any movement will be as one built upon the sand that all though breathtaking and beautiful, is washed away with the shifting shore.
For many students, the immersion trip offered them a chance to reflect on their own ministries. Noting that many of the students currently served as pastors and/or other church leaders, the immersion trip to Ferguson had them reevaluating what they would do when they returned back to their respective parishes. One student wrote:
The events in Ferguson have lit a fire in me from which I must light flames of justice in my own lane. I serve as a youth director at my home church. Part of my ministry is teaching the young people ages 11-17 years old. Part of our education will now be rooted in a more historical perspective. Looking at the cradle to grave prison pipeline in connection with spiritual identity and servant leadership, my attention has been directed to the juvenile justice system in regards to Memphis and how young black males especially, are unfairly targeted and convicted of crimes that do nothing but further push them into a system that is set up to make it as difficult as possible for them to reach legitimate success.
Yet another student examined and reflected on what it meant to be “Black” and “Christian” in the movement. Upon returning home to the congregation, transformation had taken place while in Ferguson.
For me, the Movement has shed light on the theme of purpose. Upon returning to Memphis, I was able to speak with the young people at the church about finding their meaning and purpose in life. Using what I learned from Ferguson, I explained to them the importance for the young Black Christian to not only keep the Bible [close] but [also] to understand their history in order that they may begin living their lives as if they themselves are making history.
Still another student noticed that through all of the frustration and ill treatment many residents of Ferguson and the Greater St. Louis County were getting, many of them still had hope.
There were a variety of perspectives on the movement taking place in St. Louis and beyond, with some tension mixed into the conversation, yet their greater purpose was to fight for justice for all people. They hoped that their efforts would produce meaningful and purposeful results and for many of them it seems as if that hope comes from their faith.
Further, the student noted that some people in the streets did not ground this hope in an understanding of hope from a “Christian” perspective.
[I]t was quite evident that a hopeful people were leading the efforts to raise awareness about a flawed system and were working together to break down that system. As people of the Christian faith we live our lives hoping for something greater, a kingdom experience on earth and in heaven, and do so much of what we do to help others experience that as well. The efforts of the people leading the movement in Ferguson may not explicitly have this as their guiding force, but they work toward a kingdom experience as I see it. They’re fighting for a greater life for all people, especially for the marginalized and oppressed.
However, some challenged this notion of hope and replaced it with something else. In reflecting on time spent with activists, some had a healthy disdain for the church. One student wrote how many expressed their frustrations with the church. In reflecting on one activist in particular, this student wrote, “He honestly spoke about the hopelessness that he experiences and the absence of God that he feels at times when participating in the movement. “Why put my trust in a church and god that is not present in the midst of the turmoil that is taking place?”
Further, this same student wrote about pain and rejection from others.
We heard his cries of pain for people that are not experiencing life in the ways in which they deserve. We heard the pain and frustration from a college student who saw no need for the church as she knew it because it did nothing for her that was good and only seemed to reject her and her friends because of who they were.
Her hope, the student wrote came from the “community that she was now part of in the fight for justice and change.”
She saw hope in the people who loved all, without the exclusion she had felt from the church, and had found a community of people who were working together for the good of humankind. She chuckled when we asked if she was hopeful and responded by basically say, “Why would I do this if I didn’t hope something good would come from it?” She had found her “church” with the people of the movement; they loved each other and were fighting for the oppressed and marginalized. It didn’t come in the form of traditional Christian faith but in many ways they are following the ways of Christ in much of what they do. Their actions show their hope.
One student reflected upon seeing the memorial site dedicated to Mike Brown.
Pulling up to the site it took me a few minutes to take in the surroundings and gathering my bearings as I pieced together what that scene must have been like on the day the Mike Brown was killed in the street. The stuffed animals, signs, and pictures, which had been left to memorialize Brown, are the first things that I noticed when pulling up to the apartment complex. They cover the road and yard where the killing took place and serve as a constant reminder of what took place that day in August…..We attempted to process something that had once been so distant to us and reduced to videos and pictures in the mainstream media. It was now at our feet and we were standing in the thick of it.
Part of our experience in Ferguson was a direct action we took on I-70. This came as a surprise for all involved and was not part of the syllabus. About that experience, one student wrote:
Our excitement was faced with the reality of actually joining with the brothers and sisters in Ferguson, our new friends, to stand in the street for 4.5 minutes in memory of Mike Brown to send a message that the systems are broken. After hearing from Rev. Renita the difference between being an ally and living in solidarity with the people of the movement, we knew that being an ally was no longer an option, we needed to join. My heart and mind were racing as I tried to figure out what was really going to happen. I just put my name on a list in case I get arrested and now I’m trying to process what I am about to do. Deep down I knew that this was part of the journey that I was on but it was difficult to think about actually participating in something like blocking an intersection with a group of people. Though the nerves didn’t quite go away I knew what we all were participating in was the right thing and it was serving a meaningful purpose.
What really moved this student was when we started chanting and singing together as one.
Once we began to chant together a variety of phrases there was something that moved within me, and many others, as it seemed to breathe life into something more spiritual. We were joined together with one voice in a worshipful call and response as we stopped the movement of the roads to be still for a moment and aware of injustice. A shift occurred for me as the movement we had been talking about and hearing stories about was brought to life. I saw what was taking place and I felt it within me.
Part of our experience was to attend a poetry slam featuring the great Saul Williams. Writing about this experience, a student reflected on the spirituality of our time together.
The messages of the poets were profound and moving as they energized the crowd and called us into greater action. In many ways, it felt like an underground rally to energize the troops and to nourish us with fun. It was a perfect way to cap off the week because of the hope that it once again offered. For people on the outside looking in all of this movement may appear disorganized, violent, or out of control but it is far from that. I see the hope that exists within the people leading these efforts in St. Louis and I see the passion they feel about justice for all people. There is a spirit that is moving within this greater movement and for a person of Christian faith it could very well be the Spirit of God. God is definitely present in this movement, even though many may not recognize it.
Many schools are now encouraging professors to create classes that will engage students outside the classroom. One way to do this is to have total immersions that offer students a chance to self-reflect and discern their own place within community. Granted, being at a seminary offers a more direct route to the spiritual and theological reflection I ask students to do, but an autoethnographic examination of student’s role, space and place in community would yield some positive results. By engaging in what Ellis calls “reflexive ethnographies,” students “document ways a researcher changes as a result of doing fieldwork.” Just like in a spiritual reflection, students demonstrate ways, in which they change, grow, became more informed and/or challenged by the experience.
Further, Ellis notes that, “Reflexive/narrative ethnographies exist on a continuum ranging from starting research from the ethnographer’s biography, to the ethnographer studying her or his life alongside cultural members’ lives, to ethnographic memoirs or “confessional tales” where the ethnographer’s backstage research endeavors become the focus of investigation. This too is similar to the work we do in spiritual/theological reflection.
Much of my work here is in its embryonic stage. However, in studying an event such as the Ferguson Fiasco and by extension the Black Lives Matter Movement—with all of the changing dynamics associated with the event, a good way for spiritual communication scholars to examine this phenomenon is by way of autoethnography and spiritual reflection.
Andre E. Johnson is the Founder and Managing Editor of R3