On August 9, 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, was the site of what has become a modern day “shot heard round the world.” On that day Micheal Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a local police office. And on that day, the #BlackLivesMatter movement took hold, one of the longest running acts of civil disobedience in our nation’s history. Since day one, Eden alumni, students, and faculty members have played significant roles working in and alongside the movement, not only as protesters, but as advocates for real and tangible change. Their passionate work testifies to the quality of students and graduates Eden cultivates; many say Eden dramatically helped shape their theological perspectives on race and human dignity.
While hundreds of Eden alumni have visited Ferguson to protest and advocate for an end to racial injustice, participated in local protests in their own communities, or preached and advocated for racial equity, several Eden students and alumni names continue to appear among leaders in the ongoing movement. Here are just a few of their stories.
Traci Blackmon’s Journey
In 2009, alumna Rev. Traci Blackmon became the first female pastor of the 156-year-old Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri. The position fit her strong call to Christian ministry, experience growing up in the AME church, as well as her years of studying Bible and Womanist Liberation Theology at Eden. It felt like a natural progression alongside her 30-year career as a nurse and Coordinator for health, mind, body and spirit for BJC HealthCare.
When Michael Brown Jr. was shot, less than 5 miles from Chris the King, Rev. Blackmon was one of the first pastors to respond, both by her presence in the street protests and by calling together neighborhood and state religious and community leaders for a peaceful and constructive response. She was soon recognized for her work when Missouri Governor Jay Nixon appointed her to the Ferguson Commission, a group of sixteen citizens asked to study the underlying conditions and make public policy recommendations to help the region progress after the death of Michael Brown, Jr.
“This is what I learned in Ferguson,” Blackmon said in an interview with the United Church of Christ. “The church is not a static organization that is transported from place to place, but rather that church emerges to meet the present needs of the people.”
In October of 2015, Blackmon was made executive minister of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries. And just four months later President Barrack Obama named her to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Commuting between UCC Headquarters in Cleveland, meeting with the advisory council in Washington D.C., and leading her church in Florissant has kept her busy. She believes some progress has been made, though she also says there’s still a lot of work left to do.
“We’re still thinking of stadiums before we’re thinking about schools,” she said in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We’re still fighting over whether the minimum wage should be raised or not. We’re still unfairly and unjustly targeting and criminalizing people of color. Those things have not changed.”
Susan Sneed Helps Lead Police and Community Accountability
For 2007 alumna Rev. Susan Sneed, the protests in Ferguson that followed Michael Brown Jr.’s killing weren’t something she watched on the news. She could smell the tear gas in her house.
“I live just a few blocks over from where Michael Brown was shot and killed,” said Sneed. “I couldn’t be a bystander.”
Joining in the protests was a given for her, as a citizen, an ordained minster, and a community organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United.
Through her work, Sneed is currently collaborating with a taskforce to address police reform. “So many [faith-based] leaders care about the police and what they do, but they’re also appalled by the police and what they do,” she said. Her group is creating progress reports to measure if local police departments are meeting the progress goals they set for themselves.
Sneed is also helping church leaders monitor a community benefits agreement with the Metropolitan Sewer District. “It’s important to work to ensure economic equity. The community is paying for it, and they should be the first on the list to be hired,” said Sneed.
Sneed sees protest and organizing as not just an outreach ministry, but as the heart of the church itself. “You have to preach with your actions,” she said.”To be out in the streets, standing in solidarity with people, bringing the teachings of Christ out into the streets and putting them into motion is the best preaching any clergy can do.”