Take Off Your Shoes

“Take off your shoes” had been the words that came into my spirit standing before the Michael Brown memorial in Ferguson, Missouri. Quickly and quietly, I slipped them off.

“Thank you,” said one of the men from the Canfield Apartments, standing watch over the memorial. “I appreciate your respect,” he continued, “Go on over there. Right where it happened. Feel it through the soles of your feet.”

I stepped into the middle of the street at his prompting, shoes in hand. I breathed deeply and took in all of the signs of love that had been left. Teddy bears. Flowers. Crosses. Hats. Basketballs. Items that represented the people that left them. The attempts of a community to say to a young man who had lain dead in the streets of this quiet neighborhood for hours: “You were not alone. We were with you. We were watching. Your life was important to us. Your life is important.”

Something they don’t tell you about this spot on the news is that it is one of the most visible places in Ferguson. It is at the bend of a quiet neighborhood street where several dozen apartment windows in about six buildings point directly at the spot. It is in a spot surrounded by wooden balconies and stairwells, by parking lots with cars pulling in and out, by large grassy areas where children run and play. Children whose mothers had to try to avert their eyes for several hours, as Michael lay on the yellow dividing line of their small neighborhood street; his body blocking the one lane in and one lane out.

In a town where shootings are nearly unheard of, this sight – impossible to avoid and impossible to forget – would have left an indelible mark upon the memory of every child there. Yet, the flowers and bears and hats would now create, for the youngest children, a different image of that spot in their memory. For this reason, their parents debated about whether to let them play and feel joy in that spot, or whether to scold them for picking up one of “Michael’s bears” or one of “Michael’s flowers” and remind them to be sober.

Standing there in the street, I looked down at the layers of candle wax that sealed the darkened asphalt around the memorial and I prayed:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy…”

Moments before, I had stood on the grass nearby and prayed, “Why did you bring me here? What do you want me to learn here?” And I had felt that answer in only four words, but four words that held a world of meaning: “Take off your shoes.”

That action, rooted in an ancient story, was sufficient even without words to communicate to the neighbors standing watch and the friends standing with me: This is holy ground.

It didn’t really hit home, however, until tonight, two weeks later, as the words “Right now in #Ferguson” scrolled across my Twitter feed. After a busy day at work, I had not been paying attention to much outside of my own corner of the world and attempts to create community within it.

Yet, the news that there were crowds in the streets face to face again with police drove me to prayer and then to investigation of what was happening.

With just a couple key strokes, I was confronted with a picture of that same memorial that I had stood beside when I took off my shoes; before I stepped off the grass and into the main memorial in the center of the street. The conical structure had leaned against a light pole, a construction of teddy bears and silk flowers and cards. It was there that I had witnessed a three year old girl pull a faux sunflower out from the middle and carry it, giggling with pride, to a mother who did not have the heart to scold her.

Now I was seeing that same street side memorial in flames. It had burnt earlier in the day in what officials had called an accident, and residents had called an intentional act. At the end of the day, whatever happened, the tragedy at the heart of things is how it feels to the neighborhood. The shock of seeing flames at a spot they had committed to protect; reminding them of the wheels of the police vehicles that had run over their first attempt at a memorial.

Suddenly, I had the “do you get it now moment?” once again, as the impact of what I had experienced hit my heart two weeks after it had hit my brain, drawing hot tears down my cheek.

I had understood the simple concept that the ground I stood on was sacred and important, but I had failed to take the time to really hear the rest of the story from which those words arose. The sight of that memorial in flames made it impossible to ignore.

The man in the story is Moses. He was born a slave, found abandoned, raised by a princess. He was a fugitive now, fled from home; he is living in another land, after the injustice surrounding him had been too much for him to bear and he had became violent in response. In the course of his work, he comes upon a flame, in the midst of a blazing bush, and a voice tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

God speaks to Moses and says, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings.” God then tells Moses that he intends to end oppression and bring the people to a joyful place, and he wants Moses to go and bring them there. Moses resists, but God insists and says, “I will be with you.”

God is with us. God was with Michael. God also once lay bleeding to death while his family and friends were forced to watch helplessly. God listens. God hears. God plans to end oppression. And God intends to use us to do so.

So, take off your shoes.

To all of my brothers and sisters from Houston, to Durham, to Philadelphia, to St. Louis. Take off your shoes.

