FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - Some clad in clerical collars and others in flowing robes, religious leaders have descended on Ferguson, Missouri, to help end nearly two weeks of violence sparked by the police killing of an unarmed black teenager.
By Thursday, their efforts appeared to be working.
“We need to start the healing process. We are close, we are so close,” said Tommie Pierson, pastor of Greater St. Mark Family Church, a gathering place for counseling and communication between religious leaders, residents and others protesting the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Police said they made only six arrests overnight Wednesday, compared to more than 40 on Tuesday night and dozens in prior nights. And they said there was no need for the tear gas, dogs and riot gear that they have deployed to quell confrontations with protesters.
“We can see that the clergy has the community’s trust and you can see the value of that,” said Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who was appointed to oversee security for Ferguson during the protests. “The trend is good.”
An explosion of anger over the shooting of Brown by a white police officer, 28-year-old Darren Wilson, has cast the St. Louis suburb of 21,000 people into the international spotlight as a symbol of often troubled U.S. race relations.
The contingent of mostly Christian but also Jewish and Muslim religious leaders have come to Ferguson from as far as Philadelphia, Denver, and Washington to try to turn the chaos to calm. They march with protesters, fall on their knees to pray and talk to the community to heal wounds.
U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, who is also a Methodist pastor in Kansas City, saw other clergy leaders Wednesday before meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about the Brown case.
“What the shooting did was uncover a sad reality ... that Ferguson was a neglected stepchild of racial progress. The clergy members realize that,” Cleaver said. “Now the hard work begins. The clergy will be leading the way.”
Though Ferguson is predominantly black, its police force, political leadership and public education administration are dominated by white officials.
Many of the religious leaders say that blacks in Ferguson are harassed and mistreated regularly by police, and measures including more voter participation, education improvements and more job training programs are needed to establish a balance of trust and power.
On Wednesday night, more than 100 marchers led by clergy members protested outside the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office calling for speedy justice in the Brown case.
Amid conflicting accounts of how the shooting occurred, the officer has been put on paid leave and is in hiding. A grand jury began hearing evidence on Wednesday and a federal civil rights probe is under way.
Brown’s family will hold his funeral on Monday and another march is planned for Tuesday.
Religious leaders say they are walking nightly with protesters to keep them separated from police and spending daylight hours helping channel frustrations and anger into plans for greater empowerment.
“A big part of it is listening, letting people talk through their pain,” said the Reverend Anthony Grimes, who came from the Denver chapter of the Christian Community Development Association.
“It is what we make it now. People are starting to feel more empowered. We aren’t going to stand for injustice,” he said. “But we need to be peaceful.”
Nation of Islam representatives in Ferguson have also urged protesters to abide by the law and march peacefully.
Helping coordinate religious intervention is the PICO National Network, a group of faith-based community organizations with membership in 150 cities.
One PICO leader, Reverend Alvin Herring, frequently falls to his knees to pray with protesters at the site of the memorial that lies in the street where Brown died.
“The world needs to know that Mr. Brown and the other young people of Ferguson are loved by us,” Herring said.
Writing by Carey Gillam; Editing by Jim Loney