A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a noisy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day, and in the days preceding, if one really wants noise, one needs to go to a grocery store.  But this Thanksgiving was noisy, mostly with the sounds of snowplows and chain saws and Public Service line trucks beeping as they backed up in the great challenge of restoring power to most of the town.

Over a foot of wet snow fell on Wednesday, bringing down tree limbs and power lines.  Most of Mount William was in the dark all of Wednesday night and well into Thursday.  Anna and Bruce Renee had planned to do Thanksgiving dinner at their home, but with no power for the oven, cooking was a bit of a challenge, so they carted the turkey and fixings and their three teenage kids to Anna’s parents’ apartment in the retirement community that they moved into nine years ago.  It was the first time the smells of roasting turkey filled the small apartment, a smell Sylvia Spengler, Anna’s mom, had missed for all of those nine years.

Feeling like she was coming to the rescue filled Sylvia with a giddiness that continued right up until the moment she looked into the little galley kitchen in her apartment and saw what cleanup would entail.  Suddenly she remembered one of the reasons she and Bill had moved into the retirement community.

The Renees were not the only family that had to make emergency Thanksgiving dinner plans.  While few Thanksgiving gatherings went off as they had been planned weeks earlier, just about everyone thinks it was a great Thanksgiving.  There’s something about a manageable crisis to draw people together, and that’s really what most families want on Thanksgiving: to draw their loved ones together.  Well, that and some really yummy food.

It wasn’t a quiet week for Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, either.  His disquiet was more internal than external.  He had had some vacation in August and he decided to do something quite out of character for him.  He decided to go to Ferguson, Missouri.  There were so many conflicting stories about the death of Michael Brown – accusations and counter accusations.  And there was so much anger.  And there was so much violence – both the attention getting rioting of a small contingent of the protestors (interesting how the New England news media ignored the peaceful protests) and the militarized police response.  And underneath it all was the putrid stench of racism.  He needed to bear witness to the need for an open and fair examination of the facts of this case.  He needed to challenge the power of racism in our culture.  And he needed to confront his own complicity in the racism that permeates our society.  So he used some of his previously-schedule vacation and went to Ferguson.

His summer experiences came flooding back when the announcement was made that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.  All week long, the news continued and Rev. Friend found himself processing it.  He wondered how he would react if his church building were to be burned to the ground the way the Brown family’s church was this week.  Far from the centers of violence, one can’t help but wonder who is really responsible for this arson.[2]  Earlier in the week, he had read something that challenged his attitude toward Darren Wilson.  He had forgotten the emotional and spiritual cost Darren Wilson was paying, not because of the scrutiny his actions on August 9th were garnering, but because he had shot and killed another human being.  What moral injury was he suffering?  Rev. Friend found a surprising compassion growing inside him.

While several of his colleagues read – devoured – the various documents and reports from and about the grand jury,[3] Rev. Friend couldn’t go there.  He didn’t want to second guess the grand jury’s decision.  He didn’t want to get into the finger pointing and the blame game that seemed to surround him.  Instead, he needed to reflect on and process his memories of his days in Ferguson.

He remembered walking with a group of clergy, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  As they finished the verse, “We are not afraid,” he realized it was a lie.  He was afraid.

He knew that this group would encounter the police at some point in the evening, but nothing prepared him for the sheer number of police officers.  The clergy had gathered at dinnertime in the parking lot of a grocery store miles from the protest site.  Nonetheless, by the time there were four clergy gathered, there were four squad cars in the parking lot and they were told to leave.

They drove to a high school, parked their cars, and began walking to the county prosecutor’s office to present a letter with their demands, including an expedited grand jury process run by someone other than county prosecutor Bob McCullough.  Although they were far from the site of Michael Brown’s death, the route was guarded by scores of heavily armed officers.  Squad cars drove slowly beside them, and there were SWAT teams and barricades.

They were not being guarded in the sense of being protected.  They were being guarded against, as if this group of clergy were an extreme threat.  A skinny white man from New Hampshire, Rev. Friend had never experienced being policed in his way.  It was unnerving.  Could a couple hundred clergy walking together really pose such a threat?

When they got to the country prosecutor’s office, the prayed together and delivered their list of demands.  It was a single sheet of paper, wilted in the humid heat, but the officer acted as if it might explode and hesitated to even take hold of it.

Earlier, they had gathered in a church that was a sort of home base for the protesters.  One folding table held a jumble of first-aid supplies.  The other held makeshift gear:  bottles of water, spray bottles with solution for washing tear gas out of eyes, paper masks, and swim goggles for eye protection.

