The people of St. Louis are suffering. There is a palpable feeling of hopelessness, anger, and despair. This was clearly expressed in the days of charged protests that have rattled the city since the acquittal of a white former police officer for the killing of Lamar Smith in 2011. On the first night of protests this led to a tense standoff between police and protestors at the intersection of Kingshighway and Waterman blvd.
The corner of Waterman blvd. and Kingshighway is in a part of the city known as “Holy Corners.” This is a three block area where an extraordinary number of religious denominations stand firm in historical and architectural glory. While some of these houses of faith are no longer vital, at least in spiritual terms, there is still a spiritual vitality that exist here. There is still a holiness. On this night, as though divinely wedged between armored vehicles and scrambling protestors, two of these houses of worship became the very places of refuge for which they were designed.
As the lines of authority were drawn and tear gas wafted through the Indian summer night, Rev. Gary James of The First Unitarian Church, can be seen keeping watch over his spontaneous congregation from the sidewalk in front of his church. Directly across the street, the blazing lights of the Jewish Reform Congregation, bustling no doubt with mostly urban Gentiles, shines like a beacon, under the raking searchlights of circling police helicopters. Dozens mill about the entrance at arms length from the bristling and encroaching ranks of riot police.
Participants of the protest and those who found themselves caught unexpectedly within the ensuing melee, huddled together amid tattered signage and the usual detritus of civil unrest. Videos were shared, phones sang out and social media streams were eagerly updated. There was a palpable sense of adrenaline and there was also fear.
Although the inner and outer form of these houses of faith certainty differ, they coexisted on this night in spiritual harmony, providing compassion and physical security to all who sought comfort and safety, without regard to nationality, gender or religion. There was no distribution of Bibles or soul stirring literature, no speaking in tongues or proclamation of words, just a safe place with cases of water, potato chips and Oreo cookies. Yeah. If you were led from the chaos of the night into either of these “places” whether Jew or Christian, with your eyes burning from a mace attack, you wouldn’t know the difference.