Note: At the request of several of my colleagues, I have jotted down some hi-lights of Day Two in St. John’s role as a sanctuary church during the Michael Brown street actions around Tower Grove.
I returned to St. John’s at 9:00 AM after about four hours of sleep. I read on Face Book that people were arriving to board up our broken windows, so I took a quick shave and made off for Day Two.
When I arrived at St. John’s, I found one of the Energizer bunnies of the diocese, John J. Dolan, already on a step ladder in the alley, pulling shards of glass out of the window sash and prepping it for plywood. He was working with a small squad of parishioners who has turned out to help clean up. It was a cold day, but sunny and quiet, so unlike the previous evening.
We spend much of the day boarding up windows and cleaning glass scattered from one of end of the Godly Play room to the other. Whoever had vandalized our building was an equal-opportunity vandal, for they had smashed windows and car windshields up and down the alley. We found large concrete blocks inside the building, and wall damage on the other side of the room.
As we worked, police cruised up the alley. We waved, but they just glared at us as they drove by. We decided to board up everything, whether broken or not, as we had no idea what Night Two might bring. We were hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
Al, our site manager, kept scanning social media and some activist websites, trying to get a sense for what was in store for us next, but he said it was beginning to look like the next night of action would concentrate on Ferguson and Clayton, not Tower Grove or So. Grand.
Much of the rest of the day is a blur. Reports came in that over two dozen shops along So. Grand had window damage, and one had sustained fire damage. But a rather odd thing was happening along the street, which is indicative of the neighborhood we call our parish: as plywood panels went up to cover broken windows, artists began to appear with paint caddies and handfuls of paint brushes, decorating the plywood with bright, colorful murals. They turned out by the dozens, creating art and life out of violence and chaos.
Later in the evening, Deacons Susan, Harry, and me strolled along So. Grand in our collars and orange clergy vests to take it all in. The street was positively festive with people painting large murals, strolling around admiring works and taking pictures, and jamming the restaurants with business. It looked nothing like the aftermath of street action, but rather an art festival for the holidays. It was as if Tower Grove and So. Grand had come together to say “Take THAT, vandals!”
We stopped by MoKaBe’s and it was standing-room-only with patrons. Some customers recognized /Susan and approached her to thank her publically for her service the other night. She said later, “I’ve been a deacon for 11 years, and I’ve never been thanked quite like that before…”
We spotted a fellow on the street painting a cityscape on a window and he was putting a cross on the top of a building. We asked, “Hey, is that a church?” He replied, not looking around, “That’s the little church around the corner that took people in.” We asked, “Can we take a picture?” He looked around to see three smiling deacons with smart-phones in their hands: “That’s our church!” Rather surprised, he posed next to his work as we took his picture.
We had not gone another block when we were “greeted” by four police officers on foot patrol. They were dressed in black with body armor and all kinds of tactical gear hanging from their hips and back. The senior officer, a tall woman with piercing eyes, leaned forward and asked not very gently, “And where are you three from?”
“We’re from St. John’s-Tower Grove, just around the corner,” I replied. “We are the sanctuary church.”
She leaned in closer and demanded, “And where are you going to be when the action starts tonight?”
I leaned in a bit and replied, “To the best of our knowledge, there is no action planned for tonight.”
She stared back, waiting for a follow up comment from me, but she got none. I’m a retired sales rep from GE and IBM – I’ve had my butt chewed out by the best of ‘em. /Susan leaned in and said to the officer, “You need to realize that we pray for the safety of the police every morning.”
Heads rotated towards her, and all four officers leaned back a millimeter. /Harry said, “And in the evening, too.” They leaned back another millimeter, and the stares began to waver.
“So…you took in the demonstrators,” one older officer said. “You took in the people who broke the windows….”
I replied, “We lost five windows ourselves; at about 3:00 in the morning. But y’know, the kids inside our church said things like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and cleaned up after themselves when they ate…” The unspoken message was clear: those aren’t window-breakers.
/Harry added, “We know you have a hard job.”
The older officer looked to be near tears. Someone recognized his humanity, and the four officers went from confrontational to confounded in a matter of seconds. Don’t misunderstand – we did not suddenly all fall into each others’ arms, hold hands, and sign “Kumbaya”. The officers left still wary and angry, but I like to think they left with a better idea about what the clergy were doing on So. Grand, and what St. John’s was doing in the neighborhood. I’m certain their self-image is shaken, and their future probably is not going to be what they expected it to be; they will see great changes coming in their profession, no doubt. All those doubts and fears are human doubts and fears, and that makes them children of God, just like the demonstrators in our church hall. We must never forget that.
By midnight it was obvious that the action around So. Grand and Tower Grove was over, and we elected to shut down our church for the night. We have not been open overnight since, and we are not operating as an official sanctuary church at this time. Oh, we are a sanctuary – make no mistake about that! As Teresa+ said, “What else could a church possibly be?” But by 1:00 AM, most of us were finally in bed, with much to ponder over in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps years.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.