August 23, 2014

​After the Ferguson Protests, Church Volunteers Pick up the Pieces

 ©2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On the fourth morning after
Michael Brown’s death, residents from different parts of the region came
together to pick up the pieces.

Some were young, some old. The
majority arrived as part of the faithful. Others trickled in after spotting
volunteers marching up and down West Florissant under the hot sun. Carrying
brooms and large garbage bags, they collected whatever they could find: rubber
bullets, broken glass, liquor bottles, tear gas grenades.

“I needed to come out today just
to get some stability,” said Gary Park, 34, an auto mechanic who lives near the
area in Ferguson where Brown was shot and protests erupted. Close by is the
looted and burned QuikTrip that sits as a symbol of the severity of the unrest
that resulted from a Ferguson police officer fatally shooting an unarmed

Park is a member of Passage
Community Church in Florissant, which together with a few other local
congregations, organized the cleanup. Pastor Joe Costephens said that although
the trash-collecting effort was a last-minute plan, more than 100 people joined
the endeavor.

It was a simple act but not an
insignificant one, especially since authorities reported two shootings only the
night before. In fact, the continued violence has put future volunteer efforts
on hold, Costephens said.

Elise Park, 31, a stay-at-home
mom, arrived with her two young children who were excited by the novelty of
using garbage pickers.

“I was very encouraged coming
out here today, seeing all the groups helping,” Park said. “It’s an opportunity
for me to invest and really become part of the community.”

Others, including a group of 20
somethings, came out to help on their own.

Larry Fellows, 28, of Ferguson,
said that since the shooting he’s been doing what he can to spread a little
cheer. Together with a group of friends, Fellows walks the neighborhood’s
roads, handing out free water, snacks and cleaning supplies. “This has been
building up for years,” he said.

He said he’s even offered
supplies to police, but authorities rebuffed his offers.

Fellows believes that attitude
is part of the reason the community remains angry. “We’re the enemy.”

In an attempt to inspire
compassion, another volunteer, Derrick Spencer of St. Louis, said he planned to
return a sign to his truck’s windshield that recites a line from the New
Testament: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

“We can’t take justice into our
own hands,” Spencer said. Those who loot businesses are doing so at the expense
of Michael Brown, he said.

After working for two hours,
nearly 20 people gathered in the parking lot of First Baptist Church in
Ferguson and held hands in prayer. They prayed for the family of Michael Brown
and for businesses in the area that have been damaged by the riots.

Michael Williams of St. Louis,
who described himself as a troubled individual who had managed to reset his
life, was among those in the crowd. He said he wanted to show that “everybody
is not about the rioting. Everybody is not about the destruction.”

Williams said he knows there are
good police officers out there. “Most of us believe in doing the right thing,
but this came to a boiling point,” he said.