“Take off your shoes” had been the words that came into my spirit standing before the Michael Brown memorial in Ferguson, Missouri. Quickly and quietly, I slipped them off.
“Thank you,” said one of the men from the Canfield Apartments, standing watch over the memorial. “I appreciate your respect,” he continued, “Go on over there. Right where it happened. Feel it through the soles of your feet.”
I stepped into the middle of the street at his prompting, shoes in hand. I breathed deeply and took in all of the signs of love that had been left. Teddy bears. Flowers. Crosses. Hats. Basketballs. Items that represented the people that left them. The attempts of a community to say to a young man who had lain dead in the streets of this quiet neighborhood for hours: “You were not alone. We were with you. We were watching. Your life was important to us. Your life is important.”
Something they don’t tell you about this spot on the news is that it is one of the most visible places in Ferguson. It is at the bend of a quiet neighborhood street where several dozen apartment windows in about six buildings point directly at the spot. It is in a spot surrounded by wooden balconies and stairwells, by parking lots with cars pulling in and out, by large grassy areas where children run and play. Children whose mothers had to try to avert their eyes for several hours, as Michael lay on the yellow dividing line of their small neighborhood street; his body blocking the one lane in and one lane out.
In a town where shootings are nearly unheard of, this sight – impossible to avoid and impossible to forget – would have left an indelible mark upon the memory of every child there. Yet, the flowers and bears and hats would now create, for the youngest children, a different image of that spot in their memory. For this reason, their parents debated about whether to let them play and feel joy in that spot, or whether to scold them for picking up one of “Michael’s bears” or one of “Michael’s flowers” and remind them to be sober.
Standing there in the street, I looked down at the layers of candle wax that sealed the darkened asphalt around the memorial and I prayed:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy…”
Moments before, I had stood on the grass nearby and prayed, “Why did you bring me here? What do you want me to learn here?” And I had felt that answer in only four words, but four words that held a world of meaning: “Take off your shoes.”
That action, rooted in an ancient story, was sufficient even without words to communicate to the neighbors standing watch and the friends standing with me: This is holy ground.
It didn’t really hit home, however, until tonight, two weeks later, as the words “Right now in #Ferguson” scrolled across my Twitter feed. After a busy day at work, I had not been paying attention to much outside of my own corner of the world and attempts to create community within it.
Yet, the news that there were crowds in the streets face to face again with police drove me to prayer and then to investigation of what was happening.
With just a couple key strokes, I was confronted with a picture of that same memorial that I had stood beside when I took off my shoes; before I stepped off the grass and into the main memorial in the center of the street. The conical structure had leaned against a light pole, a construction of teddy bears and silk flowers and cards. It was there that I had witnessed a three year old girl pull a faux sunflower out from the middle and carry it, giggling with pride, to a mother who did not have the heart to scold her.
Now I was seeing that same street side memorial in flames. It had burnt earlier in the day in what officials had called an accident, and residents had called an intentional act. At the end of the day, whatever happened, the tragedy at the heart of things is how it feels to the neighborhood. The shock of seeing flames at a spot they had committed to protect; reminding them of the wheels of the police vehicles that had run over their first attempt at a memorial.
Suddenly, I had the “do you get it now moment?” once again, as the impact of what I had experienced hit my heart two weeks after it had hit my brain, drawing hot tears down my cheek.
I had understood the simple concept that the ground I stood on was sacred and important, but I had failed to take the time to really hear the rest of the story from which those words arose. The sight of that memorial in flames made it impossible to ignore.
The man in the story is Moses. He was born a slave, found abandoned, raised by a princess. He was a fugitive now, fled from home; he is living in another land, after the injustice surrounding him had been too much for him to bear and he had became violent in response. In the course of his work, he comes upon a flame, in the midst of a blazing bush, and a voice tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
God speaks to Moses and says, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings.” God then tells Moses that he intends to end oppression and bring the people to a joyful place, and he wants Moses to go and bring them there. Moses resists, but God insists and says, “I will be with you.”
God is with us. God was with Michael. God also once lay bleeding to death while his family and friends were forced to watch helplessly. God listens. God hears. God plans to end oppression. And God intends to use us to do so.
So, take off your shoes.
To all of my brothers and sisters from Houston, to Durham, to Philadelphia, to St. Louis. Take off your shoes.
Taking off your shoes does not mean it is time to put up your feet. Taking off your shoes means you are about to embark on a journey – a journey that will take all the integrity and all the courage that you can muster.
Taking off your shoes means you are not alone. God, and all those God calls to walk the journey of justice and joy, are with you.
Finishing my prayers, that day in Ferguson, I stepped back out of the street and onto the grass in time to hear the end of a lesson from David, the guardian of the memorial. “Religion divides people,” he said. “God unites people. Jesus said trust no man, lean on him. We gotta trust God. I am here for peace. God is protecting Canfield, and I am determined that my children will be able to play outside here.”
To his left, two of his children that were old enough to walk chased each other and giggled. They ran past a tree with a sign that said, “his blood cries out from the ground.” Not old enough to read, and consumed with delight in each other’s company, they seemed only to understand that something important had happened and that now their yard was full of teddy bears and flowers, and that their mother kept telling them that all this cool stuff belonged to a kid named Michael.
Tripping over a root, the oldest child, a girl, fell face down at my feet and lifted her head up to smile at me. The American flag that she had taken from the nearby memorial – two weeks before it would burn – had flown out of her hand as she fell and now lay a couple feet away. Stooping down, I picked it up and handed it to her as she stood to her feet. As I gave it back to her, I looked in her eyes and said, “This is yours.” I did so with a deep awareness that this was her flag; that this was her country; and that all the rights of this nation are hers equally, regardless of her gender or anything else about her.
Yet, we have learned that these rights will not merely be handed to her. Beautiful words written long ago by powerful men only come alive when their wives and daughters and brothers and sisters demand that they be more than ink on a page. We need to stand together. Whether it be in the streets of Ferguson, the classrooms of our public schools, the pulpits of our cathedrals, or the halls of justice: we need to stand together.
Then, we need to take off our shoes. We need to recognize that we are not alone, that Michael Brown was not alone. That all the young children of his neighborhood – the ones who laugh because they are not old enough to understand why their mothers mourn – that they too are not alone.
We live in a world where, be it far or be it close, injustice has an expiration date and justice is our true destination. We must remember that will not get reach it if we never start to walk.
But before we start, let’s take off our shoes and listen; because it is a very long journey we have ahead of us, and we cannot get there alone.