New Center in Ferguson, MO Bridges Racial and Social Divides
Out of the riots in Ferguson comes a center built by The Salvation Army and the Urban League—on the site where simmering resentments exploded in racial and civil unrest
On August 9, 2014 eighteen year-old Michael Brown, a resident of the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, was stopped by a police officer who accused him and Dorian Johnson of stealing from a nearby convenience store. Although the facts of what happened next remain in dispute, before the confrontation was over Michael Brown was fatally shot. The normally quiet town erupted in response to the killing. Long simmering resentments in the community could no longer be hidden. The death of Michael Brown was for many the final straw. The unrest that ensued was met by strong force but not before the QuikTrip convenience store was burned to the ground, looting occurred, cars and buildings set ablaze and sometimes violent confrontations flared up between law enforcement officers and protesters that became the fodder of countless news outlets.
When the violence finally cooled, local residents found that their stores, their employment, their transit and their safety had gone up like the smoke of the countless fires in Ferguson. The Salvation Army, along with other helping organizations, served both the residents and the law enforcement officials, seeking to provide a comforting hand in the midst of these tragic circumstances. Advisory Board member Mark Abels recalls, “The Army went to bring comfort to those in need to the extent that they could while the guns were still out and the riots were still happening.” Although that was something, it soon became clear that sandwiches and cold drinks were not enough. Ferguson was hurting, the wound would remain an open sore unless long term changes were implemented.
Then divisional commander, Lt. Colonel Lonneal Richardson and Urban League president, Michael MacMillan, were in communication throughout the tragedy. Both were distressed at not only the events that occurred but all that they represented. And both felt that something long term had to be done to address the needs of Ferguson. They wondered how and then they worked together to address the needs. The result was an alliance that has no precedent in The Salvation Army or the Urban League as they unified to meet the needs of the community.
The partnership brought together the unique strengths of each organization. The Urban League has tremendous credibility because of its work in the African-American communities throughout the United States. The Salvation Army brings highly developed responses to community needs that are tailored to the local scene and an international reputation for practical help to those in need regardless of race. There are differences as well. The Urban League is involved in political action while The Salvation Army is apolitical. The Urban League is a secular organization while The Salvation Army sees all that it does as part of its Christian mission. The organizations understand their individual strengths and differences and have forged a path that respectfully allows each to operate within its mission while joining together at places of convergence. Along the way, other organizations joined the effort including the Lutheran Hope Center and the University of Missouri Extension. Reflecting on the partnership, McMillan said, “There was an immediate desire to proceed and show people, the business community and the St. Louis region that we were working on a collective model where several of us could come together, bring our resources and unite to bring a greater impact.”
A boost was given when the QuikTrip Corporation, feeling it inappropriate to rebuild a store on the site of the old one, chose to donate the property to The Salvation Army and the Urban League. Because the building had to reflect the ownership of both The Salvation Army and the Urban League, a complicated series of discussions ensued as to how best that might be accomplished. A unique solution emerged. The Urban League would own the ground floor of the new building; The Salvation Army would own the second floor with guaranteed access through the Urban League lobby. Other organizations would be furnished space via a lease agreement.
As things progressed, Lt. Colonels Lonneal and Patty Richardson were transferred, replaced by Lt. Colonels Dan and Doreen Jennings as leaders of the Midland Division. Long before this occurred, Major Gail Aho was given the task of spearheading the Army effort along with members of the divisional staff. Aho turned out to be a brilliant selection as her insight into the community and its needs from her previous work merged with her passion for social justice and gift for seeing possibilities which provided the energy to overcome the numerous hurdles of this pioneering partnership.
The community took notice of what was happening. Despair turned to hopefulness as the bricks shaped the new Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. Aho led deeper Army involvement in Ferguson so that a community that had not had any direct Army involvement prior to August 2014 became familiar with the Army uniform.
A dedication service for the new facility was held on July 26, 2017. With a tent erected to accommodate the hundreds who attended, including residents, local business and community leaders all joining with The Salvation Army, Urban League and other partner representatives at the hallmark event. The $4 million center offers 13,500 square feet for service. Included was a memorial to Michael Brown. Reflecting on this, Lt. Colonel Dan Jennings said, “This was ground zero during the most painful passage the community has ever faced. We are so very pleased that there is now this symbol of redemption and hope.”
The Ferguson Community Empowerment Center was still not fully operational at the dedication but when it is, it will offer the following services to the community:
Pathway of Hope (POH):
POH offers individualized services to families with children who desire to break the cycle of crisis and vulnerability that is often multi-generational. Addressing the root causes of poverty, the Army helps families overcome challenges like unemployment, unstable housing and lack of education so that the families can stabilize and achieve self-sufficiency.
The Salvation Army Spark Academy:
Innovative Spark Academy gives third and fourth grade students an opportunity to discover their gifts and talents in a safe place. There are four points that help young people develop and thrive as the person God intended them to be:
- Depth will form strong spirited independence and
- Responsibility gives opportunities to give and
- Community develops a sense of belonging
- Spark creates opportunities to discover a
child’s unique gifts
Emergency Financial Assistance:
To assist families and individuals with immediate crisis needs such as food, clothing and other financial assistance. Both The Salvation Army and Urban League have assistance programs operating.
Save Our Sons (SOS):
An initiative of Urban League is geared to assist primarily African-American male teens with career and job readiness training, job coaching, career inventory assessment, linkages to occupational training and employment opportunities.
Community events and educational opportunities:
Offered by The Salvation Army, Urban League, the Lutheran Hope Center and the University of Missouri Extension.
All participants have indicated a desire to remain flexible to the emerging needs of the community. The Army hopes to eventually establish a corps as well as youth activities including summer camp. “This is a starting place,” Aho remarked, “If there’s something else we should be doing, I’ll chase after that.”
The tragedy of Michael Brown’s death is reflective of the plight of too many young adults in American cities as well as small towns. It is hoped that through initiatives such as the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center that the downward spiral that is endemic in areas of poverty can be interrupted and lives redeemed for now and eternity. Major Aho said it best when sharing her vision of the future use of the facility. “It’s a gathering place. A place where people can come to pray, to be angry, to talk out their hopes and desires for the future. It’s a place where we can in turn help them to discover what that looks like for them, how to empower them, how to give skills to accomplish what they are seeing they want to do.”
Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee is Editor–in–Chief & National Literary Secretary.