Rev. Richard Brenton, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, Mo, (WTS 2010) in a telephone interview, said, “People are in need of ministry and are asking difficult questions. My calling is to walk with them.” He reported then that he was just beginning to feel how tired he was. “It’s been like living in a fish bowl” since August 15, 2014 when Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
After the shooting, Pastor Brenton along with other clergy marched with the protestors. Thousands of people marched. The clergy took toiletries and food with them for the protestors who came not only from the area but from across the country. In late November, after the release of the Grand Jury decision, Zion provided safe Sanctuary. Rick said he stayed at the church and kept the doors open. This sanctuary also provided legal observers and medical help. Many people came through, engaging also in important conversation.
Zion Lutheran, is “quite conservative,” with many white members now over 65 or 75, said Pastor Brenton. “Most of them think all of this will ‘go away’ when ‘things quiet down.’ The congregation is 25% African American, most in their middle adult years. Their children and grandchildren make up the youth in the congregation. They see things differently.” Rick tries to help the people see that “change is among us.” He knows his calling is to minister to the entire congregation and that this is a challenge. “It creates a delicate tension, a fine line.” The people within the congregation love one another. Rick said, “Loving care is central.”
Rick added, “There is not division or conflict within the congregation. We have strong relationships. Everyone knows everyone in the congregation.” It’s the people that the white folks don’t know that causes generalizations from the old white guard. We hear words such as “those people” and “those protestors.” And “those blacks.”
Rick has completed four years as pastor at Zion and trust has grown over those years. He has long been part of the Ferguson Ministerial Alliance.
With the release of the U.S. Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, there is “renewed angst and denial,” said Pastor Brenton, in another phone call interview. “People don’t want to face the truth. Over the years they have allowed this to happen, have become used to it, and don’t want to admit that it’s real.” The evening of the interview Rick was going to ask the Church Council to provide some open forums for the congregation. “We need an atmosphere of trust,” said Rick, “because the issues are very polarizing. It’s like going through stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, blaming and depression.” They say, “We’ve read all about it and we don’t want to talk about it anymore.” They are shutting down. It has been overwhelming all these months. Overload. With the spotlight of the nation on them again, Rick said, “We have to interpret the events in the light of the Gospel.”
They need to know that systemic racism is everywhere, not just in Ferguson, so that they can feel not just shame, but Christ’s suffering for all on the cross. This has been especially important when headlines lately have compared the shooting of an unarmed young black man in Wisconsin to them, saying, “Madison handled it better than Ferguson.” Comparisons are not the point. There is justice work to do in every community. Religious leadership is important wherever one receives a call.
When asked how he was doing personally, Rick said, “Some days are fine; others are a real struggle. It’s a challenge to say the least.” He added, “It is important to stay close to Christ and to Christ’s journey.”
Now well into his 5th year he knows the congregation and the community and understands that people hold on to their old ways of adapting to injustices around them. Now feeling judged by the Justice Department Report and the nation, the issues are not being dispelled, but amplified. There is both shame and sentiments of, “You are running down our town.” Pastor Brenton said, “The African Americans at Zion are much in tune with the Gospel, very understanding and forgiving. But how much longer are they going to feel comfortable attending Zion?”
Rick is trying to minister to the white members of the congregation and to support the African American members (He also feels support from them.) We referenced the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which thousands walked over recently marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In some ways, Rick is also a bridge himself. He added, “And I feel the footprints on my back.” He gave thanks for the support of his bishop and for many friends through Facebook. He added that his education at Wartburg had been one of God’s deepest blessings to him.