The rioting and violence that began in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown has left me, a middle-age white woman, frustrated. Sad. Angry and many times discouraged. I thought our country was racially healthier than this. I could no longer ignore the open and infected wound that hasn’t healed at all. What can I possibly do to positively impact the problem? I can’t even start in my own community. The last census revealed that only 4.1% of the population of our city is black.
I had to go to Ferguson. I wanted to let the residents, business owners, police department, protesters and others know that I care. The plan was simple: I enlisted the help of friends to provide cookies, bags of treats, and Christmas cards that I would hand deliver. With a lot of faith, food, and friends, I headed to Ferguson with a simple message from Springfield, Missouri. We have people who care what happened to them, who are praying for them, and want to encourage them. This could have been any city in the United States, but it happened to Ferguson.
My first stop was to the Ferguson Police Department. The building is surrounded by blockades. I waited in a long line outside while several men each took their turn to explain that they were posting bond. My unease at holding a sizable platter of cookies for the entire staff began to shift to moderate concern when I realized the purpose for their visit. Every person in line except me had been arrested for protesting. One after the next, they smiled and nodded as they walked past me after completing their business. Eventually a police woman met me personally, as the tray of cookies wouldn’t fit through the small glass window. She shared in guarded comments how difficult it has been for them. This post is not an op-ed. Everyone has shared the cost of some tragic events.
I headed out to meet some of the vandalized business owners. It was easy to determine whose building had been hit because their front windows are still boarded up with plywood. Most store fronts have hand painted messages such as ‘Ferguson Strong’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’. I knocked on the door of the first business that was boarded up. Someone poked their head through the blinds, glanced at me and walked away. I kept my chin up and kept going until I found someone still open for business and welcoming strangers carrying platters of cookies.
The first business I made contact with was a law firm. I greeted a friendly paralegal with my fresh plate of cookies. Words tumbled over each other as she explained the financial, social, and emotional impact on Ferguson. Their other locations have closed and this is their last day of business before this is the only remaining location. I have miraculously arrived just before the entire staff is getting together for a final goodbye. Like so many would tell me, the damages are not covered by insurance. A few local businesses have gained national notoriety but most small businesses have not. It is hitting many businesses deep in their pockets. She said it didn’t feel like Christmas this year, as there wasn’t much to celebrate. I smiled and explained that was why I had come to visit. She and the other residents of Ferguson should have a reason for hope. It has to go beyond our current circumstances. She reached out and asked if she could hug me.
I spoke with many who resented the gawkers coming into their city like they are a tourist attraction. One business owner had just removed their first piece of plyboard that morning. For the first time since November 24, they had some natural light coming in through one of their windows. One woman wished me well on my missions trip through the city. Many gave me their business card. It wasn’t my intent to write anything following my visit, but they encouraged me to share their messages.
The only remaining businesses on this section had all closed their doors permanently in the days following the riots after it was announced the grand jury would not bring an indictment against Officer Darren Wilson. I regrouped and headed down the road.
By now I feel obligated to share with my reader that each business owner I met at this area was white, many of their support staff was white, and the few black people I met were doing other manual labor. When I entered one store the employees, all black, had now heard I was in town. They were polite, perhaps too polite. I gave my brief message. ‘Hello, I’m from Springfield..some friends baked for you… we are praying for you and your city.’ I let them talk as long as they wanted about anything they wanted and I listened. While appreciative, they informed me I would need to take my cookies to the other side of the store. I looked quizzically at them, not understanding. One man spoke up. ‘The owner is over there, behind the counter.’ Only they know the outcome but my instinct tells me they never enjoyed any cookies that day.
I walked to the counter to find the lights dimmed and the owner asleep in a chair. I startled her awake as she nearly tumbled out of her office chair. It took little time to get up to speed. I heard a lengthy discourse on how to fix Ferguson under whispered breath, lest the employees on the other side of the store should hear her comments. More education. Better education. Get Al Sharpton out of here for once and for all. It was a long list. I don’t think she realized she could be part of the solution.
Many residents are actively part of the solution. I greeted some gentlemen who were trading fish stories or something at a public gazebo. Okay, I might have practically chased down a few people in a public parking lot also. I had found the heartbeat of Ferguson. Ebony and Ivory, people who were colorblind. They explained that this is what things used to look like. They would hang out together for a cup of coffee, maybe breakfast, no one thought of the color of their friend’s skin. One day, one person at a time they were going to hang out together in public to show that things are back to normal – at least as it depends on them. They are the unsung heroes of Ferguson.
