Aeneas Williams uses faith in efforts to help Ferguson heal

FERGUSON, Mo. -- There were only 30 minutes before a critical meeting that could affect the future of this troubled town. But Aeneas Williams was hungry.

At 6 p.m., Williams, a Hall of Fame defensive back, was supposed to take part in a 40-person get-together in the fellowship hall at the First Baptist Church that would include St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar; Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III; Dr. David Anderson, a suburban Baltimore pastor who hosts a popular Christian talk radio show; and executives from Emerson Electric, whose international headquarters are located less than a mile from where Michael Brown was fatally shot Aug. 9, 2014, three months earlier.

No news releases were sent out. No cameras were waiting. It was just a meeting aimed at improving the relationship between law enforcement in Ferguson and local residents.

But first, Williams had to eat.

At 47, Williams knows how easy it is for him to get distracted. He knows a simple "hello" from a stranger can derail a day's worth of plans, so when he walked into the Subway on South Florissant Road, Williams had only a few minutes to get a sandwich and get back to the church. He had to order his tuna sub with all the fixings and get into his car before he could be distracted.

It almost worked.

Williams, eyes down and walking quickly, was a few feet from his car when a group of young people approached. They said hello and asked if he was Aeneas Williams. As he climbed into the driver's seat of his SUV, he asked how they were doing. They said they were part of Lost Voices, a group of protesters committed to nonviolence and social change, according to their website.

Williams stopped.

"I said, 'Man, I've been wanting to meet you guys. I've been hearing everything about you,'" he said. "So I listened to them."

The meeting at the church would have to wait.

A YEAR BEFORE the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Williams had a feeling.

Call it a sign or divine intervention. He couldn't explain it. He was being told to move his church to Ferguson.

Aeneas and his wife, Tracy, a co-pastor at their church, had started The Spirit Church in 2007 in their basement. Later, they held services at the Crowne Plaza hotel in the trendy Clayton neighborhood of St. Louis. Their congregation, which has swelled to 350 members, is diverse: black, white, Asian. Tracy said even a few Jewish people have attended. After a couple of moves, Williams felt the tug of Ferguson. A few years earlier, he had tried to secure space in McCluer South-Berkeley High School on South Florissant Road, Tracy said, but the deal was never completed. In 2013, Aeneas and Tracy decided to move to McCluer South-Berkeley again. This time, former Ferguson Florissant School District superintendent Art McCoy welcomed The Spirit Church with open arms and made sure to get the paperwork expedited and polished, Tracy said.

As soon as Williams started telling congregants about the new location, they openly began wondering: Why Ferguson? Are you sure you want to move to a town best known for its strained relationship between the black community and the police department, specifically for the grossly unbalanced number of traffic tickets given to blacks versus to whites? They knew something the Williamses didn't at the time.

Aeneas Williams said that he wasn't concerned but that part of establishing a church in a community is figuring out people's wants and needs -- a mission that continued Monday after reports of more unrest in Ferguson on Sunday, the one-year anniversary of Brown's death. Williams, who was at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton over the weekend, was traveling Monday but said by text message that he was following the most recent news out of Ferguson. He said that prayers continue and that "the majority of the people in Ferguson are seeing progress."

Shortly after the move to Ferguson, Williams sat down with Mayor Knowles and law enforcement officials to start discussing those issues.

When Brown was fatally shot in August, Williams said, "It all clicked. You take a step of faith and let God lead you, and he confirms it as you go. But many times, it may not get confirmed until you go, and this is one of those instances of knowing to be here in Ferguson."

This March, the concerns of Williams' congregants were legitimized when the Department of Justice released its 102-page investigation into the Ferguson Police Department. Police had been racial profiling for years, especially on traffic stops. The report determined that, from 2012 to 2014, African-Americans accounted for 85 percent of the Ferguson Police Department's vehicle stops, 90 percent of its citations and 93 percent of its arrests -- although only 67 percent of Ferguson's population was African-American. Not coincidentally, it was widely reported that as of last August, less than 10 percent of Ferguson's police force was black.

It might not have been fair, but it was good business. In 2013, the latest year for which full revenue data is available, the city of Ferguson collected $2.46 million in fines and fees. That number was expected to grow to $2.63 million in 2014 and $3.09 million in 2015.

