Before the praise and worship service began Sunday, August 24 at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, a young woman decorated its sacred spaces with colorful origami cranes connected by strings. She had a plastic container full of them.
The container held 1,000 cranes that were hand-delivered by Kate Rogers, a third-year ministerial student from South Boston United Church of Christ, located near ground zero of last year’s Boston Marathon terrorist bomb attack.
Now, a different type of ground zero is here in Ferguson.
The cranes are a symbol of peace for the UCC. Rogers said the cranes originally came from a church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin after 9/11. They were sent to a UCC church in Ohio after a school shooting there. Then they were sent to a UCC church in Newtown, Connecticut after a school shooting. And in 2013, they were delivered to South Boston UCC after the 2013 Marathon bombing.
Rogers said the cranes are a visual token of prayers. “Your tears are our tears,” she said.
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor at Christ the King, is a nurturer, organizer, purposeful collaborator and mother of three, including two young African-American men. She is a minister of the Gospel who gets her marching orders from on high through constant prayer, reflection and consideration. She took vacation time from her job as a nurse to devote her attention to demonstrations and activities sparked from the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
One day before the teenager’s family said their final goodbyes at his funeral, Blackmon had a message for her church family derived from 1 Kings 19:1-10. It talks about when Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life and he ran and hid in a cave.
The analogy, she said, is with people of color, who have been in a cave far too long, working on jobs where they are evaluated by a different set of rules and living in neighborhoods structured for containment, rather than community.
“Cave-dwelling victims and cave-dwelling Christians – I’m talking about those of us who live quiet lives with low expectations – we lose our collective potential because we have been hurt so long and so much that we are scared to try anything else,” Blackmon said.
“So we do just enough to get by, just enough to stay alive but not enough to thrive, just enough to keep breathing. But we won’t risk anything to go to the next level.”
She reminded those in attendance that it won’t be easy. However, it is only in the struggle that we learn who we really are, she said.
“The Lord found Elijah in the cave,” she said. “Aren’t you glad that every now and then, the Lord will come and find you?”
Blackmon said the community needs to reach the voice of its youth lost on the caves of the streets.
“The missing element, to me, is the leadership of the young people that are on the streets, not young people who are in our churches,” Blackmon said. “All of that is needed too, but the young people who are on the street, they have their own communication system, their own cell groups, their own leaders, and we’ve got to connect with them as well.”
Blackmon has made some remarkable connections in her organizing work. She went to the source of the movement, the Canfield Green Apartments. That’s where Michael Brown was shot and killed and where he was mourned first, when Ferguson police left his lifeless body lying in the street for more than four hours.
In her visits to Canfield, Blackmon found working professionals; two-parent families who want the same thing for their children as people in Ladue; veterans who can’t get the services they need after serving our country; and elderly people whose neighbors were looking after them because police had barricaded Canfield in.
One late-night call-out to area clergy to strategize a coordinated response to the crisis drew Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, other elected officials and news media. Blackmon sat Nixon down in a pew and made him listen to a Canfield resident, Sierra Smith, who made a direct appeal about dire conditions in Canfield that Nixon seemed to ignore.
Another night, her church was the site of trainings in effective non-violent protest by Rev. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights icon, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Blackmon has attracted leaders from many faiths wanting to work with her, but she grieves that different groups working on this movement are not working together
“A mass of angry people without an organized collective strategy, even if there is a shared goal, is a mob, not a movement,” she posted on Facebook.
Blackmon is organizing her efforts via the web site PrayingWithOurFeet.org and the social media hashtag #PrayingWithOurFeet. The title came from a quote by abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass: “Praying for freedom never did me any good till I started praying with my feet.”
“It’s time for us to stop waiting on the Lord to do everything and understand that we are the embodiment of Christ on this earth, and we have to, not just pray with our mouths, but pray with our actions,” Blackmon said.
“It means we need to be on the ground. It means we need to be ministering to those people who are hurting. We need to stop waiting for people to come into our sanctuaries; we need to go out into the streets.”
And we need to do these things together, she said, if the Ferguson movement is to have any impact.
“Everybody that is trying to move this, we need to all be working together,” Blackmon said. “I think we are all working in the same direction, but we are not working together in terms of being wise about our utilization of resources, both human and physical resources, so that we can endure for the long-term.”
To post events or for more information, visit www.prayingwithourfeet.org.