Ferguson: Healing Amid Heartbreak
Catholics began helping right after the shooting and continue to serve with Jesus’ word as their guide.
Within hours of the shooting on that hot Saturday afternoon in August, Sr. Cathy Doherty, SSND, understood the magnitude of the death of Michael Brown. A shooting death, any death, yields an aftermath and an implicit call for healing; but this was something bigger. As she greeted parishioners at the 5 pm Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, the Guadalupe pastoral associate learned not only the basic news of the event but a detail that foreshadowed the strife and unrest that lay ahead: The street where Brown was killed was still closed five hours after the shooting. “That’s when I realized it wasn’t ‘just’ a shooting death,” Sr. Doherty said. “There was a difference in this one.” In this one, which took place a couple of miles from Our Lady of Guadalupe, a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed Brown, 18, an unarmed African American Ferguson resident. Brown’s body lay in the street for more than four hours because, with gunfire in the area, police were concerned about the safety of the men removing the body. The delay helped fuel the subsequent unrest. Race and a shooting death proved a volatile mix. Violence erupted—both in the immediate aftermath and three months later when a grand jury determined Wilson wouldn’t be indicted. In total, rioters torched nearly two dozen businesses, broke windows in about fifty others, and looted them all. People lost their livelihoods, their life’s work ruined, while surviving businesses suffered due to fewer customers. Schools were closed, and children wondered why Mommy and Daddy were so frightened. Through the chaos, the Catholic Church has been present in Ferguson—following closely the admonition of Pope Francis: “To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely.” From the spiritual aspect of prayer to the tangible works of Catholic charity, the Church has worked to bring healing to the area.
Sr. Doherty and Fr. Robert “Rosy” Rosebrough, the pastor of neighboring Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish, have been at the forefront of the Catholic prayerful response to the unrest that has become known simply as “Ferguson.” Our Lady of Guadalupe and Blessed Teresa form a triangle with the memorial site for Brown. Sr. Doherty tried to make sense of the shooting and the anger and violence that enveloped Ferguson in the days that followed. Stories of what happened were vastly different. Some saw Michael Brown’s death as something like an execution, with a police officer shooting a young man who they believed had his hands raised in surrender—thus the chant at some marches: “Hands Up. Don’t shoot.” Others saw the shooting as justified, citing some witness reports that the young man attacked the officer through the patrol car window and then charged the officer. In the first few days, especially, forensic evidence was sparse and ambiguous enough to support many interpretations. In the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, Sr. Doherty searched for answers. “I was trying find out facts: What was different? Why did this shooting make a difference?” she said. “Everything these people were saying…it didn’t make sense, so I was trying to find out more facts about what was going on.” Then she got scared. Two days after Brown’s death, officials set an 8 pm curfew. It continued for weeks, varying between 10 pm and midnight. “It was scary,” she said. “I’ve been here twenty-three years, and I had never been on curfew in this neighborhood.” As the story spread beyond St. Louis and became international news, the quarter-mile stretch of West Florissant Avenue (about a third of a mile from the shooting site) became what some people called a “war zone.” On August 10, the day after Brown died, police responded to people looting and breaking windows with a SWAT team, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Some protesters, political leaders and other observers said the police response was exaggerated.
In fact, that scale of the response has ignited a national discussion on police use of surplus military hardware. Media from throughout the world descended into Ferguson, police took over a nearby shopping center for a command post, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called out the National Guard. The unrest lasted two weeks. The day following the eruption, Fr. Rosebrough walked through the area and prayed, quietly stopping to offer a blessing at the site of a QuikTrip that had been gutted by fire. That night, he led a rosary service at the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta grotto, a service suggested by parishioners and pastoral associate Jeanne Baer. “That was the first response; they heard the heart of the people and they initiated it,” Fr. Rosebrough said. “Then, all of a sudden, it became very fitting; it became more than just us. It mushroomed.” Catholics and other Christians were reminded of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39), which Pope Benedict XVI reinforced in a Christmas Day encyclical in 2005: “Closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God.”
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