People gather to march in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 15, 2014.

Churches to serve as safe spaces after Ferguson grand jury announcement

ST. LOUIS (RNS)  After a prayer service outside her church turned violent last month, the Rev. Teresa Danieley, pastor of St. John’s Tower Grove, allowed those trying to escape the demonstrations to enter her church.

Now, Danieley and dozens of other clergy members are preparing to once again offer their churches as safe spaces, or sanctuaries.

The grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot African-American teenager Michael Brown, is expected by the end of the month, potentially triggering further civil unrest. Clergy anticipate some might seek refuge in churches, whether to escape violence or find fellowship.

People gather to march in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 15, 2014.

People gather to march in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 15, 2014.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Organizations such as the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which was formed after the death of Brown, and Metropolitan Congregations United, a group of interdenominational, multiracial congregations from around the region, are in the process of creating a list of churches that are volunteering the use of their space. Many of these churches will be packed with supplies such as food, water and phone chargers. Medics, legal observers and counselors will also be on hand.

Some believe that unless officers are needed in an emergency, churches should also function as police-free zones during protests.

The Rev. Tommie Pierson of Greater St. Mark Family Church says that while his church does not intend to harbor criminals, he expects police to keep their distance. The idea is to make everyone, especially protesters, feel like they have a safe place to go. Pierson’s church is near many of the protest staging areas used over the last few months in Ferguson.

“We just want to administer to the needs of the people,” Pierson said.

Danieley said she and the St. Louis police have always had a good relationship. She doesn’t expect that to change if and when protests take place in her neighborhood.

She noted, for example, that police have been respectful when she asked them to intervene with the mentally ill who visit the church to receive free meals.

“I’m not worried about police not respecting our boundaries," she said. "I think if you have transparency and communication, then this doesn’t even come up.”

But the decision to mark a church as a safe space is not easy under the current circumstances.

The Rev. David Gerth, executive director of Metropolitan Congregations United, said many clergy feel obligated to consider how members of their congregation feel about the safety of their property.

“It’s not for everybody, and there’s lots of other ways that congregations can be open and supportive without being a sanctuary,” Gerth said. “I think there are a number of congregations that will respond to what’s in front of them.

“If it were a tornado, it would be a little more straightforward for folks,” he said.

Denise Lieberman, a lawyer specializing in civil rights who works with the Don’t Shoot Coalition, said some churches are still determining where to draw the line.

Although churches are under no special legal protection, there is a long history of operating as safe houses. The Bible refers to cities of refuge for accidental killings where those accused of murder could safely await trial. In the 19th century, churches hid runaway slaves.

In the 1960s, civil rights leaders often gathered at churches. In 1963, for example, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed, killing four girls.

And in the 1980s, hundreds of churches supported the so-called sanctuary movement in an attempt to save Central American refugees, fleeing civil conflict from deportation. Some of those active in the movement were put on trial and criminally prosecuted for transporting illegal immigrants.

Churches are also involved in the current battle for immigration reform, sometimes hiding undocumented immigrants.

Local clergy say they hope there won’t be a great need for people to get off the streets when the grand jury decision comes.

But churches plan to be there for the community under all circumstances. St. John’s has set a prayer vigil for 7 p.m. the day of the grand jury announcement.

Christ Church Cathedral downtown will host a 24-hour prayer vigil after the announcement. West Side Missionary Baptist Church in Florissant is throwing a freedom rally and prayer service at 7 p.m. that day.

Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, hopes all the preparation for violence, including Gov. Jay Nixon’s declaration earlier this week of a state of emergency, won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, for his part, released a letter earlier this week that specified the city plans to “honor safe houses, and will consider churches to be sanctuaries, except in extremely rare circumstances.”

St. Louis County police said officers will enter churches only “under one or more of three conditions: consent, exigent circumstances, and search warrant.”

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation said she knows protesters strive to be peaceful.

“The highest priority here is the saving of lives,” Talve said. “Because what started this whole protest movement is the loss of Michael Brown’s life. He became the symbol for all the loss of life that we believe can be prevented.”

(Lilly Fowler is the religion reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @LillyAFowler.)


