WATCH: On Streets of Ferguson, This Pastor Responds to ‘Unholy Rage’ With Peacemaking
This past weekend, fires and property damage dominated news coverage of protests for racial justice. What they missed: prayer teams in more than 45 cities nationwide mobilized to bring peace.
Saturday marked the sixth night of protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Over 500 miles south in Ferguson, Missouri, things were starting to get heated.
What started at 6 p.m. as a peaceful demonstration of several hundred activists changed as the night wore on.
By 9 p.m., the crowd in downtown Ferguson swelled to more than 500 total, including about 200 who arrived from elsewhere in the St. Louis area. A portion of that group was not interested in mere protesting.
“It’s always a fringe element that has violent ideology,” said Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, a pastor and owner of a local coffee shop. “About sixty people who arrived downtown weren’t activists, they were anarchists.”
“This group was done with the language of peacemaking. They said, ‘Bro, this is the revolution.’”
Clergyman Confronts Armed Vandals
Thomas witnessed several men break the storefront window at Beauty World, a few doors down from his shop. When they began to carry out merchandise, he spoke to a young man.
He recounted it later in a live video. “Look, Bro, by doing this, you are playing into the stereotypes,” said Thomas.
“You are affirming [what] causes a police officer to come in contact with somebody like me and justify that my life has no value.”
While this first man seemed convicted about his actions, his cohort emerged from the store and pushed past the two. “Get out of my way!” he yelled.
Thomas, a teaching pastor at Destiny Church in St. Louis, replied in biblical terms: “No, you stop in Jesus’ name!”
Suddenly the man reached for his back pocket. “Whenever you see the reach-back, you know there’s a weapon back there,” said Thomas later. “And he wasn’t afraid to use it.”
The aggressive man seemed seconds away from using his firearm. “[The] guy almost pulled a gun on me,” recounted Thomas. “So I turned around and kept moving.”
Yet he and a half-dozen other 30-something men would remain downtown for several hours. Not to protest or riot — but to pray and be agents of peace.
Anarchists Descend On Ferguson
Tensions flared nationwide on Saturday at protests in large cities from coast to coast. Nationwide, at least five people died, most following riots breaking out.
Ferguson had outsized protests for its small size. The city gained national prominence in 2014 with the death of Michael Brown Jr., and subsequent protests. Thomas moved to the city soon after. For years, he has served as an informal mediator among Ferguson community activists, clergy and police.
On Saturday, Thomas mobilized their group following a call from a chaplain affiliated with the Ferguson Police Department. “Can you bring as many clergy and Christians as possible?” asked his contact. “We need them to come and help us keep things calm.”
Over the years Thomas has seen various protests, from prayer vigils to hyped-up rallies. He contrasted those with what he saw occur after 10:00 p.m., when outside agitators took charge.
“Anarchist groups showed up here in Ferguson to incite destruction,” he said. “I believe America came under a coordinated attack intended to baptize the nation in the fires of unholy rage.”
Seven officers were injured and at least 11 police and fire vehicles were damaged in Ferguson. However, no arrests were made following Saturday night protests.
The clergymen believe violence did not “get as ugly” as it could have. “I don’t know that if we weren’t out there praying, that things would have been worse,” stated Kingston Arthur, a local prayer leader. “But I do know that I was where the Spirit wanted me to be.”
At one point, demonstrators rushed the doors of the police station. Officers deployed tear gas and the crowd momentarily dispersed. Thomas, Arthur, and team were close enough to be affected.
“I got gassed tonight a couple of times,” said Thomas. “We’ve been engaging in conversations in the middle of tear gas.”
Longtime Local Officer Addresses Loss of Floyd
In the live video, Thomas encountered Lt. Jerry Lohr of St. Louis County PD. The police captain has been praised for his conciliatory approach to protests.
Lohr responded to Thomas’ inquiry regarding Floyd, a black man in Minnesota killed while in police custody. An officer had pressed Floyd against cement for eight minutes before the man died.
“It was a terrible, terrible situation,” said Lohr. “Unfortunately, the actions of that officer now reflect upon me and my profession. We have to do a better job of policing ourselves and of weeding out those bad apples.”
The two reflected on shared grief and struggles. “The bad police officer is making the goodhearted police officer’s job harder for him,” said Thomas. “[And] the guys that make a living off of lawlessness, they’re making the law-abiding black man’s life harder. In many ways, we’re in the exact same boat!”
They discussed how stereotypes set up walls between people. “The way we break [those] down is by talking to one another,” said Lohr. “Reach outside your comfort zone and get to know people that aren’t like you. Take that time to show respect to everyone.”
Thomas contrasted the roles of church and state. “As peacekeepers, the police’s job is to enforce the consequences of bad behavior,” he said. “The church’s place is to [be] peacemakers who change the spiritual climate, dealing with peoples’ internal life. Then we also work in the justice realms, to make it a more just society in our legislation and structures.”
With dozens of officers mobilized behind him, prepared for the worst, Lohr endorsed the prayer team engaged in peacemaking.
“The faith community can usually bring [a] sense of calm and peace,” he said. “They can help diffuse situations that are tense. They play an important role in our community, and in my personal life. We’ll take all the help we can get.”
Prayer And Fasting To Thwart the Chaos
This team had prepared to be ready for this moment. Thomas founded grassroots national network Civil Righteousness in 2018 as a catalyst for reconciliation and restorative justice.
They believe their message is suited for the current crisis. “I feel like the window of time is running out,” said Thomas. “If these agendas persist, there will be massive casualties. People died last night and early this morning, but the coming bloodshed will be far more grievous.”
“Peace is the setting right of wrong things. It’s the tamping down of demonic chaos. It’s the most powerful weapon in heaven and on earth.” – J.T. Thomas
Currently, their teams in more than 45 cities nationwide are bringing prayer to protests.
“God often uses the few, but we need the many right now,” said Thomas. “Even just a few of the global church is still a lot more than the anarchists. They’re becoming mainstream, and we’re just watching it happen and commenting on it online. But we’re not showing up.”
He urged believers to run to the crisis. “This [is] a public demonstration asking for the mercy of God,” he said. “We’re overwhelming the enemy’s agenda by our presence. If we [commit] to pray through the night with our feet on the street, it can impact the trajectory of the nation.”
His brother-in-arms Arthur spoke to the impact they made. “I was scared at times,” stated Arthur. “Looking back, I see moments where I could have been more bold. [But] last night I saw nine people who professed faith in Jesus and expressed trust that he would intervene.”
Reiterating their message of peace, Thomas noted that even many Christians misunderstand it. He said: “We think peace is passive, like it’s the quiet tone of voice and posture.
“No, peace is [the] setting right of wrong things. It’s the tamping down of demonic chaos. It’s the most powerful weapon in heaven and on earth.”
In the video below, Thomas describes the vision for Civil Righteousness teams standing in prayer and fasting during mass protests.
A graduate of the University of Colorado, Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. Find him on Twitter and follow The Stream @Streamdotorg.