A Teachable Moment: For Some, Ferguson Is A Matter Of Faith

Oct 15, 2014

Chaminade High School Theology Teacher Dan Stout talks with students about protests in Ferguson.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

This story is the second part of A Teachable Moment, a three-part series that profiles how issues raised by events in Ferguson are being discussed in classrooms across the St. Louis region. 

From pulpits to protests, a wide cross section of St. Louis’ religious leaders has been deeply involved with demonstrations following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9. And for some teachers at religious schools in St. Louis, talking with students about the protests in Ferguson and Brown’s death is about more than education -- it’s a matter of faith.

Teaching empathy

It’s a perfect fall day and a light breeze is making its way through the open windows in Dan Stout’s classroom at Chaminade College Preparatory School in Creve Coeur.

Church bells ring in the middle of his lesson, and the heads of 16 students bow. A student leading the class in prayer at the all-boys Catholic school asks for any special intentions.

“My sister,” said one student.

“The sick and the weary,” said another.

The prayer ends and Stout puts a photo of Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson taken during the height of protests in Ferguson this past August on a large projection screen at the front of his classroom. In the photo, Johnson and an unidentified woman are embracing.

“What do you think is going on in this photo?” Stout asks his class.

“It looks like he was stressed,” said junior Jack Brown. “Now that he’s hugging this person, looks like he’s letting go of that. It looks like he was worried about her.”

He then puts a photo of a protester shouting at a stoic-faced police officer in riot gear.

“You guys ever see someone in pain and it moves you?” Stout asks his students. “That’s easy when it’s a car accident. But when it’s saying something that I don’t like it’s a lot more difficult, isn’t it?”

Chaminade High School Theology Teacher Dan Stout leads a class discussion about empathy.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

But Stout tells his students that doesn’t matter. Catholic beliefs compel them to consider other points of view.

“People don’t want to hear that stuff about race, but we have to," he said. "If we say we’re living the gospel message, we’ve got to listen.”

This is the lesson for the day, students must work their ability to empathize like a muscle until they're strong enough to see the humanity in even the most disparate of viewpoints.

“That’s the call: How can I see the truth in something if I don’t like the way they’re saying it?” Stout said.

He talks to his students about racism, how it fuels systems of oppression and the injustice and anger those systems can produce. But with a tuition of $16,888 many students at the predominantly white school don’t have a direct relationship with the long simmering racial and socio-economic frustrations that fueled some of the protests in St. Louis.

“It’s not an attack,” Stout said. “When it’s talked about in the right way, it’s a challenge.”

Stout said it’s too soon to know how, or if, talking about the way Catholic teachings relate to events in Ferguson and Brown's death have changed students’ perceptions of race and class. But he has noticed at least one difference. When discussing other subjects, students like to push their classmates’ buttons, constantly seeking to best one another intellectually. Stout said that doesn't happen when he talks about Ferguson.

“I think it's the emphasis on empathy and compassion,” Stout said. “If we’re being empathetic and compassionate, the first thing we have to do is listen.”

LeRon Green is a junior and lives near where protests broke out in Ferguson. He came to the school last year after previously attending Hazelwood East High School. An African American, Green said at times he felt like an outsider when he arrived at the school. Hazelwood East’s student body is more than 96 percent black while students at Chaminade are predominantly white.

“The topic of race would comes up and you want to give your input, but it feels a little awkward,” Green said.

But this year it feels different, he said.

“Now this year I’m not the only black student, there’s three of us in this class,” Green said. “So, along with that and it being post-Ferguson, I automatically open up.”

Communal spirituality

Cheryl Maayan, head of school at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in Town and Country, put it simply: “In Jewish tradition, inaction is not an option.”

With that in mind, she said Ferguson is ripe with lessons about race and class.

“Our goal is to help our students be able to respond to any kind of complex social issue that arises and Ferguson is a great example of that,” Maayan said.

Cheryl Maayan, head of school at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

School administrators have recently drawn up plans to weave those larger issues into the curriculum at the Kindergarten through eighth-grade school with 155 students.

For example, when third-grade students learn about the civil rights movement, they’ll be asked to draw comparisons to Ferguson. In fourth grade, kids learn how to lobby their state representatives.

“This year they’ll be looking for issues to lobby that are presented by the global issues connected to Ferguson,” Maayan said.

When middle-school students learn how to think critically about the news media, they’ll be reading news articles related to Ferguson.

“They’ll be writing their own articles asking the question, ‘what next?” Maayan said.

Rabbi Scott Slarskey, director of Jewish Life at the school, said his colleagues around the country are talking about using Ferguson as a teachable moment. Just like Stout at Chaminade, he said teaching Ferguson is a matter of faith.

“A lot of people don’t really distinguish between individual spirituality and communal spirituality,” Slarskey said. “We have an obligation as Jews to filter our own spirituality through the experiences of others. It’s an essential part of our spirituality to advance in measurable ways justice in society, to advance the interests of other people who are not being treated fairly.”

He says historic persecution and the deep scars of anti-Semitism compel Jews to consider the issues of racial and social injustice that many protesters say Ferguson represents. Slarskey then points to a Jewish teaching that says it’s not up you to finish the task of repairing the world, but neither are you free to ignore it. 

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