Taking off your shoes does not mean it is time to put up your feet. Taking off your shoes means you are about to embark on a journey – a journey that will take all the integrity and all the courage that you can muster.

Taking off your shoes means you are not alone. God, and all those God calls to walk the journey of justice and joy, are with you.

Finishing my prayers, that day in Ferguson, I stepped back out of the street and onto the grass in time to hear the end of a lesson from David, the guardian of the memorial. “Religion divides people,” he said. “God unites people. Jesus said trust no man, lean on him. We gotta trust God. I am here for peace. God is protecting Canfield, and I am determined that my children will be able to play outside here.”

To his left, two of his children that were old enough to walk chased each other and giggled. They ran past a tree with a sign that said, “his blood cries out from the ground.” Not old enough to read, and consumed with delight in each other’s company, they seemed only to understand that something important had happened and that now their yard was full of teddy bears and flowers, and that their mother kept telling them that all this cool stuff belonged to a kid named Michael.

Tripping over a root, the oldest child, a girl, fell face down at my feet and lifted her head up to smile at me. The American flag that she had taken from the nearby memorial – two weeks before it would burn – had flown out of her hand as she fell and now lay a couple feet away. Stooping down, I picked it up and handed it to her as she stood to her feet. As I gave it back to her, I looked in her eyes and said, “This is yours.” I did so with a deep awareness that this was her flag; that this was her country; and that all the rights of this nation are hers equally, regardless of her gender or anything else about her.

Yet, we have learned that these rights will not merely be handed to her. Beautiful words written long ago by powerful men only come alive when their wives and daughters and brothers and sisters demand that they be more than ink on a page. We need to stand together. Whether it be in the streets of Ferguson, the classrooms of our public schools, the pulpits of our cathedrals, or the halls of justice: we need to stand together.

Then, we need to take off our shoes. We need to recognize that we are not alone, that Michael Brown was not alone. That all the young children of his neighborhood – the ones who laugh because they are not old enough to understand why their mothers mourn – that they too are not alone.

We live in a world where, be it far or be it close, injustice has an expiration date and justice is our true destination. We must remember that will not get reach it if we never start to walk.

But before we start, let’s take off our shoes and listen; because it is a very long journey we have ahead of us, and we cannot get there alone.

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Real Talk at Ferguson City Council

“I don’t hate you,” he said, as his eyes locked with mine, pleading – or perhaps demanding – that I believe him. The young man, a representative from the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition had just taken to the microphone after a wait that had lasted hours, as residents and non-residents of Ferguson, Missouri vocalized their frustration with the City Council members sitting, removed from the people, upon the stage.

Dead center in the middle of the elevated dias was the mayor who had claimed shortly after Michael Brown’s shooting that Ferguson had no racism problem. To the mayor’s left, sat the only African American member, and non-white member, of the six person council. The latter gentleman was clearly torn after his timid approach towards the microphone in front of him had ended in a silent retreat back from it; this subtle movement of his neck eliciting a seemingly simultaneous outcry of betrayal from the hundreds of African American constituents gathered in the sanctuary of Greater Grace Church. One could only begin to imagine the turmoil within his soul, as the crowd, longing to hear his voice, longing to have him claim them as family, was met with silence from the stage. Two seats further down sat Councilwoman Kim Tihen, who, while a police officer in 2009, had first beaten an African American man, Henry Davis, and then charged him with destruction of property for bleeding on her uniform.

The young man who had just taken the microphone from its stand and slumped into the chair beside me was clearly exhausted from the hours of waiting in line as voice after voice vocalized their long felt frustrations and fears. Now it was his turn, and he had an important point to make. Many of those who had gone before him had made the argument that this was not a race issue, that this was a justice issue. One woman had said, “It is not about black and white to me anymore, it is about right and wrong.” Others had given passionate speeches about their desire to create a community that was just as safe for white children as for black children. The point had been made time and time again that this was not about race, it was about justice.

“You keep saying it’s not about race,” the young man had said to the crowd, “but it is about race. It is about black and white.” As he began to make his point, an important one, his head swung from left to right and with each rotation, the realization began to dawn on him that he was sitting next to a white woman. The reality seemed to be distracting him until he just stopped fighting it. The rotation of his head ceased completely, and his eyes locked with mine. We were having a conversation.

