The gathering began with a word: hush. It was the first word of a song, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name.” Dr. Joanne Marie Terrell, associate professor of ethics, theology and the arts at Chicago Theological Seminary, lifted her powerful voice to sing: “sounds like Sandra, somebody’s calling my name.”
I know this song because I have heard it all my life in church. I thought: “Is here a Sandra in the Bible?” My mind started its own survey of the text. The song usually calls the roll of biblical characters. When enslaved Africans lost the names of African ancestors, they substituted the names of biblical characters to remember their stories of faith that could give enslaved people the spiritual strength to keep on keeping on in the face of structural violence. However, as Dr. Terrell continued to sing, she added the names Michael, Rekia, Eric, Oscar, John Crawford, and finally: “Sounds like Jesus. Somebody’s calling my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord what shall I do? What shall I do? ”
All of these people were killed by police who, when we give them a gun and a badge, become representatives of the state. The people police officers kill are victims of state authority. This song reminds us that they are calling our names, and the question we ask in response to their call is: what shall I do?
This gathering of black scholars was convened by womanist scholars, many of whom are also ordained clergy, to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death and subsequent police involved shootings spawned what has been called the new civil rights movement. It is known by many names including Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Say Her Name.
Last year when protestors in Ferguson faced police equipped with military hardware who used tear gas on the crowd, womanist scholar/ preacher/teachers came by various routes to Ferguson. Reverend Dr. Valerie Bridgeman came at the invitation of Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri. Reverend Dr. Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia came when PICO National Network, a faith-based community organizing group, put out a call. These women and others came to offer the ministry of presence. They came to put their body, souls, and minds on the line for social justice.
About two months before this gathering, through conversations on Facebook and on the telephone, Bridgeman, along with Reverend Dr. Pamela R. Lightsey, associate dean of community life and lifelong learning at Boston university School of Theology, and others decided to gather black scholars and students from across the country along with local activists in Ferguson to think about what comes next for both scholars and activists in this challenging moment. With sponsorships from several theological schools, Chalice Press, and WomanPreach! Inc., the gathering convened at the Center for Social Empowerment and Justice August 7-8, 2015.
We came to answer the question: what shall I do?