Unrest in Ferguson: A conversation with Mike Trautman

Mike Trautman
Mike Trautman

Mike Trautman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Ferguson, Missouri, says people from his congregation are feeling “overwhelmed and tired,” worn down by a season of unrest that erupted after Darren Wilson a Ferguson police officer, shot an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9.

They’re tired, but they are also living into the questions that Brown’s death has laid before their community and before the country. Trautman, a pastor for more than 30 years, spoke in a recent interview of what Presbyterians might learn from what’s happened in his community and how they might get involved. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Diversity. The media often describes Ferguson as being about 60 percent African American. What’s not often told, Trautman said (describing himself as “the Anglo pastor of a mostly white congregation”) are the dynamics of whites who chose to be part of a more diverse community over the last 20 or 30 years as more blacks moved in; nor the history of local division in the neighborhoods surrounding Ferguson before then. “St. Louis is a pretty segregated larger metro area,” as are many American cities, he said. “It’s segregated by race and economics. So Ferguson is one of the places where there’s been some successful living together of African Americans and Anglos. That gets lost.”

Honest conversations. In some ways, the community has become more polarized since the shooting – in part because some of the protestors have come from other places, sometimes with their own agendas, Trautman said. There are local efforts to talk about how people really feel about issues of race and economics and power in Ferguson,” he said, and “about police brutality against people of color. The sense that the police have this sense of arrogance about them, and the vulnerable are victimized by the police force . . . Ferguson is known as a place where the police don’t mess around.”

African Americans say “they don’t know the police officers, and the police officers don’t know the people. It does create a sense of mistrust and fear. Many African Americans have experienced police officers following them around, getting pulled over.”

Trautman describes race relations in Ferguson before the shooting as a “work in progress,” with some realities hidden by surface appearances – such as when whites and blacks gathered together to listen to a diverse array of music at street festivals. “Many of us were lulled into a false sense that progress had been made,” he said. But in-depth conversation about race relations and inequities “tended not to happen a whole lot . . . Not in a conversation that has tested us like this.”

The voice of churches. Most of the pastors involved in the local ministerial association have been white, although there are plenty of black churches in the area. Just a smattering of congregations are multi-ethnic. And, as is common in most U.S. cities, a sizeable number of people aren’t involved with organized religion at all. Since the shooting, “I have made an effort to reach out to many of my African American colleagues who are in the area,” Trautman said. “It’s been really interesting to talk and to see how much more we have in common than what divides us.”

Bridging the gap. “First we have to acknowledge the gap is there” between people of different backgrounds, Trautman said. Then, “we have to listen to these kinds of different perspectives. If we don’t, if people can’t talk honestly, then I don’t know what chance we have to come out on the other side of this.” People need to hear “of the pain and the hurt and the history of black oppression. And we don’t want to hear white folks say, ‘Well, it’s not my fault.’ . . . That’s where churches can be helpful. It’s a place where, at our best, we are able to bear this kind of hard conversation.”

Still, such authentic conversations are difficult. “A lot of folks just don’t want to deal with the wide truth of experience,” Trautman said. “We want to have one truth; we want to have one narrative. Complementary narratives are not allowed.”

Young people. Some of the young people in Ferguson “just despair,” Trautman said. They say, “We have no future. We have no jobs. We don’t have a sense of any kind of promise that tomorrow will be better . . . No one cares about it. We’ve been stopped, we’ve been shot, we’ve been harassed. No one cares.”

How Presbyteirans can help. Presbyterians from around the country have sent prayers, letters, money, concern. Trautman addressed a recent meeting of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, and Anita Hendrix, the new presbytery leader, came to worship at his church the Sunday after the shooting – “she’s been very helpful,” Trautman said.

What can Presbyterians do? “Continue to pray for Ferguson,” Trautman said in his remarks to the presbytery. “Race is a very difficult issue in our country, in our churches, and the best thing you can do for us is to have these conversations now in your own time and place, without the added pain of what happened in Ferguson. Emotions are so high here, feelings are sometimes out of control, and the anxiety is just palpable. It’s in the air. People feel it; they sense it; it’s hard to have honest conversation in the midst of such stress. What you can begin to do is to have these conversations in your community now. To be able to talk to one another, to reach out to other churches and other pastors that are African American or Latino or some kind of other ethnic group,” before trouble erupts, “will serve all of us well. It will make a tremendous difference.”

Looking ahead. Since the shooting, the protests, the media attention and the anger have taken a toll. After a police officer was shot in the arm in Sept. 27 while investigating a possible burglary, “the helicopters were flying over the community looking for the suspect,” Trautman said. Rocks were thrown; another group of protesters were arrested. “It’s this kind of constant alarm, sirens, gunshots, police helicopters . . . It begins to wear down people and causes them to be much more reactive. There is a toll being taken on this community.”

People are also waiting, Trautman said, for a decision from the grand jury as to whether to indict Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown.

His request of Presbyterians in the months ahead: “Leave your anger at home, and just open your hearts and hear what’s going on. Feel the hurt and the pain that is very real here in Ferguson. It was bad enough that Michael Brown was shot and killed, but to have his body lay on the ground four and a half hours was inexcusable. That reminded so many folks of the power of lynching,” when the bodies of victims were intentionally left on display.

He called on Presbyterians to work for reconciliation. To places of pain, “bring those who work for justice and inclusion, and bring some of our gifts as a faith community . . . Do the hard-earned work to make our communities a better place. Not just for some people, but for all people.”