Mario MacDonald, a former football coach at McCluer High School who will be an assistant at Dulles High School outside Houston next season, grew up in Ferguson and was a victim of the profiling. He was pulled over after school one day near Calverton Park, a city near Ferguson, for having tinted windows that were too dark. The officer used his meter to gauge the darkness of MacDonald's tint.

"It was like he was looking for stuff," MacDonald said. "That's what they do. It [is just] a money grab."

Williams can -- and will -- recount stories of black residents who spent days in jail because warrants were issued for their arrests after they couldn't pay their tickets. In 2013, Ferguson issued more than 9,000 warrants (92 percent involved black defendants), a large number of which were results of minor violations, including parking infractions and traffic tickets, according to the report. The strained relationship between officers and the community has become a focus of Williams' for the past year.

But it took the unrest last August for him to see the issues with his own two eyes.

He apologized for it.

"He apologized that we weren't proactive, that we weren't in the community, that we weren't knocking on doors before," Tracy said. "We were not connected with the community before, except those who came to the church."

Williams has learned from it. His church participates in the Adopt-a-Block program organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Usually, members from Williams' church visit the Northwinds Apartments, located next to the Canfield Green Apartments, where Brown was shot. Every Saturday, a group from The Spirit Church goes door to door to meet, pray with and talk to residents.

One recent week, instead of the apartments, Williams' churchgoers canvassed four blocks of Lang Drive. The group met at 10 a.m. at their headquarters, located on the same block of West Florissant where a hair salon, Chinese restaurant and beauty supply store were burned down in August 2014.

A group of 17 men, women and children, including Williams' wife and two of their daughters, Tirzah and Cheyenne, gathered to await an assignment. Eventually, they drove to an apartment complex near the intersection of Northwinds Estate Drive, an area best known as the former home of the QuikTrip gas station that was also burned.

With Tracy and Tirzah tackling other streets, Aeneas and Cheyenne started knocking on doors on Lang. The Williamses' two other children -- Saenea and Lazarus -- were participating in track workouts. Some people wanted someone to listen. Others were skeptical. Some peeked through the curtains but did not come to the door.

One man, who was married with a family, asked Williams to pray his criminal past wouldn't play a part in his future.

Another man, who had recently suffered a heart attack, complained to Williams that the closest auto body stores had been closed or demolished since the unrest, which made it difficult for him to walk to get parts for his cars.

A woman with three children told Williams her kids don't have a playground to play on. This, of any issue facing the city, baffled Williams the most. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he'd never seen a playground outside of a school in Ferguson. The jungle gyms got old, and the district removed them but never replaced them.

The importance of playgrounds hit home when a father of three told Williams he doesn't let his kids out of the house to play because he doesn't feel it's safe.

"I know how having a playground played an impact in my life and my brothers', which was huge," Williams said of his years growing up in New Orleans. "It was a safe place where my parents could relax, and we were good."

As Williams made his way through the neighborhood, some people recognized him. At the first house he and Cheyenne went to, the couple ended up taking a picture with him. Most residents, however, didn't know who he was. Oddly, he has been mistaken for two former white safeties: St. Louis Rams' Adam Archuleta and the late Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals.

"It's been hilarious," Williams said. "I think they recognize the face and try to bring it."

But it is his celebrity that has allowed Williams to connect with Ferguson. He helped the Rams to Super Bowl XXXVI, which they lost, and people still know who he is. After he and his group canvassed their Adopt-a-Block territory, they walked over to a local park, where an adult-league softball game was taking place. After the shock and surprise that Williams was there -- including some good-natured ribbing from a 49ers fan -- Williams talked his way onto the field for an at-bat. He was thrown out at first, but his speed for his age created a buzz in both dugouts. That's just how he likes it.

"When he talks, they listen," said Anderson, the pastor from Maryland. "When other pastors talk, they kind of listen."

But his name has simply been a foot in the door. Once he's in, Williams has had to prove he can stay there. His reputation has helped him get a seat at the table with politicians, police officials and business executives, but his ability to produce change, tangible or otherwise, has allowed him to keep it.

As other clergy came to and left Ferguson the past year -- some parachuting in and leaving as soon as the cameras were off -- he stayed.

"I wanted to see if he would uphold all this that I've heard him do," said Brian Coldman, a member of Williams' church who moved to Ferguson the day the unrest began last year. "He's done that and more, and plus, with his traveling, he's just always ministering. That's what I see about him."

