Standing in the crowd of the protest rally sponsored by the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, I watched five young men grow increasingly agitated. They were there to listen, to learn, to understand, to be inspired. They were disappointed in what they heard.
These young men had been gassed and shot at the previous nights. They live their lives with the reality of every-day police harassment, unjust profiling, and a wide array of brutalities. Gathered to hear how we are going to combat their reality, what they heard instead were prayers for the forgiveness of rioters and of the police officer who shot young Michael Brown. With that, they put their hats back on -- they weren't trying to hear those prayers. "They lost me now," one said. "See, that's why I can't stand those church folks," another said. They stood there shifting, growing more agitated and less hopeful.
I felt pulled to them like a magnet. It was clear that these fellas were God's assignment for me this particular day.
The truth is, what they were saying is real; we actually were church folks with bullhorns and cameras who came in to march. We weren't there when the crisis was brewing, but we showed up when the cameras were filming. When the clergy left on the previous night the standoff with the militarized police began ending with our being gassed and shot with wooden bullets.
These young men were rightfully angry at the police, at the church, at the community -- all have failed them for far too long. I eased over next to them just as one continued his rant against clergy or church or such (I don't really remember) and I piped in, "Me too!"
Standing there in my blue denim collared clergy shirt, khaki breeches and pink tennis shoes I must've seemed odd to them. But they let me stay there with them. They vented to me now and I listened. When I agreed, I said so and when I didn't agree, I just nodded affirming their right to feel and to express the intricacies of their reality which at times seemed like a personal hell.
They have processed their experiences and who am I to tell them that they were wrong?
They wore bandanas around their necks and across their faces. We talked about the meaning of their bandanas. These little brothers were deep, thoughtful. Then the protest march began. A few of the boys didn't want to have anything to do with marching with the police and the clergy -- they felt like the clergy were selling them out by marching with the police.
They decided to protest the protest march. I love these guys!
One of them looked at me and asked, "You comin'?" They were my assignment so of course I was coming. So there we were marching in front of the signs. They didn't make any noise and weren't being super obvious -- it was their cause, their march, their protest and their way.
As my clergy colleagues' demand that I take my place behind the signs intensified, one of the fellas asked, "Who they yellin' at?"
"Me," I chirped.
Looking at me with intensity one asked, "Well, what you gonna do?" Without a thought I sealed it, "I'm. With. You." The two boys next to me grabbed my arms, "We gotchyou."
And together, arm-in-arm, we marched to the site of Michael Brown's murder, protesting the protest march.
Once there, the fellas continued to vent against anyone with the bullhorn. When one of the preachers took the bullhorn, I encouraged them to listen to her -- as they listened they heard her say, "There are many ways to protest; everyone has their own way."
These words no sooner crossed her lips that adults in the group approached the young men demanding they remove their face coverings.
They were called disrespectful. They were told that they couldn't be a part of the march. I guess those men didn't realize the boys had their own march.
One of the boys pushed backed saying, "She just said that everyone has their own way to protest, now you telling us we can only protest your way?"
As I talked them down and encouraged them to practice "silent defiance," other adults made their way over to chastise the guys. Mumbling under my breath in agitated disgust I said something like, "ugh, if I had a bandana..." And just like that, they went into their back pack and pulled one out for me too -- and I masked up with them.
I masked to stand in solidarity with their right to protest, their right to be heard, valued, understood and encouraged.
Had the adults asked the kiddos, they would have learned that these young men were masking themselves to cover their identity in protest of the, at that time, unidentified police officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown and the unidentified officers who were working the street without real badges -- no numbers and no names.
The masks also served as a shield when gassed at night.
I hung with those fellas all night long. There was a different atmosphere Thursday -- it was a celebration of the Governor removing the military occupation we encountered previous nights. We protested and demonstrated in the streets until at least 1:00 a.m. They kept up with me. Many people wanted pictures of the Crew -- they wouldn't take a picture without me. We had great conversations about life, family, the system, the struggle and solutions.
At first glance folks thought these young men were in some kind of gang -- they were their own gang and they let me be a part of their lives.
Over the next few nights as I continued my sense of mission on the streets they would not leave me to myself. If they were moving they made sure I moved with them.
On Thursday they came ready for a battle. On Friday they were guarding the stores from would-be thieves. That's how love wins.
Looking beyond the anger in their eyes one can see that their pain is real and powerful. Pain fueled their passion -- but anger gave way to compassion. They felt God's love out there -- they may not have understood it, but they received it and they reciprocated it.
When given space to be accepted and when given authentic value our best selves emerge. I'm so grateful God drew me to the Crew that day. I'm grateful they received me and grateful we all made it out of there every night without incident. Since this time in the streets one of the young men has started a non-profit to help young folks know their rights -- he even signed a lease on a building to serve as meeting space for his mission.
These young brothers are deep, talented, insightful, and intelligent beyond "normal" with hearts as big as the ocean. The Crew is more than boys with bandanas, tattoos, cigarettes and cuss words -- they are the hope we have for a more just and more loving world.
I am firmly persuaded that love always wins...always. Always.