Pastor David Bennett’s church has a slogan — ‘The church has left the building.’ Bennett’s church opened its doors to the community 24 hours after the Kirkwood City Hall shooting.
The church provided a space for residents to voice their concerns. Bennett said he believes his church should take their religious values and apply it to community work.
“I believe it’s my civic duty to engage my values of loving my neighbor and working toward equity and justice in the community,” Bennett said. “We believe we are to be actively involved in the civic community to bring about a better community.”
Bennett said he applied the motto to his work when the Kirkwood shooting took place. When he was asked to host the shooter Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton’s funeral at his church, he said he saw it as an opportunity to reach out to the community and start to repair racial relationships. Bennett has been the pastor of Kirkwood United Methodist Church (UMC) for 20 years.
Hosting Thornton’s funeral was the first step for Bennett to better the community after the shooting. Bennett joined with other community leaders to form the Community for Understanding and Healing (CFUH). The group had up to 250 attendees at each meeting and met for four months after the shooting. Attendees had conversations on how to address racial tensions in Kirkwood.
“One of the phrases that seemed to resonate was ‘We as a community can’t let this define who we are,’ and with that statement is ‘Who are we?’” Bennett said. “We began finding ways to clearly define ourselves as a community that is not supportive of any kind of racism or violence.”
Attendees included old residents and new ones. Chris Mallory was in the process of moving to Kirkwood when the shooting occured. He said his family made the decision to join Bennett’s church after seeing his willingness to serve the community after the shooting.
Mallory said Bennett’s church provided a sense of welcomeness when he and his family were looking for a church.
“My wife and I said ‘Well, if this is the heart and the community of these folks’ church, that’s what we’re about too,’” Mallory said. “We looked at each other and said ‘This is where we’re gonna go to church.’”
The CFUH meetings eventually led to the idea of establishing a Mediation Agreement through the Department of Justice in Kirkwood. A mediation team, comprised of a City and a Community Team, held meetings for almost two years in an effort to repair racial ties in the city. Bennett was one of seven people on the Community Team.
While on the team, Bennett said he saw the need for a place in the city government that would listen to the needs of the city’s residents. Bennett took the lead on reinstating the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Kirkwood. He said the previous HRC did virtually nothing and had not met for around a year and a half before the shooting.
“This just was an opportunity to act in a way that most pastors don’t have,” Bennett said. “ I’m blessed in that way to have been able to roll up my sleeves.”
Darnel Frost joined the HRC after Bennett approached him about getting involved. Frost is a member at Bennett’s church. He said Bennett recognized leadership qualities in him.
Frost said he had always wanted to get involved in community work in the city, and the HRC provided the opportunity for him to do so.
“For me it was perfect because I understand what the people were feeling and what they were going through,” Frost said. “I wanted to be a part of a chance to make a difference in my community.”
Frost became the chairman of the HRC after joining the organization. Frost said the commission helped repair racial relationships in Kirkwood during his time on the HRC. He said the HRC started a symposium on racial diversity and held meetings with the the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association. The HRC also helped abolish a Greenbriar neighborhood covenant in Kirkwood that said no person of color was allowed stay overnight.
Ten years after the shooting, Kirkwood UMC held a memorial to remember the lives lost in the tragedy and to have a conversation on how far the community has come. Bennett said he does not think the community has healed completely from the tragedy, but he believes efforts in the community have helped them move forward.
“Ten years ago we would have heard a lot of community rage,” Bennett said. “But I heard very little of that. I heard hope, I heard that healing had taken place and that we want to keep working.”
Bennett is retiring from Kirkwood UMC in June after 20 years of serving as lead pastor. He said he will continue to find new ways to do social justice work in the community.
“It’s been a privilege to serve. It’s given me a lot of meaning. It’s been kind of a life changer for me in some ways,” Bennett said. “I would say many pastors would love to have the opportunity to engage in civic life and changing up their community in a way that I’ve had the opportunity.”