The more Williams has listened and the more he has immersed himself in the community, the more he understands Ferguson and the more he knows he was destined to help.

When Williams was 10, he recorded a tape at his aunt's house that she kept all these years, Tracy said. On it, Williams says he wants to be one of the best football players ever and he wants people to love one another.

Aeneas and Tracy began ministering to his teammates and their significant others when they lived in Arizona. Monday nights were reserved for men's bible study at their home. Tuesdays were for couples. On Saturdays, Tracy hosted a women's study group.

"He's a connector," Tracy said. "It is his divine assignment. He's always connecting this person with that person. He loves people walking together. That's the way he's always been."

TRACY SAID her husband's life has been one big "setup" so God can use his name as an example. His Hall of Fame induction last year was another example.

In February 2014, Williams received the call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his third try as a finalist while in New York City for Super Bowl XLVIII. He didn't know it at the time, Tracy said, but getting that call in New York -- the biggest stage in the world -- was the latest instance in a life full of divine interventions.

It started with being a walk-on at Southern University, then getting drafted by the Cardinals in 1991 and winning only 56 games in 10 seasons but still becoming an All-Pro and Pro Bowl cornerback (seven times, plus once at safety). A week before Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, Williams was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the result of a 14-year career -- 10 with the Phoenix and Arizona Cardinals and four with the St. Louis Rams. He retired with 55 interceptions for 807 yards and nine returned for touchdowns. At the time of his retirement in 2004, that tied for second most in history.

In July 2014, with his Hall of Fame induction about a month away, Williams was chosen to be the grand marshal of the Ferguson Fourth of July parade. It was the first time he met many city officials, such as Knowles and former police chief Thomas Jackson. The parade route took Williams through the streets of Ferguson, many of which he never knew were in the Ferguson city limits. Along the route, Tracy noticed a blend of races and ethnicities. Everyone was peaceful.

That was five weeks before Brown died.

"We're just like, 'Wow, God. You're interesting,'" Tracy said.

EIGHT HOURS AFTER Michael Brown was shot, the Ferguson mayor saw the beginnings of the protests.

Clergy from around St. Louis started to gather. Knowles watched their messages boil. Instead of talking, they were in people's faces, yelling. At 35, Knowles has been mayor for four years. He makes $300 a month. Before Aug. 9, 2014, few people outside North County knew his name.

By late afternoon that August day, Brown's death had yet to become a national issue, but Knowles wanted someone who could help calm the crowd. One name came to mind: Aeneas Williams.

"I felt that he can be somebody who people would listen to," Knowles said. "If you ever talk to him, he has a very calming presence. He's very level-headed. He's not a fire-and-brimstone person. His tone is very conciliatory. You can tell he's really interested and cares about people -- all people -- and you just weren't seeing that in some of the rhetoric that was playing out."

Williams and his family were in northern Mississippi, outside Memphis, when his phone rang Aug. 10. They were driving back from a trip to Williams' hometown of New Orleans to celebrate his Hall of Fame induction. When he answered, Williams had no idea what had happened in Ferguson.

During the conversation, as he often does with people, Williams asked Knowles to pray.

Knowles was in his bedroom in his home off West Florissant Avenue, kneeling at the end of his bed with his iPhone to his ear. The two prayed for strength for Ferguson, for reconciliation and for the community to unite.

Over breakfast at the Corner Coffee Shop on South Florissant Road, Knowles said Williams' words helped him remain calm and level-headed.

"At the time I'm thinking, 'I'm a tough guy, I'm a wrestler, I'm a seasoned elected official at this point. How bad can it get?'" Knowles said. "Well, it got really bad."

THE IDEA OF a young man being shot by police wasn't foreign to Williams, who grew up in the Uptown section of New Orleans, where he would ride his bike across parish lines for miles. Williams spent hours at Harrell Park in the Hollygrove-Pigeontown area. It was a safe haven for Williams, where, under the guidance of coach Elton Mims, he learned to play football. It is also where Williams learned there were consequences for his actions. Despite his devotion now and his Hall of Fame career, there was a time when Williams was a kid just like the protesters he encountered in Ferguson. He ran with the wrong crowd a time or two and once pulled a knife on another boy. Mims found out and told Williams' parents.

