COLUMBIA — Everyone who gathered Monday morning at Russell Chapel had seen the news coverage of the protests in Ferguson. They had heard the discussions about race and the police. They knew about the turmoil.
But lost in all the hubbub, they said, was the person at the center of it: Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Aug. 9. As his funeral commenced in St. Louis, about 50 people congregated in Russell Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church to remember and pray for Brown and his loved ones.
“All of the events —protests, marches, social media — have overshadowed the fact that Michael Brown is a human being,” said Carmen Williams, the pastor of Russell Chapel. She said she hopes Monday's services offered people a chance to "invoke the spirit of peace."
Williams was one of about a dozen people who spoke or led the group in prayer. One after another, people rose from the crowded pews, walked to the front of the small chapel and spoke to the crowd. Speakers alternately quoted the Bible and spoke off the cuff, and the service was punctuated with cries of "Amen!" from the assembly. The temperature in the chapel rose as the service went on; people were sweating and fanning themselves with papers.
After the speakers' prayers, the assembly began to recite a litany, a call-and-response prayer involving everyone in the chapel.
"A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping," began the litany's leader, a man who stood up from the assembly. "Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for they are dead."
The assembly replied: "We pray for the families of children who have been slain by gun violence, left to die on the streets with less dignity than is given to animals."
The Russell Chapel assembly recited the litany at the same time as other assemblies in Jefferson City and Springfield, Williams said.
Katie Larson, director of organizing for Missouri Faith Voices, planned the service. She said the underlying issues around Brown's death were troubling and need to be addressed — but that first and foremost, "a sacred life was lost."
“People all over the state are struggling with the death of Mike Brown, and we are trying to find a way to connect to the shooting,” Larson said. "People need to sit in the tension that this created and not just go back to normal."
Corissa Mack, an MU senior from St. Louis, said she came to the Russell Chapel service because she needed to pray for peace and understanding.
“I walked the streets of Ferguson," she said. "The area where his body was laying is where I’m from. I'm scared to speak or look at an officer because I don't know if I'm going to be next."
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