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'Ferguson Forward': Churchgoers Seek A New Normal

Youths walk past a mural depicting peace in Ferguson on a vacant building up the street from the city's police department.
David Goldman
Youths walk past a mural depicting peace in Ferguson on a vacant building up the street from the city's police department.

I reunited with the Rev. Daryl Meese at his place of worship, a no-frills brick Methodist Church in Ferguson, Mo., on this stormy Sunday morning.

We first met at a coffee shop last August. I was looking for a cool place to file a story about the protests over the death of an unarmed black 18-year-old at the hands of a white police officer; he was taking a break from the chaos. We shared a table and ended up chatting.

Pastor Meese was exhausted, that much was obvious. He had been down at the protests until late at night helping keep the peace. He was also frustrated. Having grown up in the South (North Carolina), he came to St. Louis in 1997, and became pastor at North Hills United Methodist Church in 2013. He told me he was disheartened by the poor race relations and shocked by how little the black and white communities interact.

He told me he wanted to do something to get people talking to each other, but wasn't sure what that something was. His congregation is almost entirely white.

I visited that congregation on Sunday instead of attending what all the media out here thought would be a press conference announcing the grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. I sat in the front pew and recorded Pastor Meese's sermon, which was casual, like the jeans he was wearing. I was the only reporter present. (That's a rarity around Ferguson these days.) I assume it's because he's gotten little to no media attention and his tiny flock (there were only about a dozen people in the pews) is mostly gray-haired white folk.

His sermon was about gratitude ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. "We are waiting with bated breath for a grand jury decision on the Mike Brown case," he preached. "So, it might feel strange or even difficult to hear a message of gratefulness now. I recognize that." He then reminded his audience to be grateful for the relationships they were building outside Sunday service. Every Wednesday now, the church is open to the greater St. Louis community to break bread and get to know each other.

"It's potluck," Maryann Cieslak, the pianist, a 40-year church member, tells me. "It's whatever we get: a lot of desserts or a lot of main courses or a lot of vegetables; we share in whatever we've got." Mostly, the group shares stories at these weekly meetings for the new ministry Pastor Meese is calling "Ferguson Forward," his attempt to get black and white people to not just say hi in the checkout line, but talk.

Here's a bit of the description on the ministry's website :

"We have launched a new ministry named Ferguson Forward, focusing our efforts first on gathering together in fellowship so that we can begin to see each other, increasingly more, as human beings. In this fellowship time we hope to laugh, learn, listen and come to know each other."

Angela Watson, the only black face in church on this particular Sunday, says the meetings draw a diverse crowd. "We've been talking about everything and anything that's going on and how we feel about it and as a community, what can we do," says Watson, mother of an 11-year-old daughter and a manager of a storage business in town.

"To hear a gentleman who actually got stopped five different times in five different municipalities actually puts a personal face on it," says Ken Cieslak, Maryann's husband and a retired library branch manager. He says the stories he hears from black St. Louis County residents on Wednesdays shock him. "And to hear that same gentleman talk about being pulled over and sent to jail for minor things that we've gotten by with all the time lets you know there's a much deeper problem."

The Cieslaks say they won't be out protesting but this is their way of doing something to find common ground and make change. Watson agrees. "I drive by and I honk my horn but I don't want to be a part of it. That's the closest I'm going to get to them," she says about the protesters.

All three say the lack of a grand jury decision has created an obstacle to progress and a lot of anxiety. Watson says she's "absolutely terrified" there will be violence in the streets if there's no indictment. The Cieslaks say life feels like it's on pause.

"I'm ready for this situation to be over but I don't want to go back to the old normal; I want to go back to a new normal," says Ken Cieslak. He says "the new normal" means caring about what is happening to everyone in St. Louis County, not just the neighbors on your block or who went to your high school. He says the old normal was isolation. The new normal they're hoping for is Ferguson Forward.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 24, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story said the Rev. Daryl Meese recently moved to north St. Louis. In fact, he arrived there in 1997 and became pastor at North Hills United Methodist Church in 2013.
Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.