Kirkwood Shares Lessons Learned For Healing With Ferguson

Aug 17, 2014

Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., are still waiting to bury their son, who was shot and killed on Aug. 9, by a Ferguson police officer. For them, healing probably seems like something that’s still a long way off.

But for the people of Ferguson, where peaceful protests turned violent in the week since Brown’s death, steps toward healing should begin as soon as possible.

Kirkwood City Hall.
Credit Paul Sableman

That's the consensus of community leaders from Kirkwood, which went through a trauma of its own in 2008. That's when Kirkwood resident Charles “Cookie” Thornton entered a City Council meeting, where he shot and killed five people, including two police officers, before he was fatally shot by police.

Then-Mayor Mike Swoboda was wounded; he never fully recovered and died several months later.

Paul Ward is an alderman in Kirkwood. He knows all too well what it means to have to keep calm, and carry on, as the British expression goes. That’s the message he wants to pass on to the people of Ferguson.

Paul Ward
Credit /photo provided

In 2008, before Ward was elected to the council, he was among the citizens in a community that suddenly had to face its own racial divide, when Thornton, an African-American, took out his long-simmering frustrations with a hail of gunfire, just as a city council meeting was about to begin.

Thornton had been involved in a long-running struggle with the city and believed that his race was a factor. 

But unlike Ferguson, where peaceful protests erupted into destruction and looting after Brown’s death, Kirkwood remained peaceful.

The day after the shooting, people gathered in front of Kirkwood City Hall for a candle-light vigil. The event was organized by church leaders, black and white, and included the chief of police and political leaders among the speakers.

“Faith is strong in Kirkwood,” Ward said last week in a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “That's what that vigil was all about — people of faith coming together.”

“I was at St. John's Hospital (right after the shooting) and ran into Scott Stearman, my pastor. He asked what should we do. I said we should start with our faith.”

Ward and Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church, found each other at what was then known as St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, where they had gone to check on the condition of Mayor Swoboda, who was gravely wounded, and Public Works Director Ken Yost, who died.

In those early moments, the planning began.

Stearman, in an interview, talked about the vigil:

Pastor Scott Stearman
Credit /photo provided

“We all gathered as a community, to recognized the tragedy of what happened.  People recognized that this was an immense tragedy.

Stearman is a member of the long-established Kirkwood Ministerial Alliance, which includes black and white clergy members. In 2008, the group included the Rev. Darren Smotherson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Meacham Park, and the Rev. David Bennett, pastor of Kirkwood United Methodist Church, who were also were involved in planning the Kirkwood vigil and other events that followed. 

After the initial vigil, the ministers came together with community leaders to set up listening sessions, where residents from the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Meacham Park could express their concerns about what they saw as a long history of mistreatment and disrespect from the city of Kirkwood. Those leaders included Harriet Patton, then-president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, and Ron Hodges, who became a leader of a group now known as Community for Understanding and Hope.

Initial sessions drew hundreds of people. Some came just to listen, others were eager to share their stories.

“There were so many people with hard feelings," said Jane Von Kaenel, a member of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association.  Before long, the group collected about 80 formal complaints that were filed with the U.S. Justice Department, she said. 

In January 2010, the Kirkwood City Council adopted an agreement with the Meacham Park neighborhood that addressed specific procedures for social and civil rights concerns to be raised and addressed.

“I don't want to come across as having all the answers,” for the people of Ferguson, Stearman said.

“But what we found in our dialogue groups was real education for people who are Caucasian — who don't consider themselves racists but have never really done the intellectual work to understand what it means to be a minority in America.

“I would encourage folks all over Ferguson to have multiracial opportunities for discussion, and awareness and understanding that most middle-class white folks don’t think they need,” he said. 

At the same time, Kirkwood leaders understand that other factors are in play in Ferguson. Among them is that Kirkwood is a predominantly white community, where blacks and whites, in many cases, live separately.

Ferguson’s population is about two-thirds African American. And for the most part, black people and white people there agree that they get along fairly well.

Also, in Ferguson’s case, the anger and angst center around the perception that a young black man died because of his race. The mistrust of police is a driving force.

Ron Hodges
Credit /photo provided

In Ferguson, said Hodges, “it’s not so much a ‘black people vs white thing,’ as much as it a ‘police vs black thing.’ "

Mostly, the folks from Kirkwood agree, people need to be heard. Officials need to listen, and the hurting people need to be allowed to vent, he said.

And whenever the folks in Ferguson are ready, people of Kirkwood are ready to help, both Stearman and Hodges said.  

"I tried to call the mayor of Ferguson the other day," Hodges said. "But I couldn't get through because their phone system had been hacked."