How much has changed in the last five years? We all know the last 18 months have been a crash course in forced change as we’ve locked down through the pandemic. It’s easy to list many changes we’ve experienced, and there are other changes we won’t know about for a long, long time.
One story, though, changed many of us and mobilized courage we didn’t know we had. We put on our masks, prayed we didn’t get infected, and united as masked marchers in the streets calling for justice for George Floyd, a Black man slain by a white male police officer. That story is all too familiar, and Leah Gunning Francis opens her second book, Faith after Ferguson: Resilient Leadership in Pursuit of Racial Justice, with a chilling litany of American Black men and women killed by police officers.
Clearly, not enough has changed.
In 2014, Leah Gunning Francis was a professor at Eden Theological Seminary in suburban St. Louis when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a white officer in Ferguson, about a dozen miles from the seminary. The resulting protests drew Gunning Francis and hundreds more into the streets and attracted media coverage from around the world. A few months after the protests, Gunning Francis, with the support of the Forum for Theological Exploration, agreed to interview her fellow activists to gain an understanding of what compels a person to put their life on the line for social justice. Since its 2015 publication, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community has become a go-to book for seminary and undergraduate classrooms, pastors, small groups, activists, and others learning the complexities of racism, the American justice system, and compassionate faith.
Ferguson and Faith helped change Chalice Press. Paired with Forward Together, a compilation of William J. Barber’s Moral Monday speeches published in 2014, the two books introduced Chalice Press as a publisher of social justice books, transforming us from what had largely been a denominational publisher. Ferguson and Faith and Forward Together began Chalice’s emergence into the broader marketplace. We’re proud of these and the books tackling racism i that have followed.
Change also came to Leah’s career and home; she moved to Indianapolis to become the dean of Christian Theological Seminary. But when Chalice Press reached out to her about writing a sequel, her response was a quick and enthusiastic yes. Though the administration of a seminary comes with great demands, Gunning Francis kept researching and writing. She followed up with many of the people portrayed in the first book, while adding others she met along the way. The new book documents how activism has changed those on the streets and those who hadn’t yet realized their destinies in social justice activism.
“All of them were clergy and young activists who spent a significant amount of time, energy, and resources engaging the movement for racial justice in St. Louis and beyond,” she writes. “I wanted to know how their involvement has impacted their lives, what they have learned, and what pathways to a future filled with hope look like. And I wanted to know what role faith has played in their lives. In Ferguson and Faith, they detailed the ways in which their faith compelled them to take action in the movement. What have they learned since then about faith-filled living in response to social injustice? What can the church and communities of faith learn from their experiences about God’s ongoing call to join God’s transforming work in the world?”
That the word “Ferguson” has become shorthand for white-police-on-black-man violence around the world speaks to the impact of a few horrifying seconds in a suburban apartment complex in 2015. Racial tension has colored the election of a president who exploited that atmosphere and gained power. The white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the disastrous response to the COVID virus that devastated communities of color, the 2020 election, and the January 6 Capitol insurrection – Gunning Francis takes readers through those events to illustrate how the dialogue around race and violence manifests itself in insidious ways.
In many ways, Gunning Francis’ books resemble a research project that tracks its subjects over an extended period of time. But like activism itself, the impact of activism can’t be measured with data points and bar charts. We look at the changes we glimpse through a fog of hope and faith. What her work does prove, though, is that action has consequences. Being an activist can change a person in unpredictable, unimaginable ways. Faith after Ferguson gives readers an intimate look at some of those changes.
As her book concludes, she relates a conversation with her son when he wanted to run through her neighborhood. He didn’t see the danger of a young black man running through a predominantly white neighborhood. For all the change since 2014, not enough has changed.
She closes with legendary Congressman John Lewis’ reminder that change doesn’t happen overnight. But change does indeed happen when people decide to “make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Faith after Ferguson provides a glimpse of the activists unafraid to make good trouble — and it encourages each of us to consider how we can make some good trouble of our own.
Brad Lyons, President and Publisher