The leaders were a group of twenty-somethings thoughtfully engaging in the disciples of nonviolent protest.  They wanted this group of clergy to know what they would encounter on the march.  There were important rules to learn:  no sudden movements; if you carry a water bottle, hold it high so the police officers can see what it is; if you take tear gas equipment (a mask or goggles), don’t let it be seen until it is needed, or you will be targeted.  This group of twenty-somethings were being so protective of these middle-aged newbies.  One of the twenty-somethings asked a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Friend was pretty sure her name was Shannon, if she had a group to walk with; he didn’t want her to go out alone.  They didn’t want any of them going out alone.

And then – it seemed so strange to Rev. Friend at the time – this group of young protesters prepared to face hundreds of heavily armed officers by reciting poetry.  “These leaders are the fiercest hope I have ever seen,” Rev. Friend thought.  He was amazed by it, humbled by it.  And he found himself feeling very protective of these young men and women who embodied it.

The clergy were divided into teams with a trained organizer for each team.  They memorized each other’s names, agreed to be responsible for one another, and wrote an emergency phone number on their skin in purple Sharpie.  The captain of Rev. Friend’s team asked them what level of danger and violence the were willing to face.  “Will you leave when the tear gas starts?” he asked the group.

“Why would we willingly walk into tear gas?” Shannon, the Presbyterian minister asked.

“To get the young people out,” he responded.  “They will keep going, so some of us go back in to pull them out.”

Rev. Friend tried to get his mind wrapped around the response.  He didn’t think he could stay if the tear gas started.  His noble motives aside, this was getting scary and this was the first time he had ever done anything like this.

When they reached the protest area, the street was closed to traffic and the parking lots were filled with media people and hundreds of police officers.  They were allowed to protest as long as they stayed on the sidewalk, kept moving, and did nothing that could be interpreted as aggression.  At one point a kindly police officer gave them a minute before asking them to move along.  “If I make an exception for you,” he said, “I have to make an exception for everybody.”  The clear implication was that he would let them stop if he could.  Rev. Friend was torn between enjoying this favor and realizing that it was this very distinction that he was there to protest.  Did the group seem harmless because of their clergy collars or because some of them were white?

As the night wore on, Rev. Friend’s fear deepened.  Every night so far, the police had responded with tear gas, or flash grenades, or rubber bullets.  “What will it be tonight?” he wondered.  They passed one person who appeared to be intoxicated and another who appeared to living with a metal illness.  All the marchers he could see were peaceful, but it was clear to him that it would only take one wrong move to set off the officers.

At one point, as the night wore on, a young black man came by and asked, “Are you a group?  Can I walk with you?”  This was the moment, as Rev. Friend recalled, where it all came into focus.  He wanted to tell this young black man, “No.”  He didn’t want this young black man with his red t-shirt pulled up over his head, effectively masking him, to walk with him and his fellow clergy.  Perhaps the shirt thing – he’d seen other protesters doing it – was makeshift protection against the tear gas, but Rev. Friend didn’t want this young man to march next to him because he feared his presence might spark a violence response.

Then the young man turned and Rev. Friend saw on his torso a phone number scrawled in purple Sharpie.  He was one of the young people from the church, one of the young leaders that Rev. Friend had been so eager to protect.  He had gone from hoping that his clergy collar would protect this young man to not wanting him near because he didn’t want the protection of his clergy collar and white skin and graying hair to be disrupted by his presence.  Hope in the church had turned to fear on the street so quickly.

Hope is always frightening.  It opens us to disappointment.  Hope is frightening in another way for those of us who are privileged in the current state of affairs.  “I want a better world,” Rev. Friend thought as he remembered his days in Ferguson, “but I am afraid to give up the security I have in this one.  Hope threatens me, even in its abundant promise.  I guess for me, part of the challenge is not to fear hope itself.”

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] This sermon is based (often quoting directly or changing the quote from first person to third person) almost entirely on a reflection by Shannon Craigo-Snell, titled, “Fear and Hope in Ferguson: Marching into danger,” published in the 1 October 2014 edition of Christian Century (pages 10-11).

[2] Wesley Lowry, “The Brown family’s pastor tries to make sense of the fire that gutted his church,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-brown-familys-pastor-tries-to-make-sense-of-fire-that-gutted-his-church/2014/11/28/15520f3e-7711-11e4-a755-e32227229e7b_story.html (posted 28 November 2014; accessed 29 November 2014).

[3] If you’re interested in reading some of the documents, you might want to check out http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision.

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