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Friday, August 15, 2014 - 5:45am

Ferguson Pastor: This Is Not A Race Issue; This Is A Human Issue

Updated: 1 year ago.

It's been a tense week in Ferguson, Mo. Protests erupted after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer on Saturday. For many, the fear and frustration is familiar.

Amid the demonstrations on Wednesday, Rev. Willis Johnson tried to talk down 18-year-old Joshua Wilson. Johnson says police were ordering protesters to move aside as police advanced, and that he was trying to keep Wilson out of harm's way.

He says he was not attempting to discourage protest.

"If anything it was to affirm him and to affirm both of us because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed," Johnson tells NPR's Melissa Block. "We were being told ... that what we were doing was wrong, and it was not wrong."

Johnson, the father of a teenager and pastor of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, had never met Joshua Wilson personally. But he says, "I've met 'Joshuas.' " In fact, he says, he's been Joshua.


Interview Highlights

On why he was trying to get Wilson out of the way

I just embraced him. Because he was so angry, and you could feel it in his body, you could feel it in his speech. ... Something just said, "Grab him. Hold him." Maybe initially to keep him back, but ultimately to become what really is symbolic of the situation ... at hand.

People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt; people who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. Let me say it like this: I needed that as much as he needed that. We kept each other from harm's way and from doing something that we would need not to do. ...

If you're going to fuss and cuss and be mad I want you to do it with me. Do it in my ear. And at the same time, I just begin to pray with him and to say, "Give him the strength give us the strength to be courageous enough not to do what they expect us to do."

On knowing many 'Joshuas'

I had not met [Joshua Willis] personally, but I've met Joshuas. I was 18 once, and a young black male. I have a young man that I'm trying to grow ... People may not understand, but many of us look to the eyes of young people doesn't matter about color, doesn't matter about the things people assume. This is not a race issue, in and of itself. This is a human issue. ...

And if you're honest and you're true, you can't help but look at other people and look at situations and say, "But by the grace of God go you and me." That's what I saw. ... I've met too many men in the last four days, five days, of every age. And no matter how old we are, we all remember and know that that is us, in some shape, form or fashion.

Because when I get pulled over, even with my credentialed- and degreed- ... self, I revert back to that 18-year-old and the things that my father told me about what to do when the police stop you.

On events in Ferguson touching a nerve

I am not alone. It's that way for all of us, because that is the human nature that we live. That is us. If it's not touching you, if it's not personal, that's where there's a problem.

On Johnson's father's concern for his safety

It's an intergenerational thing: To know that my father fears for me at 39 the same way he feared for me at 18 today. He texts me every morning and says, "I'm praying for you. Do what you've got to do, but be careful." He shouldn't have to say that, and I shouldn't have to say that and feel that way for my son or my daughter or anyone's son or daughter. We want the cycle to stop.

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