ST. LOUIS, Missouri —For a community gripped by the death of Michael Brown, residents here are prepared to not only mourn for the loss of the 18-year-old, but also to say goodbye to him in his funeral Monday and vow to never forget what his sacrifice has meant.
After more than two weeks of protests, political wrangling over investigations and swarms of media coverage from around the world, the Brown family will be laying their son to rest after he was shot dead in the middle of the street by a police officer on Aug. 9.
Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church is bracing for thousands expected to join the services Monday morning, where scores of Brown’s extended family are set to join for the closed casket ceremony, along with several celebrities and high-profile attendees. Despite the expected spectacle, church members here expressed warmth toward the Brown family and conveyed a sense of honor that they would choose the church as a place to say goodbye to the teen.
“We’re just so thankful here at Friendly that the Browns have decided to allow us to share in the honoring of their son,” said Yashica Stimage, a member of the church.
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou has been out on W. Florissant Ave., the epicenter of the protests, nearly every day and every night to honor the slain teen. For Sekou, having Brown’s funeral at the first church where he previously served carries a heartfelt meaning.
“It’s bittersweet coming home to encounter the level of pain and anxiety that this community is enduring,” Sekou said.
For more than two weeks, crowds spilled from the sidewalks and on to the streets of Ferguson to protest Brown’s death and the greater racial injustice that his killing represents. “I was out there picking up trash and passing out water because I wanted to do something,” said 20-year-old Marciay Pitchford, “I felt like I needed to be a part of it in some way.”
For many residents here, the images of heavily militarized police officers in riot gear, the flumes of tear gas and the busted in windows of looted storefronts are merely a flashpoint in Ferguson’s history. But once the dust settles, there is a sense of urgency for the community to carry on the fight.
“It makes the community look as if it is all negative, and it is not,” said Stimage, who lives there with her children. “It’s really a wonderful place to live.”
Brown’s death – and the reaction of the police force that followed – continues to attract attention to this small, mostly African-American suburb. On Sunday, the family members of another high-profile slain teen, Trayvon Martin, scheduled a peace rally in St. Louis to draw attention to the young black boys who are killed across the country.On Saturday, the NAACP organized a march to channel frustrations into political action. In a community where low voter turnout likely explains how nearly all of the local government and police force is white, despite three in five residents being black.
“We’re hoping through the different protests and once the funeral has transpired and we’re done that we can slowly start coming back there and that, let’s go to legislation, let’s go to Jefferson City, let’s go to Congress and make it happen that way now,” said Shantaya King as she led her three children through the church doors.
For church goers here, Friendly Temple serves as a beacon of hope in revitalizing a community. Just a few short decades ago, a dilapidated factory stood where the freshly mortared church sanctuary rests today.
“It was just blighted, this whole stretch was blighted,” Desmond Leong, a church member through the years, said motioning toward the stretch of street on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where fresh parking lots, businesses and housing developments now stand.
“This church played a significant role in revitalizing this community,” said Sekou. “It was suffering from all of the economic challenges of the injustices and the industrialization.”
Community members say it’s only natural that a funeral carrying so much pain and significance would take place within their church halls.
“It’s amazing that they even chose our church to celebrate their son’s legacy,” Stimage said. “It’s an honor and we thank the Browns for being able to do that.”