RENTON, WA (October 25, 2016) – For the past two years, African American clergy, city officials, members of the police department, as well as the broader community have participated in a process to bring healing and build relationships here.
It all started two years ago when Michael Thomas, pastor of the then brand-new Radiant Covenant Church, invited other clergy of different ethnic backgrounds to participate in a nighttime rally around the theme of reconciliation in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
There was such a large turnout at the City Hall rally that members of the City Council approached Thomas saying they had never seen anyone convene such a multiethnic gathering in their community. A week later, they sent him a letter acknowledging that in the wake of the events in Ferguson, they needed to be proactive.
“They realized they were sitting on a possible powder keg,” Thomas said. “I was impressed that the city and the chief of police asked to dialogue. I also think it’s important to not wait until something catastrophic happens to do this kind of work.”
One of the things I swear by is that justice and reconciliation don’t happen in a microwave. They happen in an oven.
One city official said, “We all have to remember we’re living in this city and we’re not going anywhere, so we have to figure out how to live together. At the end of the day this is a relationship we have to heal.”
Since then, city officials and members of the Police Department have met monthly with the Renton African-American Pastors (RAAP) group and participated in large community discussions several times each year.
At the first community meeting a young African American teenager asked why it seemed to take five police cars to pull over one person.
“Basically the heart behind the question was, this is what makes people nervous,” Thomas said. “It seems like an overwhelming presence and makes them scared. And then when you see them get scared, you get jumpy. And then confrontation happens. She wanted to know why couldn’t one police officer do that.”
In response, police officers explained their procedures and informed the gathering that they are considering various procedural changes, Thomas said.
“It’s been a blessing to hear parents say, ‘Now I understand what that officer is talking about, and I’m going to have a talk with my child,’ ” Thomas said.
As many as 200 people spanning all ages have attended the community gatherings, which have continued to grow in size.
The first monthly meetings with clergy were not easy. “Initially there were a lot of defense mechanisms in the conversations and not as much listening, and I understand it,” Thomas said. “We had to have a conversation around that and how people’s distrust levels get raised when you look defensive.”
He added, “It’s a privilege to have these smaller conversations with police, and we now can talk transparently.”
The tenor of the meetings and willingness to listen have improved as trust has grown, Thomas said.
“It’s really just been pushing people to know that we have to be patient,” Thomas said. “Relationships take time to build trust, and we’ve also lovingly nudged people to be honest. Being honest doesn’t mean you have to attack, but it does mean that people will have to hear things that are uncomfortable. If we understand our motives while sharing these things, we’ll be willing to stay in the conversation. The uncomfortability is worth where we’re willing to go.”
The improving relationships can be seen in small ways. At the most recent community gathering, several police officers attended in plain clothes for the first time. “A lot of the community members knew them by name and vice versa,” Thomas said. “These are actually beat cops who walk the streets.” The conversations between officers and community members continue as they interact with each other outside the meetings, he added.
Thomas said there still is much work to be done and recognized that issues will not be solved overnight. “One of the things I swear by is that justice and reconciliation don’t happen in a microwave. They happen in an oven.”
Thomas said he is thrilled that Radiant has been a catalyst, but he is also excited that people are seeing the role the broader religious community is playing. “It’s just been really powerful and amazing to see the church at the epicenter of this,” he said. “It is blowing our minds to see what God has done as we dare to be sensitive to where Christ is leading us.”
He added, “People from religious and non-religious backgrounds are seeing churches say we know this is a real issue and know that we want God to be front and center in reconciliation.”
Thomas, who is originally from Chicago, said he hopes churches in other cities will engage in the process. “I do believe it is possible in any city. Every city is different, but there are a lot of similar things that cause this to happen. You set it to your own context, but it comes to people saying, ‘How do we create space?’”