Father Ronald A. Mercier, SJ, provincial of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province, joined a dozen religious leaders of different faiths for an Interfaith Prayer Service for Peace and Solidarity at Kiener Plaza Park in downtown St. Louis, Mo., on Tuesday, Sept. 19.
The Most Reverend Robert Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis, called for the service after several days of demonstrations in the wake of a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a white police officer charged with the murder of a black man. The prayer service drew more than 500 community members.
The event brought together faith leaders of diverse traditions and denominations. Every leader reflected on the event and its aftermath, based on his or her own religious beliefs and traditions. Despite their varied backgrounds, the call for justice and the struggle to attain peace was a constant throughout the remarks.
“The plea for peace can be dangerous,” Fr. Mercier said. “If we stop there and seek only an end to violence without addressing its causes.”
Archbishop Carlson urged those present to remember that “we are not a divided humanity but one human family.”
Three years after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the responses from the community have again exposed the deep roots of racism in St. Louis institutions and interpersonal relations.
“We must continue our walk committed to the higher vision that holds us accountable to our truest identity as children of God,” Carlson said, and added that, as God’s children, we are “capable of bringing God’s peace to every corner, where division and violence seek the upper hand.”
Fr. Mercier recalled the prophet Isaiah, who assures, “justice will bring about peace,” and Pope Paul VI, who challenged the Church, “if you want peace, work for justice.”
“Those who have raised their voices in protest since last Friday’s verdict remind us that for too many people in this city we love, justice remains an unfulfilled reality,” Fr. Mercier added. “The sin of racism, and the injustice it breeds, ultimately deprives all of us of the ability to be at home, to know peace.”
During her speech, Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church, gestured toward the Old Courthouse behind the podium, recalling where the landmark Supreme Court decision in which Dred Scott sued for and was denied his freedom from slavery in 1857. Gould’s reference reminded all who were present that the sin of slavery is still alive and well today: “Here we are in that same place, in that same city, in that same state… a state that compromised the very humanity of people that look like me.” She continued, “I stand here in a city that still has the same problems, they just changed it around. Segregation used to be legal and they would say it out loud, but now it’s just buried in policies.”
Afterward, almost 300 people marched from the Plaza to City Hall. On their way, the group chanted, “Tell us what theology looks like. This is what theology looks like.” They paused the march to hold several minutes of silence for Anthony Lamar Smith, the man killed by the police officer.