My next stop was to an eye glass store. The boarded up windows said they were open but with a padlock on the door and no answer I had to move on. I tried to give a sizable plate of cookies away twice to pedestrians. First I encountered a young black woman about 25 years old who offered a battery of excuses for why she didn’t want them. She was either allergic to them, not hungry, diabetic, or something else. I listened as the sentences overflowed one into the next. A simple no thank you would have been fine but she seemed obliged to provide a reason for declining. Shortly after she walked away a second young black woman came down the street, keeping her eyes glued to the sidewalk. I blurted out my spiel, expecting another rejection. She looked me squarely in the eyes, grabbed them from my hands as she yelled ‘Thanks!!’ and ran down the street.
I should have been back on the road by now but I knew I only had half the story. I had to go to West Florissant Avenue.
Nothing could prepare me for the devastation caused by the riots beginning August 9th following Michael Brown’s death. I couldn’t make sense of random buildings that had been set on fire, left to burn to the ground, while the business next door was open for business as usual. I stopped to take a few pictures, having little history of what occurred on this street. Many businesses were completely unrecognizable.
When I first looked across the street at one business something was different. It wasn’t burnt down but a chain link fence blocked off all access. I eyed a hand painted sign with the simple message RIP Mike. I quickly googled the address for where Michael Brown had been shot. It was just down the road. I was looking at a makeshift memorial made for him. I stopped to take in this somber moment. This is why I was here in Ferguson. I prayed for the Brown family and for those affected by his death.
I was now on the side of town where I met the first group of black business owners. The first business was a ladies’ dress shop. A young man was watching the shop. He stood to shake my hand and asked if I would like to wait to meet the owner. I was running out of time so I thanked him and moved on. Next door was a hair salon, where I met some of the most beautiful people from the entire day. I was still giving my same message and getting a new response each time. The owner, a black woman about my age, was overcome with delight. She said several times that she couldn’t understand why people would come to Ferguson to show them kindness but it had encouraged her that God has not forgotten about them. I think I hugged everyone in that business three or four times. I left encouraged and excited to meet more people.
My last stop of the day was to a nail salon. I had large plates of cookies for the staff, smaller bags of cookies for individuals that I had been handing out to people on the street all day, and my Christmas cards with a simple message inside that said ‘We are praying for you’. I walked excitedly into their doors only to be greeted with rather sullen faces. Here sat a room full of women all getting manicures and pedicures, the very definition of relaxation to me. Who wouldn’t want a cookie and a smile?
Most of them, it turned out. The staff spoke very little English. I wasn’t sure at first they understood me, but I laid the cookies at the front counter anyway. I walked up to a lady waiting and offered her a bag of cookies. ‘No thank you.’ Suddenly I didn’t handle rejection so well. ‘Would you like a Christmas card?’, I asked with a smile. ‘No, I don’t celebrate Christmas.’ I glanced around, looking for anyone who would make eye contact. A few women looked my way and gladly accepted the cookies, some declined, some never acknowledged me. My thoughts? That’s okay. I wasn’t here to push any agenda.
With the sun quickly fading I had to turn back home despite having some Christmas cookies left. Just as I was pulling away I spotted the most encouraging sight of the day – the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association bus. Chaplains have been in town since November visiting people and businesses daily, giving them hope, praying with them, and encouraging them. I joined ten to fifteen people on their bus as we shared stories about the trials and triumphs in Ferguson. We ended by gathering in a circle of prayer, finishing the day with my own Christmas miracle. I had surely been here a week, I was exhausted but excited, and these chaplains were just the boost my spirit needed on a cold December day.
My thoughts on Ferguson
- Almost everyone believes they can overcome this. People want to be a part of the change.
- Healing takes a long time and everyone arrives there at different junctures and in different ways. No one can force an agenda on an entire group and expect them to fall in line, regardless of where you stand in the issue.
- Kindness begins with your neighbors. Start with what you can do today for someone who can’t give anything back.
- Change takes a long time also. Ask yourself if you are part of the problem. If you are, make deliberate steps to change and apologize to those you have wronged to the best of your ability. If you are on the receiving end give people the chance to change. This has been a wake up call for many white people who never thought about walking into a store with their hands in their pockets.
- The world’s problems are not solved by a cookie and a smile but they aren’t eased by screaming when no one is listening to each other. Let’s each do our part
- It’s easy to lose sight of the individual behind each part of this story. Each person in Ferguson has their own personal story. All too often we lose those individual stories by throwing people into categories.