Last week when the famous grand jury verdict was announced in Ferguson, Missouri, protests and even some rioting began in cities across the nation. Oakland, California, a racially diverse city across the bay from San Francisco, has had several nights of downtown protest rallies and highway blockades.
Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanHook is pastor of a Wesleyan African-American church in Oakland. He has put on his bullet-proof vest and gone into the streets in the evenings to do what he can to help keep the protest rallies non-violent.
The church has set up what he calls “healing centers” in various locations around the city, such as youth centers. These venues offer an opportunity for people to come in and talk, shout, vent, express themselves among people who understand and will listen. Church members who man these centers are deeply sympathetic with the reasons behind the protests, but work to defuse or channel anger before it becomes violent.
Every night crowds have formed at the epicenter of downtown Oakland at 14th and Broadway, and from there they begin to move. There have been some stores and buildings damaged, some lootings and vehicles damaged as well. Some of the instigators seem to be organized outside agitators who even show up with gas masks. One of the most common tactics of the crowds has been to block freeways.
Pastor VanHook and his members and other churches in Oakland have been an important ingredient in helping keep violence and injuries at a lower level. But he and church members share great concerns about the complex problems that have undergirded the protests. They have to. In one sense, the Missouri case and other such cases around the country are symbolic, only the tip of the iceberg. The protests have really not been just about Michael Brown in Ferguson; rather, they reflect the strongly-felt objections to unjust systems in which people feel powerless and even hopeless.
There is deep frustration in the African-American community about high unemployment, reduced opportunities, high crime rates, unequal treatment in education, policing, justice, and virtually every governmental system, high percentages of dysfunctional families, lack of societal resources for positive change, as many as 75% or more of children being raised by one or fewer parents, and the list of systemic problems goes on. Systemic racism in our society continues to play a significant role which contributes to this complex mix of troubles.
Pastor VanHook accepts and works hard at his role as a peace-maker. But he also has another role as a minister of the gospel. He finds it necessary to “speak truth to power” as he speaks on behalf of the frustrations of the African-American community to authorities. He tells the truth about the systemic discrimination undergirding the complex problems to those who have power, but may be unaware or unconcerned: educational leaders, local government leaders, the business community, church officials, law enforcement, anyone who will listen.
According to Pastor VanHook, “The broader society says we should just get over it. But the underlying problems are very real, and the results are incredibly tragic. One woman in our church lost three sons to murder in our streets. What can I say to her? Crime is so strong. We are working with hundreds of fatherless kids. But guns are everywhere because people are so scared. Families are scared. Young men are scared. Even police are scared and that fosters a shoot first, ask questions later mentality.”
“In our community,” VanHook continued, “it’s hard for people to see police and the justice system as their protectors. Although crime is high here, enforcement is so racially biased. All of the studies by scholars in our community bears this out as well. For the same crimes, African-Americans more often get longer sentences as opposed to short sentences or probation for some other groups.”
“We keep trying to address that. We try to address the fact that education is not working well here. Our education system is bankrupt. So many young men are being raised with no positive male role model, and that’s a huge problem.”
Pastor VanHook believes strongly that the church can make a big, long-term difference by intervening in the lives of families and especially engaging the young men. The church can give them love, can give them hope, and can help give them mentoring and a sense of belonging. The church must do more to help these boys and young men to find their way.
However, Pastor VanHook is also frustrated with a lack of resources for the church even in that role. He has been deeply appreciative of some help and solidarity that has been expressed to him through some Wesleyan leaders such as General Superintendent Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, District Superintendent Dr. Stephen Babby, and a few others. But he notes that from many channels, offers of prayer are many but offers of practical help are few and far between. He would love to see teams from other parts of the country come to spend a week showing love in their youth centers, lunch kitchen, and other ministries. He would love to see those prayers accompanied by willingness to get personally involved in helping to bring hope to his city, and also put more resources in his hands to get all the things done that he knows could make a huge difference.
Meanwhile, he’ll probably put his vest on and go out into the streets again tonight. And continue to stand for Jesus Christ and preach a gospel of love and hope in his lost and fallen world. Will you stand with him?