Ferguson, MO -- It’s hard to go far in Ferguson without encountering a church or three. Near the now famous Ferguson market, there are 10 churches less than a 10-minute drive away. And as demonstrators take to the streets demanding police investigate the death of Michael Brown, it’s hard not to hear how religion is fast becoming a part of the main narrative. Faith communities have long spearheaded social activism and the civil rights movement throughout the United States, and Ferguson is no different.
There are more than 25 listed churches in the small suburb with a population of roughly 21,000 people. Census data show 57 percent of people in St. Louis identify themselves with a religious congregation, a rate 7 percent above the national average.
Another important and widely publicized statistic is that the 69 percent of the population is black.
“The African-American community historically has been very faith based,” said Judy Ferguson Shaw, 64, who has lived in Ferguson for the past 54 years. She emphasized that, especially in Ferguson, church congregations are very tight-knit and are are highly influential.
“Officials, when they want to be elected, they go to the churches for support and approval,” she said, as she walked in a peaceful march through the city Saturday morning, to mark a week since Brown died.
Led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Shaw and hundreds of other supporters made their way from the apartment building where Brown was shot, past the burned-out QuikTrip convenience store that has become the epicenter of Ferguson’s protest movement, and ended their journey at a local church.
“The church has a history of spurring social change,” said the Rev. Lynn Mims, who has served as a pastor at Barak Christian Church in Ferguson for the past 15 years. He also walked along the march, and joined the crowd to hear Jackson’s remarks afterward. Mims said since Brown was killed, he and other pastors have provided counseling and advice to members of their congregation, and some important introductions to the youth leading the protest movement.
“We have a lot of connections and experience,” he said, adding they work with many secular groups to ensure things run smoothly. But Mims added faith-based groups can offer something a little different this time around, explaining he and other religious leaders were happy to help, but hope the Brown protest movement will be led by the city’s youth.
“We don’t need to be the leaders, but we need to be the fire,” he said.
Kimberly Hardeman, 26, who also attended the march after driving in from Kansas City, Missouri, said she wasn’t particularly religious but supported the role faith played.
“I have no problem with it,” she said. “It helps to keep people going, and keep the peace.”