ST. LOUIS — For the past two weeks, the Rev. Tommie Pierson has been among the clergy leading the response to the tragedy and unrest in Ferguson following the shooting of Michael Brown. On Sunday, he had a message for his congregation: Instead, people should be protesting with their votes.
“Some of this stuff we’re dealing with … you can fix it at the polls,” Pierson said. “The only way they’ve been able to do some of what they do is when you do nothing.”
Pierson, who is also a Missouri state representative, sermonized about the way forward to the members of Greater St. Mark Family Church, located near Ferguson. The church has been the site of meetings and is a designated “safe space” for residents and demonstrators to receive aid since the Aug. 9 shooting of Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
Much of the racial tension since the shooting has occurred during protests along Ferguson’s main corridor, where police and demonstrators have clashed. The schism between police and residents has grown wider and beyond just Brown’s death, as many young black men have vented their frustrations over being stopped by local police in the community.
Voter registration and increased civic engagement have emerged as frequent themes. Jackie McGee, a member of the church, agreed with the pastor’s message. She has encouraged her younger relatives to become politically active.
“If people are concerned with who’s in charge of different things, you need to voice your opinion and vote,” said McGee, who lives in an unincorporated part of St. Louis County not far from Ferguson.
Ferguson’s municipal elections are held in April on odd numbered years. That timing tends to reduce voter turnout.
This past April, only 12 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots. In 2012, only 11 percent voted. In recent elections, some council members have been elected with fewer than 50 votes. Residents were far more engaged in 2012 and 2008, both presidential election years, when 76 percent of voters cast ballots.
Ferguson’s population is nearly 70 percent African-American, but the city has never had a black mayor and presently has only one black council member. Whites, now the city’s minority, have made up Ferguson’s power structure for its entire 120-year history. The next city elections are two years away.
“In America, the majority rules,” Pierson told the congregation Sunday. “It is un-American for the minority to rule over the majority.”
His sermon talked of rebirth, of people who seemed dead until their bodies were restored and new life was breathed into them. Pierson compared the people in the Bible to some now living in Ferguson — especially the young, angry and politically absent.
Pierson took his cue from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 37, in which the prophet comes upon a valley of dry bones. God tells him: “These bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’”
“They lived in a democracy, but they were inactive,” he said. “They didn’t vote. They didn’t run for nothing. They waited for something to happen, and their only answer to it was to protest. Can we come back from inactivity?”