Ferguson & Thanksgiving Dinner

As my wife and I get ready to drive back to Illinois for Thanksgiving tomorrow, I’ve been wondering how to share with my family and friends back home some of the experiences that we’ve been having in Saint Louis these past few months.  From weeping over dashed hopes in our apartment alone to joyfully embracing friends new and old in the midst of protests and prayer gatherings, I’ve been surprised by my own emotional spectrum as we’ve responded to shooting death of Mike Brown and its aftermath.  I’ve never considered myself a particularly emotional person but this situation has brought out high highs and particularly lower lows than I thought myself capable of feeling.  There has been a heavy sadness lingering from day to day as we hear stories of hurt and frustration on every side of this situation.  On Thanksgiving Eve, as we look toward a day filled with family and friends a hundred physical miles from Saint Louis, it’s daunting to imagine summarizing the experience, particularly knowing the even greater emotional and spiritual distance that separates these spaces.

As I’ve been meditating on this, I have also connected with a few friends over the past day or two that have expressed similar concern and I thought it would be beneficial for me personally to sit down and tease out some guidelines for my Saint Louis friends and students who are bridging the gap between Ferguson and Family Dinner this Thanksgiving.  Obviously, no where is more polarized over its opinion of the Ferguson situation than Saint Louis itself so I realize that if anyone reads this blog at all, it is possible that people from differing viewpoints will do so but I think that most folks within my small sphere will likely agree on a few key points that need to be expressed to the outside world.

  • The death of an eighteen year-old is a tragedy for everyone involved, regardless of the circumstances.
  • Ferguson is not close to where most of us live. It’s a suburb of Saint Louis.
  • Though property damage has happened in Ferguson and a little bit on the South Side, only 3 of the past 109 days of continual protest have included property damage and the overwhelming majority of the demonstrations have not included “rioting” or “looting.”
  • There are serious and real inequities between the white communities and the communities of color in Saint Louis and many things need to change.

So without further ado, here are a few guidelines I am personally sticking to in sharing my experience in Saint Louis this Thanksgiving:

  1. Work to show honor wherever possible.  Some of these people changed your diapers. Some of them work hard to put you through school. Some of them are preparing a delicious meal for you.  Some of them are genuinely concerned for your safety and their only access to Saint Louis is from the overly-sensationalized news reel each night.  Check your arrogance and choose to believe the best wherever possible; love really does cover over a multitude of sins.
  2. Ask questions to uncover the stories behind the statements.  As people begin sharing their own opinions about the situation, choose out of aligning with one camp or another at first.  Choose to ask people to share why they think what they think and what experiences in their lives have led them there.  Ask questions about people’s experience with race, law enforcement, and other general topics that lead to deeper understanding and relationship and away from debate.  Try to understand how they see the world and what you have in common (“walk a mile in their shoes,” if you will).
  3. Defer to sharing stories over statistics, value judgments, or direct challenges.  Someone is going to say something you find ignorant.  It’s probably already happened via social media by now.  Instead of digging up that percentage you vaguely remember from your activist Facebook friend or pulling out a term you heard in sociology class, share a story from your own experience or the experience of a friend who has been in Saint Louis since August.  If you haven’t connected personally with the pain of the black community these past few months, share the stories of those who have.  Work to humanize and elevate these narratives above the images people will have seen.
  4. Make the connection to the Gospel.  Whether your family is Christian or not, this is an amazing opportunity to either bond over common value or share your testimony (or both!).  The reality is that Jesus has called us to the hard places of the world and modeled that in his incarnation.  We care about Ferguson because Jesus cares about Ferguson as he cares about and works to bring light and healing to every dark and broken place.  Share what it has been like for you as a follower of Jesus to engage with these issues.  Be vulnerable and avoid being preachy.  Maybe spend Thanksgiving morning reflecting on a passage that has felt particularly helpful for you these past couple months and consider sharing it if the conversation arises.
  5. Fight for relationship.  This won’t go perfectly.  You might say something too harshly.  You might be misunderstood.  Don’t dominate the dinner table.  Ask about other people’s lives and things beyond what’s happening in Saint Louis.  Continue to engage and connect afterwards. Remember, this situation has been your physical and emotional reality for the past three months but that hasn’t been the case for everyone.  Do everything you can to preserve trust and open communication and be the first to apologize if things get out of hand.
  6. Pray, Pray, Pray.  Pray before people arrive for peace and clarity and the Lord’s presence.  Pray as conversations happen against the Enemy’s desire for division and strife.  Pray for ears to hear and an open heart to love even people with whom you disagree.  Pray afterwards for the Lord to continue his good work in everyone’s hearts, including your own.  Jesus is good and he began his good work in every heart around that table long before you all sat down and he will bring it to completion in his own time.  Trust him.

What do you guys think?  Any suggestions to add?