The Rev. Cori Bush of Florissant, Mo., had not planned to protest in Ferguson, Mo., in response to the August, 2014, police shooting that killed teenager Michael Brown.
At that time, a St. Louis-area church that she had started in 2011, Kingdom Embassy International, was closed during a search for a new location.
“Mike Brown happened, and then ministry started right there on the streets,” she said. “That became my ministry.”
The Rev. Cori Bush says she studied the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, methods after Michael Brown died.
Pastor Bush will be the featured speaker for the annual unity celebration in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at 9 a.m. Monday in Savage Arena. It is free and sponsored by the city of Toledo, the Board of Community Relations, and the University of Toledo.
During the program, Pastor Bush is expected to talk about her ministry on the front lines during Ferguson’s unrest and her involvement in the Truth Telling Project, inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.
She will tie her story “to how truth telling is justice,” she said, “how we can’t have justice without the truth being told, and without making people uncomfortable with the truth. Because that’s the only way that we all get free, is if the truth is uncovered. If it’s told, the people accept the truth. And then, if we begin to build from what that truth is, everybody’s voice is powerful; everybody’s voice is necessary. That’s how things move.”
The Truth Telling Project, said David Ragland, a peace educator at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., who did his doctoral work at the University of Toledo, is an attempt “to prioritize the voices of people who have experienced police violence.” He is a friend of Pastor Bush and was involved in the Ferguson protests.
They both serve on the project’s steering committee.
In the summer of 2015, Pastor Bush and Mr. Ragland were presenters at the International Institute for Peace at the University of Toledo.
In the project’s work, Mr. Ragland said, “One of the things we’ve realized is that much of America hasn’t or doesn’t realize what’s happening in communities, or if they do, there is some kind of excuse or some reason why.”
The stories told, he said, humanize “people who have experienced police violence — not to be opposed to police, but to let people know what’s going on and to educate people. Our sense is that the way police behave won’t change until the majority of America sees it as a problem, because police essentially protect what the majority of society wants.”
The Truth Telling Project is also important, Pastor Bush said, because “we’re not at reconciliation yet. … Right now, we’re still really trying to work on the truth, because the people are still so wounded and they’re still so waiting to start to see justice before their faces.”
Pastor Bush joined with Mr. Ragland’s Truth Telling Project in Ferguson. She “helped us coordinate the truth-telling weekend,” he said, “where we gathered people from around the country to talk about what the possibility of truth and reconciliation for our society would look like.”
On the front lines of the Ferguson protests, which continued with daily actions for more than a year, Pastor Bush was sometimes a minister, and at other times she helped as a nurse; currently she is a nursing supervisor for a community-based mental health agency.
She also protested, but was never arrested.
But, she added, “I was assaulted by the police. I have a picture of me standing in front of the policeman when he hit me, and I just knew that he was about to arrest me, and he didn’t. God didn’t allow it.”
She said she felt pain at the moment, “but I didn’t get up with any marks.”
Ebony Williams of Ferguson’s nonviolent social change group Lost Voices said, “I still work with Cori. She actually helped me out a lot. … I think her most valuable quality is her communication, and the fact that she was able to put her personal life aside to make sure that people in the community had what it was that they needed.”
Social action is in Pastor Bush’s genes. Her father was a politician, and “early in his career it was all about social justice, so he taught us that,” Pastor Bush said. “He took us around. We did all the marches, all the boycotts, but I did it because my father made me.”
Then in a Catholic high school, “They taught us a lot about nonviolent struggle.”
With the uprising after the killing of Michael Brown, Pastor Bush said, “This was the first time that I did it for myself. Everything for me was more ministry, so I did a lot in the streets as far as ministry, a lot of outreach, a lot of beating the pavement that way.” She held worship services in a local school protesters used.
She started studying the Rev. King’s philosophy. “Especially since Mike Brown,” she said, “since the tragedy, I just kind of needed to know how he was able to maintain through all of what was placed before you, what you were facing, and knowing that it may not get better while you’re standing here facing it. That it could get worse. So what do I do, and how do I help the people to be able to continue on?”
Pastor Bush is also following in the Rev. King’s footsteps by starting a Ferguson chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Rev. King was the first president of the SCLC, from 1957 until his assassination in 1968.
“Through the Truth Telling Project, I was connected to Dr. Bernard Lafayette, who served alongside Dr. King. He is the chairman of the SCLC now, so he’s actually a mentor and an adviser for me,” she said.
She also met Bernice King, the Rev. King’s youngest daughter, during training in St. Louis to be a Nonviolence 365 Ambassador with the King Center.
With all of her involvement in King-oriented social ministry, Pastor Bush has formed one more goal. She will soon declare her candidacy for the Democratic nomination to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate.
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