ARUN RATH, HOST:
Anger and frustration over two recent cases where unarmed black men were killed by police brought new protests to New York City, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Miami and Cleveland this week. From our Code Switch team, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji takes us to a Wednesday night potluck in Ferguson, where black and white community members are trying to create a different tactic to - sorry, are trying a different tactic to create change.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: The potluck spread in the fellowship hall of the North Hills United Methodist Church in Ferguson this week is chicken, cream of potato soup, meatballs and four desserts. About 20 people showed up to eat and talk. The group's half black, half white. It skews older, but a 12-year-old and two teenagers sit around the huge table, too.
MERAJI: There's laughter and some small talk, but between bites, a whole lot of real talk.
BOB LEVIN: My broader community, I don't think gets it. We hear about the police profiling. And I'll tell you, be honest in my own mind, it's like I think, well, how much of that is behavior-related?
MERAJI: Bob Levin grew up in St. Louis. He's a local pastor in his early 60s.
LEVIN: So I'm wrestling with this, you know? But I'm willing to listen.
REGINALD STRODE: I get that. So I'm not offended. I don't mind speaking on it so that you could have a better understanding.
MERAJI: Thirty-seven-year-old single dad and college student Reginald Strode tells Levin from across the table about getting pulled over time and time again in St. Louis.
R. STRODE: The majority of the time there was just like nothing going on and I'm scratching my head like, why'd you pull me over? And sometimes I'll ask.
DARYL MEESE: We don't know each other. We don't know each other's hopes and dreams and fears. Our kids don't play together, we don't eat together. And so we don't know the struggles and the successes and what life is for our neighbors.
MERAJI: That's Pastor Daryl Meese. These Wednesday night potlucks were his idea. Meese says he realized how divided Ferguson really was this past August, after the unrest following the death of Michael Brown.
So in October, he launched a group he calls Ferguson Forward, and invited members of his church, people he sees at local coffee shops, anyone willing to talk it out, respectfully.
MEESE: Even at the very first meeting, I remember as we were picking up, I looked over and two people who didn't know each other before at all, who are different ethnically and socio-economically, are standing in what would normally be considered very personal space, having conversation. And I thought, that it's working. Something's working.
MERAJI: And to keep it working, Meese says these dinners need to become a regular part of community life. The group took a Wednesday off during the World Series and one before Thanksgiving, but Meese wants to keep breaks like that to a minimum, because regularity fosters comfort, and comfort leads to honest conversation.
DON WILSON: I don't see love. I don't see peace. I don't see any care-giving. All I see is taking, and I see complete and total destruction, right?
MERAJI: Don Wilson is Meese's partner at Ferguson Forward. He spoke this week about frustrations over the looting and destruction that followed the grand jury announcement.
But 16-year-old Taylor Strode defended the young people she's protested with, saying they were peaceful. She told Wilson and Pastor Meese and everybody else at the table that her dad and her brother can be killed by a cop with no consequence, and she won't be silent.
TAYLOR STRODE: Our voices matter. We are the voice of change. If we start somewhere, then maybe we can do something.
MEESE: That's wonderful to hear, from my perspective. And I don't think that came across clearly in the media, and believe me nothing much has come across clear.
MERAJI: For Pastor Meese, these potlucks are a way to get some clarity. But the ultimate goal, he says, is to progress from sharing stories and airing grievances to finding solutions to the problems of racism and distrust.
WILSON: And we set forth to do that very work. So Father...
MERAJI: This week's Ferguson Forward gathering, like all the ones before, ends with a prayer. And Don Wilson takes the lead.
WILSON: Until we meet again, may they be safe, may they be loving and may they be prepared to even give more the next time that we meet.
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.
RATH: Rebecca Smith from St. Louis Public Radio contributed to that report.
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