United Methodist pastors Willis Johnson (left) and Matt Miofsky (right) talk before services at The Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
On August 9, 2014, the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer set off days of dramatic demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. The eyes of the world turned to images on TV of police in riot gear and crowds of protesters in the St. Louis suburb.
The Rev. F. Willis Johnson and his congregation at Wellspring United Methodist Church had a front row seat. The predominantly African-American church is located not far from the Ferguson police department and the epicenter of the unrest. On Sunday morning, August 10, as protesters were gathering in the streets, Wellspring opened its doors as a refuge. “We became very much a communal space,” recalls Johnson. “It was a natural kind of assumption that this would be a place where people would come and be able to pray, or be able to kind of get their bearings.”
In nearby St. Louis, on that same Sunday morning, the Rev. Matt Miofsky’s mostly white United Methodist congregation, The Gathering, turned their attention to their neighbors. “We simply prayed in worship for Michael Brown and his family and the officer and the situation in Ferguson. We spent that next week then really listening, learning, going up to Ferguson, being on the ground,” recalls Miofsky.
The Rev. Willis Johnson (left) and the Rev. Matt Miofsky stand near the site where Michael Brown was killed in August, 2014.
As violence escalated in Ferguson, Miofsky called his friend and fellow church planter, F. Willis Johnson, to offer support.The challenges were great and Wellspring welcomed the help. “We were very intentional and purposeful to say, ‘Okay, what are the needs at this particular time and how do we help to meet ‘em?’ Whether that’s educational, respite or counseling or some type of crisis intervention,” recalls Johnson.
While other United Methodist churches in the connection also reached out, many of the volunteers in those first few days were from Miofsky’s congregation. Wellspring opened its doors to provide daycare when safety concerns led the local school district to cancel classes. Members from The Gathering also took part in a prayer vigil near the site where Michael Brown was killed.
Being in Ferguson gave Miofsky a clearer view of what was happening behind the headlines to his own neighbors. “I learned that racism is more real than I wanted to admit. I found that we weren’t as far along as I thought we were. There’s a lot of pain and hurt in our own community that I had failed to recognize,” admits the young pastor.
Racial tensions may have gone unnoticed by some but Johnson says the unspoken divide is a reality for the black community. “This is just the point in which it has gone viral. But this has been an experience and an epidemic in the lives and communities of particular people for far too long.”
Willis Johnson (left) and Matt Miofsky collaborated on a sermon about racism that was shared on August 1, 2015 at The Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
In the year since the death of Michael Brown, members of The Gathering have begun an open dialogue on topics of racism and white privilege. Miofsky asked his mostly white congregation to look in the mirror and make a conscious effort to diversify friendship circles.
Johnson says from his perspective, there are some first steps churches and individuals can take down the road to understanding. They should start by acknowledging that inequality exists and seeking to better understand the black experience in a non-judgmental way.
Both pastors agree that fundamental change is a relationship that cannot be rushed. “I heard a lot of people trying to offer words of peace and hope for reconciliation,” recalls Miofsky. “We wanted to move quickly to the nice stuff, and we missed the hard stuff—confronting the sin and righting the wrongs that exist.”
Real change also means addressing the inequities that divide people within communities. Members of Wellspring have launched a ministry called The Center for Social Empowerment and Justice. The Center will be a community think tank to address issues such as access to education, affordable housing, and business development in Ferguson. “I think we’ve been challenged and charged to be even more intentional, even more attentive to making sure that the work and the witness that we provide really is relevant,” says Johnson. “Not just the preaching on Sunday, but from every opportunity and point of engagement.”
Volunteers from The Gathering helped renovate dedicated space at Wellspring for the Center. The congregation will also lend support to the new ministry, but the hope is that leadership will come from within. “The young men and women who live in Ferguson, those new generations of black men and women who are leading the movement against what’s happening in our city and all around our country, they’re really the voices that we ought to be spotlighting. And my primary role is to listen, to reflect, to pray and to serve when I can,” says Miofsky.
Johnson says he is humbled by the response of fellow United Methodist churches who offered monetary and spiritual support since the events in Ferguson. “It’s a beautiful thing to see the connection at work,” says Johnson. Being United Methodist brought these two faith families together to form a natural partnership. Miofsky and Johnson have been friends for a long time but Ferguson made them stronger. “There’ve been many moments where we’ve picked up the phone to talk about, you know, what’s happening in our congregations, how to get over some mundane challenge, all the way to these really big events like the events of Ferguson,” says Miofsky.
Businesses in downtown Ferguson, Missouri display messages of hope one year after protests filled the streets here.
Miofsky and Johnson’s churches are building bridges in a community that has become synonymous with the racial tensions of a nation but they hope other churches are also taking steps to better understand the complex issues that divide people living side-by-side. Miofsky points out, “You don’t have to go up to Ferguson to work on the problems of Ferguson. Those are in your own backyard.” “We are in the spirit ‘We are all Ferguson.’ We all have a responsibility to our own and our collective healing. Though it’s not our fault, so to speak, it is our responsibility,” says Johnson.