Editor’s Note: The Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil is a ministry leader, professor, and author whose life’s work has focused on racial reconciliation. In 2014, Dr. McNeil traveled to Ferguson, Missouri (shortly after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer) with a group of thirty to forty evangelical leaders for a faith roundtable. The group gathered to learn how the church might respond to the events in Ferguson and also to learn about a new movement that was taking shape: Black Lives Matter.
While meeting with another group of young activists called Ferguson Action, Dr. McNeil and her peers were challenged to not only discuss an appropriate response to the situation, but to take action as well. Ferguson Action wanted the ministers to participate in a protest with them. According to Dr. McNeil, it was a decisive moment: “On the spot, in that moment, I had a decision to make. I had to decide whether my message of reconciliation was going to be only words. I came to convene, not to march. I was not prepared—mentally, spiritually, or physically—to participate in a protest. But there I was. What was I going to do?”
Although I had been working in racial reconciliation for years, I felt like an unlikely activist that day in Ferguson too. I felt uncertain about my role in this movement. I felt that in many ways the movement was for the younger generation, not for me. I traveled to Ferguson to learn, listen, advise, and consult; I was not ready to actively participate.
But there I was—standing awestruck as a young brother opened the trunk of his car to reveal the supplies necessary for a protest, including a gas mask and bottles of water (to clear one’s eyes from tear gas). My head was spinning as he reminded me to leave my purse in the trunk but to take my ID. I couldn’t believe how ill-equipped and unprepared I was for this moment.
Still, I forged ahead into the throng of protestors. I raised my hands and lifted my voice and joined the others who had gathered there with the intention of proclaiming and protecting the humanity of black lives and black bodies. I was invigorated by the energy of the crowd, but as the protest progressed, I started to become a little nervous as some of the young people became more agitated. One young white man started to shake the barricades that had been erected by the police to prevent the protestors from approaching the city hall administrative building.
The more the barriers shook, the more nervous I became. I looked around to see whether anyone else joined me in my growing trepidation, but everyone else seemed lost in the momentum of the movement, and the energy kept rising.
The protest remained peaceful, but it seemed to me that the police were standing just a little closer than they had been only a few moments before. My attention shifted back to the young protestor who was rattling the barricades and was joined now by a few others, becoming more animated. I didn’t know what to do, and no one else seemed to be bothered. I had enough experience to know all the terrible things that could happen, and the militarized police response in Ferguson was already well-documented. I truly felt that all of our lives were potentially in danger. I knew, though, that God was calling me there for this moment. I stood still for a moment, until I felt an unction in my spirit to kneel and pray. And so that’s what I did. In the middle of the street and in the midst of the yelling and screaming, I started to pray.
I am not sure what I expected to happen. Perhaps I was envisioning some sort of mass genuflection, like what I’d seen in the movie Selma. But that didn’t happen. I remained kneeling in prayer while what appeared to be chaos broke out all around me. Folks were chanting and screaming, and the barriers kept rattling. As I stood up from my prayer, my eyes full and my cheeks wet with tears, a young woman, wearing a red cap, was scurrying by. When she saw me crying, she took my hand in hers. I wasn’t sure what was about to happen, but she squeezed my hand into a fist and raised our hands as one into the air, shouting, “From Palestine to Ferguson!” Then she ran off.
I was struck by her sense of connection between the struggle for the liberation of Palestinians in Israel and the liberation of black people in America. For me, it made the entire moment incredibly personal. It helped me realize that just as the Laquan McDonalds and the Michael Browns of our time have galvanized movements of liberation, so it is that diverse and seemingly disparate individuals such as myself and the young Palestinian woman, by joining together under the umbrella of a common understanding of humanity, can make a difference.
This article was adapted from Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020. Used by permission.