When I first visited Ferguson, Missouri a few days ago, I couldn't help but to think of the Israelites who in the book of Joshua, Chapter 6, were instructed by God to march around the walled city of Jericho. Much Like Jericho's walls were keeping the Israelites from their destiny in the Promised Land, so to the walls of deep racial prejudice and mistrust plague Ferguson as the news media has amply reported. However, my visit also convinced me that there are even greater walls of social division in this city that have resulted in a lousy education system and a lack of jobs for many of Ferguson's residents. These visible and invisible barriers continue to hinder generations of young black men and women from laying hold of a better life.
This community just outside of St. Louis has become known throughout the world as the scene of the August 9th shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson. But the deeper, structural problems in Ferguson started long before this tragic event happened. While the shooting of this unarmed teen was the match that inflamed public outrage, years of hopelessness and distrust provided plenty of kindling wood to ignite.
The walls surrounding this city break my heart.
I can relate to the frustration and sense of hopelessness that folks in Ferguson are experiencing because my own story started much the same way. I grew up in deep poverty, living in a government-subsidized housing project in Brooklyn, New York. It was a tough place to live. My early education was a cruel joke. I went to school each day only to get the free breakfast and lunch, and then I left to smoke cigarettes or pot with my friends. As a high school student, I was unable to read -- and I am embarrassed to admit that my illiteracy continued until I reached my mid-30s.
You see, when a person does not have a good education or a good job, it is not much different than being sentenced to a slow, tortuous death. In fact, it is death. Social death. My mother raised my sister and me on welfare, and I saw firsthand how difficult it is to break free from a cycle of poverty that is designed to entrap generations to come. Even now, some of my immediate family members are still locked in this trap.
With the help of God, I taught myself how to read. God did not do it for me. I partnered with God through practical steps. Because God set me free from that life of dependency and despair, I know he can set others free as well. However, I am not interested in simply having one or two other individuals to overcome the limited opportunities set before them. I want to see walls that limit entire groups of people come crumbling down.
Although it's too late to bring Michael Brown back, I'm convinced that it is not too late to bring Ferguson back. However, transformation will elude us for many more years to come unless we have courage enough to acknowledge and confront the walls that have divided us.
How do you destroy such walls? Too often, the human solution is violence. We try to destroy walls with dynamite or battering rams. And, of course, some use violence as a ploy for their own selfish agenda -- just the same way some outsiders tried to exploit the Ferguson situation as an opportunity for tossing Molotov cocktails and looting.
But the Bible teaches that God has given us spiritual weapons to defeat the demonic and evil walls that would hinder us from experiencing his best. The strategy given to the Israelites at Jericho was akin to that of the peaceful protestors here in Ferguson who nonviolently marched for justice to be done.
I'll admit that it is not always easy to follow the Lord's strategies. The Israelites had to trust God to do what seemed impossible. They needed to be patient because according to the biblical witness the wall didn't come down until their seventh day of encircling the city. And I imagine that onlookers must have ridiculed the Israelites' strange behavior until the breakthrough came.
The turning point for the Israelites occurred when the priests loudly blew trumpets: "It happened when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat" (Joshua 6:20).
This passage begs the question where are the leaders who will sound their trumpets to demolish our nation's walls today? I don't mean the demagogues and race hustlers who agitate and exploit situations like Ferguson for their own financial gain. Instead, we need men and women of integrity -- leaders of conviction and courage -- to sound an alarm and say, "Enough is enough!"
How can we continue to tolerate, for example, an unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent among Ferguson's African-American men between ages 16 and 24? The outrage should have begun long before Michael Brown was shot.
After the Israelite leaders blew their trumpets, the people were told, "Shout, for the LORD has given you the city!" It was a shout of victory. A sound of hope! A declaration of courage!
No walls, however high and persistent, can withstand a hopeful sound like that.
I was in Ferguson with hundreds of others to lay Michael Brown's body to rest. As we did so, I wondered if our nation would continue to hear that sustained sound? It's time for more community leaders and more clergy to join in to raise such a shout again today. Yes, this starts with a shout demanding justice for the family of Michael Brown, but it must go far beyond that.
We must continue to strategize.
We must continue to organize.
We must vote.
We must also cry out against the societal walls threatening to prevent a new generation of Michael Browns from receiving a quality education, jobs and justice they deserve.