  1. A good friend of mine, who used to be a police officer, believes they will indict the policeman, even if he was “justified” in his actions; because otherwise, a long riot may become a fact in that area if he is not indicted. Real justice is hard to find these days.

    It will be interesting to see how this all turns out when a decision is made. Hopefully, it won’t get violent!

    Thankfully, God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) will soon replace all of man’s governments, there will be no impartiality, concerning all races and cultures, shown to all on earth, and its rule will be perfectly just!! (Isaiah 11:1-9) There will be complete and perfect brotherhood of man, unlike today’s world. 😀

  2. The governor’s contingency plans indicate that he’s been informed by the prosecutor in St. Louis County of the decision and that the grand jury issued a judgment of no true bill.

  3. America is getting REAL tired of these Ferguson criminals. (Looters, shooters, urine throwers, Molotov throwers, etc, PLUS these look-the-other-way protesters that keep on giving the crooks night-time cover when the police try to keep order.).

    America tired of all of it. If you’re still wondering why Obama lost the Senate on Nov. 4, look no farther than Ferguson.

    We’re tired of the Mob Rule stuff already; we’re tired of the New Black Panther Party clowns already. Ferguson is not Selma, and Michael Brown Jr is not Martin Luther King Jr.

    The one person who should have received a public apology — that innocent store clerk — has never received one from ANY protestor, preacher, politician, or pundit.

    Nobody’s creating any “safe spaces” for him and his family. Everybody just expects him and his family to suck it up and keep quiet about his national humiliation, in exchange for staying alive.

    Until the national media reports that the store clerk has received that public apology and “safe space”, whatever everybody else is saying or doing — and this especially includes the “Don’t Shoot Coalition” and the “Metropolitan Congregations United” — is FAKE and HOLLOW.

    So I urge the police to do **everything** they have to do when the Big Protest hits, even if they have to enter some of these compromised churches and arrest some no-good Ferguson criminals. Just set your weapons on automatic and kick the door in.

  4. What I’m tired of are racist bigots like you who eat, sleep, and breathe nothing but hatred.

  5. This is not an issue of bigotry or color. This entire tragedy occurred NOT because of the color of Michael Brown’s skin, but instead because of the content of Michael Brown’s character.

    Meanwhile, if you are able to address the specific points I’ve offered, please be my guest. Otherwise please go back to sleep.

  6. “African-Americans” and their progressive and liberal Democratic puppet master string pullers have become the most legalized racists this country has ever seen.

    What ever happened to the “innocent before proven guilty” mob rants of the Libs, Progressives and Black activists crowds???

    Conviction without a trial is OK when it is a white police officer?

    Race history is not evened out by violating the very justice system so many so-called justice seekers claim to demand.

  7. SAD…. SMH….
    IF the churches of Christendom would TEACH the TRUTH that Jesus spoke, then there would be no fear of reprisal when the verdict is handed down… We shouldn’t fear any segment of the population like this…. If blacks really want to be treated with equality and justice under the laws of this country then let it be so! “The Law” should convict or exonerate the police officer that shot that man. He is being tried in the court of public opinion in the black community…. This is just wrong. I compare it to the jury who acquitted OJ Simpson BECAUSE he’s black and not because he was innocent. This, I fear, will be the reverse. The officer will be found guilty because if he isn’t, all hell will break loose…

  8. That sounds about right for the reason you gave. They probably wanted to wait until after the weekend to make it public.

    We will see.

  9. Many of these so-called churches are about as Christian as Karl Marx or Louis Farrakhan. Their charlatan leaders have learned that one of the best ways to indoctrinate people politically is by flying under the cover of the Bible.

  10. The racial rabble rousers who can’t wait to riot are no better for the black community than George Wallace or the Ku Klux Klan.

    Tellingly, there were reports many years ago of meetings between black militant leaders and white supremacist groups.

    Both the Marxists and the Fascists want racial division, not racial reconciliation, so they can destroy America.

    Meanwhile, Americans need to grow a pair and not be afraid of threats of rioting. The grand jury should make the right choice, whatever that is, irrespective of these vile threats.

    If there is rioting after the decision is released, then so be it. We will get through it.

  11. I Think Your friend is wrong since most news reports say he was not indicted.

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