FERGUSON, Mo. — At Greater St. Mark Family Church, a brick and wood building a short drive from where Michael Brown was killed, the Rev. Tommie L. Pierson Sr., the pastor, paused and surveyed the congregation of 100. He had a complicated task. He wanted to inspire and uplift his flock in a familiar, fiery way, but he knew that he also was addressing the world.
“I’m going to try my best not to say something juicy that for the rest of my life I regret,” he said to the visitors with cameras and notepads.
Not that Pierson is a timid man. Just the other day, he said in an interview that a decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death could send a message to the community that “it’s open season on young black men.”
On Sunday, his flock sat rapt and anxious about what the week would bring.
A grand jury is expected to reconvene Monday morning, according to those knowledgeable about the proceedings. Many expected a weekend decision but learned from news media reports Saturday that the deliberations would continue.
The waiting has frayed the already-tense nerves of residents and has strained area resources.
City and police officials, whose staffs have been working 12-hour shifts for weeks in preparation for a decision, are pressuring St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s office to do what it can to bring the deliberations to a close, according to those with knowledge of those situation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the conversations and because the proceedings of the grand jury are secret.
It also surprised some Sunday to learn from court officials that McCulloch had not filed paperwork that would allow him to publicly release the evidence in the case if Wilson is not indicted. He had pledged for months that materials would be made available quickly.
Paul Fox, the court administrator with St. Louis County Circuit Court, said that it is anticipating McCulloch’s request but that a judge will have to “analyze the need for maintaining secrecy of the records with the need for public disclosure of the records.”
Fox emphasized that this has not been done, and that it will take time.
McCulloch’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Meanwhile, President Obama again called for a peaceful response to any grand jury decision, saying “that using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law and contrary to who we are.”
Amid it all, Pierson offered words of comfort and encouragement.
Greater St. Mark has been a focal point for rallies and raising awareness to try to use the energy of the protest movement to engage marginalized communities in demanding greater influence.
“This is new for us,” he began. “This is one of those times when we face new challenges and the unknown.”
Pierson took 2 Kings 7:3-10 as his text. It tells the story of four lepers who had been living on charity, segregated from the city, but who faced death from famine if they did not do something. They walked with only their faith into the camp of a besieging enemy army and found, thanks to God, that the army had fled them, leaving food and supplies. The lepers were saved.
Pierson spun these verses into a towering allegory for the state of Ferguson today and that of the entire African American community — a people who must have the faith to unite and take the actions necessary to help themselves. Pierson suggested that the lepers probably did not vote, were not united and did not know how to talk to power. It was only tragedy and their desperate need that united them to act.
“God cannot help us until we decide to do something,” Pierson declared. “Today, what we need cannot wait. We need to live in a just society, a society that looks upon all of us as equal partners.”
“The government has a mighty army,” he continued, as the organist found chords to track the rising drama in the preacher’s words. “But we’re going to walk anyway. We’re going to walk by faith. We are not going to loot, we are not going to break windows. We are not going to do any of that stuff, but we are going to walk by faith. There is change in the air!”
By the end, the people were on their feet, urging Pierson on.
“You don’t know what the grand jury will do. God does,” Pierson continued. “You don’t know what the marchers will do. God does.”
A network of church and clergy in the greater St. Louis area — the Metropolitan Congregations United for St. Louis — has been playing an active role in community organizing since Brown was killed, and it also is preparing for the aftermath of the grand jury verdict. Two churches — including Greater St. Mark — along with a veterans-for-peace office and a cafe are serving as “sanctuary churches” for demonstrators. They were chosen for their proximity to known hot spots, including Ferguson, Clayton (where the prosecutor’s office is) and downtown St. Louis.
There is also network of 11 churches that will open their doors as 24/7 “sacred spaces” where protesters can meet or pray during any demonstrations that may come.
“It’s important for the community and the rest of the world to know that God is a God of justice, and that it’s critical that we stand up and be part of the solution of our community moving forward,” said the Rev. Dietra Wise Baker, pastor of Liberation Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and co-leader of the clergy caucus of the metropolitan congregations. “This situation lifts a veil and people can see there are things going on in our community that we haven’t been attentive to, that we need to be attentive to.”
At 7 p.m. on the day the grand jury announces its decision, the clergy coalition will hold a worship service at West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Florissant, adjacent to Ferguson. At 6:30 a.m. and noon the day after the decision, the clergy will be active in larger demonstrations scheduled for Clayton and downtown, respectively.
At Greater St. Mark, shortly after the shooting, Pierson hosted one of the first rallies held by the Brown family. After church Sunday, members of the congregation lingered in the sanctuary and talked about what the week may hold. In their view, God’s hand is at work, even in tragedy.
“I think Michael Brown’s death has brought about a lot of chaos, but also a lot of peace and community,” said Beverly Wells, one of the church music directors. Today, the choir had especially soared. “Sometimes God has to get our attention, and it may be through a tragic event.”
Every day before she and her family go to sleep, Wells said, they pray specifically for the grand jurors, for Michael Brown’s family, and for Darren Wilson and his family.
“My prayer is that we come through it better, stronger, more united, and that this is a seed of change,” said RoRené Wooten-Hughes, another church music director. “I think the change is internal.”
Internal? Yes, Wells agreed. Do not forget the inward change that must come along with all the outward societal ones.
“We are a people who deserve to be here, who were put here for a reason,” Wells said. “We deserve to be treated with respect. But we have to believe that ourselves. That’s the internal change. I think a lot of what happened with the looting and tearing up the neighborhood is not knowing who you are within.”
Whatever the verdict, the church members do not think that those actions will be repeated, because they have faith that the internal change has already begun.