Colin Cushman (far right) stands with clergy in Ferguson, Mo. protesting
the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer, Darren Wilson.

An Open Letter to White Clergy in the midst of protests
By Colin Cushman


The culmination of deaths of black youth at the hands of police and the decisions to not indict police officers who are responsible, communities all over from coast-to-coast are taking action through protests and voicing their sadness, anger, and distrust of law enforcement and the justice system.

Colin Cushman, a seminary student from the Pacific Northwest who is attending the Boston School of Theology passionately writes on some of the difficulties that are hindering the movement toward justice for many African-Americans who are desperately seeking it. Cushman, in particular, calls out White clergy who have a sugar-coated perspective on what it means to take part in a civil rights movement.


“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
April 16, 1963


IDEAS_Colin_Sign
Dear White Clergy,

From the streets of Ferguson, we are beginning to understand what Martin Luther King, Jr. was saying in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, when he lamented that White moderate clergy, who were urging restraint, were a bigger problem than the KKK. We’ve had both in Ferguson and we could deal with the KKK. Yet, the clergy have been failing, or worse, jeopardizing the movement from day one.

At least for my generation, the problem is this: we have in our minds a sanitized version of what the Civil Rights movement looked like. All the protestors were peaceful, singing spirituals, holding hands. Nothing ever got out of hand. Everyone looked respectable. The men being beaten were in suits; the children being bitten by dogs wore their school uniforms.

IDEAS_Colin_WomenHowever, Ferguson today does not match up with what we thought was. We have a movement that is black, queer, woman-led, with saggy-pants wearing young people, all delivering profanity that reflects the emotional honesty of a community in pain. We label it violent because that is what we white folks have been taught: Blackness equals violence. We are taught to fear blackness. That is why we clutch our handbags close and cross to the other side of the street when we pass a Black man on the sidewalk. But, this time, we do not have black leaders of the movement trying to seem “respectable.” We have young Black folks who refuse to act “White” in order to temper White anxiety of “Blackness.” These protest leaders are from the ‘hood and refuse to disguise it. They refuse to pretend to be anything but themselves.

Most clergy have let their “whiteness” trump their Christian-ness. They have not shown up. I can count on one hand the number of clergy that the protestors in Ferguson actually trust. These are the folks who actually showed up, who didn’t desert them when the tanks rolled up and the tear gas started flowing. Moreover, these are the clergy who are not trying to co-opt the movement to make it something “respectable” or to try to force a resolution.

Once when we were marching in protest, we went up an off-ramp to block traffic on the highway. When we were eventually forced back down by police, the clergy were there to greet us, wearing their obnoxious “clergy” reflective vests that only shone back at us that they never joined us. In that moment, any shred of respect that we had for the clergy vanished. The Gospel call to solidarity does not mean waiting at the bottom of the freeway, but walking side by side with the most vulnerable in society.

By our inaction, we are driving away our young black brothers and sisters from the Church. They do not trust us one bit, nor do they have a reason to. And I will not try to convince them otherwise until we have something worthwhile to offer. I will not defend the clergy until we actually fight for their liberation.


Colin Cushman is a member of Kent UMC in Washington State and attends Boston University School of Theology. He has spent 13 days organizing and protesting in Ferguson and is active in the local protests in Boston.


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9 COMMENTS

  1. Please Clergy, join in the burning down of a city. We need you to destroy all the small business. That is what Christ has called you to do. Disrupt the town, create chaos, burn the place down. After all, you are Clergy and that is your calling. Make sure that everyone fears you and looks to move out. Please destroy everything we have because a White Police Officer defended himself against a Black Man. I am embarrassed to be a part of this Church.

  2. I think there is truth in your words. I appreciate the brave clergy whom have marched with the protesters. Attempting to characterize all protesters as “looters, thugs and arsonists” is just plain wrong. There should be disruption, that is the point of civil disobedience. If the privileged aren’t shaken out of their comfort they’ll never give attention to the plight of the oppressed. Thank you for what you do for “The least of these.”

  3. Thank you for your presence at the scene and your voice in this communication. Why does it seem that we UMC folks are so vocal and financially and bodily supportive/helpful regarding the right to life of ‘overseas Blacks’ and silent and non-financially and bodily supportive/helpful regarding the right to life of ‘homegrown Blacks’?

    And yet it appears there has been a purposeful local UMC response of action to disregard the law of man and God through personal communications and bodily protest regarding another group’s right to marry. I am not a hater. Just seems that exerting a purposeful action supporting freedom to life is different than for freedom to marry. And…., our homegrown epidemics of homeless, mental illness, illiteracy, child abuse and non-Christians.

  4. Fascinating essay! I would point out to Colin Cushman that the main reason why we clergy wore the clergy vests was to identify ourselves to the police: if they knew we were there, they generally behaved better and were less violent…initially. Eventually, the vests became targets for the police, not warning signs, and many clergy paid for wearing them with arrests, being roughed up, and having pellets shot at them. We didn’t take them off, though.

    In the So. Grand area, where the second largest actions in STL took place and the parish I serve was a sanctuary, I and two of my deacon colleagues were confronted by the police in the street after the violence was over. If Rev. Cushman thinks the protesters don’t like us, the police openly hate us right now. They accused us of harboring protesters and vandals. (btw, they tear gassed our dining hall)

    I think Rev. Cushman’s personal observations are legitimate, but limited. Lots of clergy were present/are present in the movement, their opinions and actions are not monolithic, and there are a few heroes in the crowd mixed in with the go-along-get-along’s. The rest of us need to be evangelized, as well.

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