ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — They came in numbers that surprised even the minister, arriving in a muggy drizzle to a church parking lot so full that some had to park in front of the empty home of the man they came to pray for: embattled white police officer Darren Wilson.
They said they had empathy for the family of the teenager the officer killed. But they also said they feared that they might be attacked by rioters at their church, because Southminster Presbyterian sits right behind the suburban home of Wilson, the patrolman identified in the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was unarmed.
The Rev. Kurt J. Calkins wanted to be a part of that conversation. He wanted to help people feel safe. He had even readied the church’s gym and multi-purpose room — the Christian Life Center — in case evacuations were needed.
“Everyone is worried. It’s best to be vigilant,” he said. “But we also have to have faith, we have to be good Christians and pray that things will be okay.”
Nearly 20 miles north in Ferguson, the site of the shooting and ensuing civil unrest, the congregation at Greater St. Mark Family Church didn’t speak of fear, but of mourning and their prayers for Brown’s family.
“I feel for the family,” said Linell Green, 44, a business analyst who lives in Bellefontaine. “It’s a shame they’ve not been able to funeralize their son. The family hasn’t had access to the body because of different autopsies.” The church had been the first to open its doors to the family.
Sunday in St. Louis can be a stark example of one of the oldest truths of faith and divided communities — that it is possible to send up the same prayers while seeking different answers.
The Rev. Al Sharpton arrived to cheering and told the congregation that the country, the state and the city were at a defining moment in terms of how policing is carried out.
Sharpton said he was appalled by the release of the videotape showing what police alleged to be Brown shoplifting at a local store.
“In all my years, never have I seen something as offensive and insulting as a police chief releasing a tape of a young man, trying to smear him before his own funeral,” Sharpton said. “If that is the young man? That is not robbery. It’s shoplifting. Call it what it is.”
Three gospel “praise dancers” in white danced as the church prayed fervently for Ferguson.
“God, we ask you to dispatch your prayer angels all over Ferguson,” said Topaz Bryant, 17, a volunteer with Sharpton’s National Action Network. She had traveled from Atlanta to join peaceful protests. “Even though we don’t understand, God, we thank you for dispatching peace right now.”
Green said she’s concerned about the future race relations in the country. “It’s not just black or white,” she said. “Will there ever come a day when we can really be united?”
Inside Southminster Presbyterian Church, there were voices of frustration over Sharpton coming to town.
“He is just going to make things worse, it’s lighting the place on fire,” said Lee Howard, 23, who came to church with her mother.
Outside, after a sermon about the power of faith and prayer, Howard and a few other friends said they also were angry.
“Why is race such an excuse to be mad about everything,” she said, adding, “People are complaining there is not enough diversity on the police force. But they don’t like the police anyway.
Many white congregants interviewed spoke of high crime in black communities and said they wished it were different.
Gail Lee, 51, said she wouldn’t be making any late-night trips.
“No white people want to drive north of [Highway] 40 or 70” because of black neighborhoods they would pass through. She added that there were a lot of wonderful black families and that no one wanted looters around.
Jacob Sampson, who came to church with his wife and two children, said he was also praying for Wilson.
“He’s just a regular guy who plays with his kids when I see him around,” he said. “I just wish the response had not been rioting.”
Their pastor said he was reaching out to other African American churches and expressing his sorrow.
“I tell everyone we just have to trust God and pray for peace,” he said, although he added, “These are tough times, and I worry what’s happened — the shooting and riots — will affect people here for a long time.”
At Greater St. Mark, state Attorney General Chris Koster had come to talk about the future, and to pray and grieve with the congregation.
“You have lost a member of your community, but it is much more than that,” Koster said from the pulpit. “I come not just as a member of the Caucasian community but as a member of the law enforcement community. What happened is painful for every goodhearted person in this city.”
Koster told the congregation that the community is not a stranger to violence.
“More than 100 African Americans lose their lives every year,” he said. “That is one every three days.”
He said he feared that the divide in Ferguson would only grow as a result of the shooting.
“This week, a 50-year flood of anger has broken loose in this city, the likes of which we have not seen since Dr. [Martin Luther] King was killed. All of us are searching our souls to break down this wall of armor.”