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Ferguson Clergy Call For Peace From The Pulpit

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. We have heard a lot from the residents, protesters and city officials in Ferguson, Missouri over the last few days. The city is on edge, awaiting the grand jury decision on whether police officer Darren Wilson will face charges for fatally shooting Michael Brown last August. This morning, we're going to hear from religious leaders who've been calling for peace from the pulpit. St. Louis Public Radio's Tim Lloyd has the story.

TIM LLOYD, BYLINE: Reverend Willis Johnson of Wellspring Church remembers exactly what he did when he heard about the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. His church is next to the Ferguson Police Department. So he walked over with a small group of young people.

REVEREND WILLIS JOHNSON: To at least have some audience with representatives there.

LLOYD: Reverend Johnson didn't get much information that day, but he says the young people who accompanied him to the station have since become leaders for peaceful protests. In the months following Brown's death, Reverend Johnson has met with White House staff and hosting community forums for the Justice Department. With the grand jury decision expected any day, he's thinking about what piece of Scripture he might preach next.

JOHNSON: I'm wrestling right now with Ezekiel 37. Can a healthy and loving and just place, can a mighty witness of people, of nationhood, of humanity - can it be restored?

LLOYD: Reverend Johnson says it's a question that's been on his mind a lot lately. His church is 1 of 10 that have partnered with local school districts to provide children with food and counseling if civil unrest forces their schools to close. And he worries about what the reaction might be after the grand jury's decision.

JOHNSON: For some of us, we're very, very tired. As much as it pains me to say, this is, literally, for some, the last straw. This is what could push them on edge.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Eyes on the prize, oh, Lord.

LLOYD: A little more than 15 miles away, 50 people or so are gathered at the memorial for Vonderrit Myers, an African American teen who was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer in October. With emotions already running high after Brown's death, tensions once again flared between the police and protesters after the shooting. And activists plan to gather at this spot after the grand jury's decision. Mike Higgins is Co-Pastor of South City Church. He says he wants to bring unity to this racially diverse neighborhood.

PASTOR MIKE HIGGINS: I think Midwestern cities are kind of like dysfunctional families that have issues but don't really want to talk about those issues.

LLOYD: Like Reverend Johnson, Reverend Higgins has been thinking about what Scripture to use in his sermons.

HIGGINS: First Corinthians where Paul constantly addresses the fact that the church should be a family. You know, we all deal with sin. We're all - all of us are a little crazy. We know that - doesn't make any difference what race we are. But we're family.

LLOYD: In some areas, clergy have signed up for an unusual task - to go into crowds of protesters to try and keep them calm. Reverend Susan Sneed is an organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United.

REVEREND SUSAN SNEED: They'll be wearing orange vests marked with clergy on the back, and they'll be in the crowds in the demonstrators just helping to just bring that calm and that peace. Hopefully maybe talking down somebody who wants to do some violence. They'll be there if things get crazy and somebody just gets really scared and wants to get out of there.

LLOYD: Sneed says they're also ready to provide first aid to protestors at churches near areas that are expected to see demonstrations. Because just like officials across this region, Reverend Sneed says clergy have to plan for every contingency. For NPR News, I'm Tim Lloyd in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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