“Who’s ready to get arrested?”
That’s what the lady was yelling when I found my seat. I had walked in to the church gym to find a whole herd of people sitting on the floor, linked arm-in-arm. Blank name tags were strewn about the plastic covered banquet tables that hovered above them. Just outside the door, lined up in a row, were the orangest orange hats you ever did see and a stack of vests the same shockingly noticeable color. There was some sort of agenda scratched out on the easel at one end of the basketball court, and a massive bowl of salad surrounded by a half dozen pitchers full of mysterious purple liquid at the court’s other end. That lady who hollered at me about going to jail, was standing over the seated herd, in a black t-shirt with the words “end racism” across her chest, gesticulating frantically, then climbing into the scrum of seated folks over knees and elbows, and tugging at their arms and shoulders, pulling them up, one by one.
And yes, it was a clergy meeting.
For weeks now, local youth, regional leaders, national activists, and yes, clergy groups, have been meeting, planning and organizing for the much anticipated grand jury decision over whether or not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting and killing of Michael Brown. Since that day in Ferguson, we all watched the community react, and here locally, the faith community has been involved in the response. August was all triage, and many worked to stop the violence, to stand for calm. Then in September there were meetings, so many meetings. October brought action, as thousands came to the St. Louis area for organized marches, protests, lectures, prayer meetings, concerts and gatherings. And now, November seems to be the month of preparing. And waiting.
It is not lost on me that we are coming up on the season of Advent, a season of waiting and preparing the way. The church, in my experience, is actually pretty good at waiting. We’ve got the candles and the paraments all ready to wait stylishly in purple. We’ve got a whole section of songs in our hymnal about waiting. My tradition uses a committee system and Roberts Rules of Order to make sure we wait in order to make thoughtful decisions. And then, of course, there’s that whole waiting for the return of Christ thing that we’ve gotten really good at.
So waiting is exactly what clergy and everyone here in our area are doing right now. We are waiting for the decision. We are waiting for that announcement. We are waiting for the reaction. We are waiting for the response from organized protesters and from police, from angry neighbors and from the National Guard, from civic leaders and from outside agitators, from mobilized clergy and from our elected officials. Business have already boarded up. An activist coalition has already trained more than 200 people for actions of civil disobedience. School principals are sending out emergency transportation plans and municipalities are issuing directives to stock up on water and supplies. Clergy groups have written litanies and are stocking congregations with supplies and volunteers so that they may serve safe sanctuaries in neighborhoods where violence or tear gas may explode. We have taken de-escalation training and ordered uniform clergy-wear (in that most orangest of orange), so that we can be identified on the front lines now that it is cold and our coats cover up our collars. We have filled out forms for who should be notified in case of our arrest. We have exchanged business cards and twitter handles. We have prepared for whatever may come when this wait is through. Because while we wait, we don’t wait idle. We prepare. Perhaps we over prepare. But this city is a mess, and the tension here is real. We can’t just sit and wait, so we just keep getting ready.
So today, a gym full of clergy, who normally stand up tall in pulpits, sat on the floor and waited. We listened and learned what it might be like to participate in planned actions. And as we have been doing for the past several weeks, we listened to the voices of others, other groups, other leaders, other agendas, other plans, and waited. It is a strange place for some religious leaders, who are used to being in charge, more comfortable leading the way. Clergy are used to being the ones up front and speaking, and are still called to do that here. But also to sit on the floor and listen.
So while we wait, here in St Louis, but also wherever you are and whatever issues are causing your community to wait and prepare and wait some more, let us stand in those big pulpits on Sundays to preach the gospel boldly. But then, let’s sit down and get on the floor on Monday… waiting, listening, organizing, praying, preparing and waiting some more.