“I don’t hate you,” he said with the microphone still in his hand, “but this is about race, and we have to face that. But we don’t have to wait for them to do something about that,” he said vaguely waving at the stage where the City Council members sat without taking his eyes off mine. “I don’t mean to single you out,” he continued, “but you are here. And while it is not about me hating you, it is about race, and we have to do something. They’re not going to do it for us.”

For the first time in the entire night, you could have heard a pin drop. I tried to nod as reassuringly as I could. Trying to communicate to him that I agreed with all of his points. Yet tension hung in the air as if a paralyzing fog had filled the room; he had said what needed to be said, but it was a truth that – for a room full of people intent on demanding justice from the authority figures on the stage – was hard to hear.

He had named this truth: we cannot expect the people in power to fix things for us. We cannot afford to wait for them to come around. While it is not about a black man like him hating a white woman like me, it is still about race and it is still about the sin of racism, and it will get us nowhere to avoid that fact. We do have to name it. We do have to begin the hard work within our own hearts, minds and lives to fight against the power that it holds over us, our society, our children, and our futures.

He had named the hard truth that justice and peace are something we have to build with our own hands. True justice and true peace are so inextricably bound up with one another, that the false peace that accompanies injustice – otherwise known as oppression – will always leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those silenced by fear and the threat of violence.

As he walked back to his seat, silence fell over the room, the first and the last silence of the night. I wished I had done more than nod in agreement in a room so large that the gentle bobbing of my head may not have been understood as solidarity. I wished I had gotten up and hugged him, or at least shaken his hand. But the weight of his words, and the heaviness of the calling he had placed on us had left me immobilized to do anything but clap quietly in the middle of a silent room.

I found him afterwards, wading through the crowd of youth from nearly every ethnicity and background imaginable that made up the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition. Tapping him on the shoulder, I said, “I’m so sorry, I did not get to shake your hand in there.”

He blushed, still feeling awkward about singling me out. “I’m so sorry, it’s just that you were right there.”

“No, no. Don’t feel awkward. You had an important point to make and you made it very well. Thank you,” I said.

Walking back to the car with my friend Christian, the intensity of emotions that had been expressed throughout the evening almost made my knees buckle. My stomach was sick with how differently I had been treated by the police than my African American companion, who I loved like a sister, who I would do anything for. Each time I had been walked through security, I had received a warm welcome from the officers; while she had been detained, her body wanded and her bag searched.  My head was pounding and my heart was beating… and breaking… and expanding.

We both knew how the news media had been portraying the quaint community of Ferguson, and how they would continue to portray the events of this evening. For me, however, the strongest and most consistent theme of the night could have been summarized with that young man’s first words to me, “I don’t hate you.” As person after person had approached the microphone, the message that they had was first that they were tired and fed up with being afraid in their own streets and in their own homes. Second, that they would not take it anymore. Third, that their anger was directed specifically against those that had perpetuated inequality, and that they recognized that there were countless white allies in the room.

The people of Ferguson are not fighting a “race war”, they are fighting a war against racism.

They are engaged in the very same struggle that wages in the other 91 municipalities of the St. Louis metropolitan region, the other 49 states and unincorporated territories of the United States, and the other 195 countries of the world. The struggle that though God has called us family, that has not stopped many from seeing brother as threat and committing fratricide as Cain did.

If we truly understand what it means to be the family of God, injustice becomes intolerable, and complacency becomes impossible.

When we see one another as family, we should have “real talk,” just like family does.

We should be able to lock eyes and say, “I don’t hate you. I need you to take action. Together we can change things.”

First Ferguson City Council meeting since shooting of Michael Brown.
First Ferguson City Council meeting since shooting of Michael Brown.
"We are not letting you go back to business as usual, Mayor."
“We are not letting you go back to business as usual, Mayor.”
"We're not just "Black" - we're people! We're human!"
“We’re not just “Black” – we’re people! We’re human!”
"I am Mike Brown. My address is Ground Zero."
“I am Mike Brown. My address is Ground Zero.”
"For me, it's not about black and white anymore, it's about right and wrong. Whatever you do about Darren Wilson i going to affect the whole country - we didn't want that - we just wanted an apology!"
“For me, it’s not about black and white anymore, it’s about right and wrong. Whatever you do about Darren Wilson is going to affect the whole country – we didn’t want that – we just wanted an apology! We are black people, and our lives are valuable! People say we aren’t – but we are valuable!”
"I've got a mind! I'm intelligent! But you stereotype me!"
“I’ve got a mind! I’m intelligent! But you stereotype me!”