Guest Blogger: The Rev. Peter Schell, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, Washington DC.
(This piece was written after a community forum was organized and implemented three weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown. I thought it is a good example of how to create grace margin for a truth event about which I was writing about in the last two posts. Eric Law)
In the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting, Ms. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, a candidate for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Washington, the Rev. Rondesia Jarrett, Priest-in-Charge of Holy Communion Church, and myself met to discuss a possible response from within our Diocese. As we talked, it became clear that we had many more questions than answers. While there were many particular questions that arose in our conversation, the discussion crystalized around a single thought: “Could Ferguson happen here?” Could something like Michael Brown’s killing occur here in DC? The question was fundamentally one of Police-Community relations. So, we decided that a public forum, involving members of both the DC Police, and the community at large, would be the best place to begin our work.
We knew that discussion of this nature would stir up a lot of feelings in everyone involved. We expected some heat, and anger. All three of us expressed feeling that anger ourselves. We knew this wasn’t a bad thing. Anger can drive us to action. Indeed, we rushed our work in planning the forum, because we wanted to act before public outcry and outrage had cooled and faded. At the same we wanted to foster a productive dialogue. We wanted to be honest and frank with one another, without casting blame. To do this, we needed representatives from our Police Department. We had two specific blessings on this front. Ms. Fisher-Stewart is herself a retired member of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department; while the former Senior Warden of my congregation had served as the Assistant Chief of Police in DC, and Chief of Police in two other major metropolitan areas. Both Ms. Fisher-Stewart and my former Senior Warden had been part of a national effort to move local law enforcement toward a model of community policing. Both had watched these efforts rolled back in recent years. Both were eager to participate in this dialogue.
We also approached the 1st and 7th Districts of the MPD; the districts where my congregation, Calvary Episcopal Church, and Holy Communion reside. We asked if they would send representatives to the forum. Both districts needed a little encouragement. We made our appeal: Even though the state of relations between the MPD and the community at large is generally positive, there are still areas of concern; and avoiding these difficult conversations is precisely what leads to suspicion between police and the community at large, in turn creating a dangerous environment for all involved. Both Districts agreed to send a representative.
We also approached several community organizations, to broaden the discussion. Ultimately, the Police Foundation and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) agreed to send representatives. Our Bishop, the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, agreed to moderate. We publicized the event in the Diocese and our local neighborhoods, inviting folk to attend and to submit their questions for the panel in advance, via e-mail. Knowing that the discussion would be charged, and wanting to harness that fire without being consumed by it, we worked hard to organize the discussion in the most productive way possible. The Rev. Eric Law’s book The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed, provided great inspiration in outlining this process.
On the day of the forum, once the panelists and the community members were assembled, Rev. Jarrett opened us in prayer, asking for God’s grace to do God’s work, and asking everyone to share one word about how they felt as this discussion began. Then we laid out our purpose for the evening, in the following statements, which we provided in written form to everyone in attendance:
Tonight We Will:
- Discuss Whether or Not Ferguson Could Happen Here.
- Share and Listen to All Perspectives
- Consider Best Practices for a Safe and Productive Relationship Between Police and the Community at Large
- Reflect on the Role of the Faith Community in this Effort
- Bless One Another
Tonight We Will Not:
- Seek to Place Blame
- Engage in Personal Attacks
- Monopolize Conversation
- Curse One Another
We also laid out our guidelines for discussion and communication:
Respectful Communication Guidelines
R - Accept RESPONSIBILITY for what you say and feel without blaming others.
E – Use EMPATHETIC listening
S - Be SENSITIVE to differences in communication styles.
P - PONDER on what you hear and feel before you speak.
E - EXAMINE your own assumptions and perceptions.
C - Keep CONFIDENTIALITY.
T - TRUST ambiguity because we are not here to debate who is right or wrong. (reprinted from the Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed by Eric Law)
We asked the participants and attendees to verbally affirm both our purposes for the evening and the communication guidelines, as a single body.
We posed the questions from members of the community to the panelists. These included both questions we had received in advance by email, as well as those that participants were invited to submit on the spot, in writing. Ms. Fisher-Stewart, Rev. Jarrett and I sorted and aggregated the questions before presenting them to the panelists. Our intent here was not to censor or redact in anyway, but simply to make good use of time. We expected, and were correct, that there would likely be many questions around the same themes. Aggregating the questions allowed us to address everyone’s concerns in the time allotted.
After 45 minutes, we broke out into small groups, composed of both panelists and attendees together. Everyone was invited to complete the following statements, in their small groups:
Today I was struck by...
Today I learned...
After 15 minutes, each group was asked to suggest the next steps, for our police department, for our congregation, and for our community.
At the close of the forum, the small groups were invited to report back to the plenary session. While the responses were varied, the two main themes emerged. The community at large needs more relational engagement from the police in the daily life of our neighborhoods, and the police need more active participation from the community when relations are problematic or strained.
Rev. Jarrett closed us in prayer, again, asking all participants to share one word about how they felt, leaving the discussion that day. As we left, Ms. Fisher-Stewart shared one final thought: “The real work begins tomorrow.”
Upcoming Opportunities to Study with The Sustainist and learn more about Holy Conferencing:
January 19-23, 2015
February 13-14, 2015
March 19-24, 2015
April 21-25, 2015
July 20-25, 2015
Register at: www.kscopeinstitute.org
Reflection Questions for 3rd Sunday of Advent (Year B)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Eric H. F. Law
For competent leadership in a diverse changing world