"Guess what?" Williams said. "I never carried a knife again."

Despite estimated career earnings that surpassed $33 million, according to Spotrac, Williams knows at his core what it is like to be one of those young men in Ferguson.

The day after Brown was shot, Williams drove to West Florissant Avenue, where the majority of the protests were taking place. As he walked through the crowds, he observed and listened. A few days later, Williams took Tracy on a ride to Ferguson at 1 a.m.

It was the first of many regular trips. Groups began approaching him, stopping on their way to confront the police. People began thanking Williams for being there. He asked about their childhoods, and the answers amazed him.

There was a time when those kids loved the cops. When the kids were younger, the police would drive through the neighborhoods passing out baseball cards, some protestors told Williams. Another protester told him that, when he was 10 and walking home late, an officer picked him up and drove him the rest of the way.

Now they were about to defend themselves against those same officers hiding behind riot gear armor.

The more he listened, the more Williams understood the Ferguson youth. Whomever Williams talked to, he saw the same thing in their eyes: hopelessness.

HOW DO YOU quantify change in race relations?

There's no scale to measure success. Only one quantifiable thing matters these days: How many black people will the police department pull over in 2015? And how many whites? Other than that, the difference Williams is making isn't tangible -- not yet.

Williams has always had a deep respect for authority. It started as a child, when Williams' father, Lawrence, taught Aeneas that if he got pulled over -- rightly or wrongly -- to respect the officer.

That's one fundamental problem Aeneas sees with the Ferguson youth. A lack of respect for authority and law enforcement has been evident in Ferguson youth since before the Brown incident. Since Aug. 9, during his sermons, Williams has repeatedly praised law enforcement. Being nonjudgmental has simply meant "being reflective and being honest with yourself."

Williams' down-the-middle approach has converted at least one follower. Coldman, a member of Williams' church for the past year, has been impressed by Williams' not bad-mouthing the police or the protesters. When Williams wonders what would have happened -- or not happened -- had Brown simply followed Wilson's orders and moved out of the road, or if Wilson had respected Brown, Coldman listens.

"That was a place I didn't hear anybody else coming from," Coldman said.

It made him rethink the entire situation.

THE DRIVE INTO Ferguson from the north goes by a horse farm with large, lush, green lawns; old, magnificent brick homes; modern luxurious homes; and suburban subdivisions.

Not the Ferguson you were expecting? The Ferguson the world has seen is about as large as your TV screen. Fire. Riots. Protesters. Tear gas. Some stores are still boarded up, though some of those boards have been painted with messages of hope and peace.

There's a yoga studio, a wine bar and a cigar lounge within a few blocks of one another on South Florissant Road. Next year, Starbucks will build a store on West Florissant that will be larger than usual to accommodate community meetings.

To Williams, that's a sign. "If that tragedy does not happen, could these changes happen? Yes, they probably would have eventually," he said. "But, boy, this put more of a sense of urgency [in the changes]."

WHILE THE MEETING in early November was starting about a half-mile up the road from the Subway, Williams continued to listen in the parking lot.

He asked the Lost Voice members what their end goal was. Before they could answer, Williams shared some of his wisdom. The likelihood of Wilson, who was accused of killing Brown, being convicted by a grand jury was low. (Williams was right: The grand jury didn't indict Wilson, and the Justice Department cleared Wilson of willfully violating Brown's civil rights.)

With four children of his own, Williams knew how easily young people can get frustrated. He didn't want to see Lost Voices feel as if its work -- days and months of protesting -- was a waste of time if Wilson was acquitted.

In the middle of their discussion, Williams told the group he was in meetings "where people are asking about you guys ... they're asking how they can leverage their resources to solve whatever issues there are. You know, they were shocked, and they got totally quiet."

Williams decided the group's voice was necessary for the meetings to accomplish more than just discussions based on simplistic, stagnant theories about improving relations that already had proved useless.

Since Brown's death, Police Chief Jon Belmar had attended too many meetings in which all he heard were the voices of 50- and 60-year-olds talking about how they'd fix the issues facing local youth. The voices that needed to be heard -- those who had the most to say -- were nowhere to be found.

Before Williams brought Lost Voices into the meeting, he prepped the group: They'd be sitting among the most powerful decision-makers in Ferguson, a group that was mostly white and included the same police officers who donned riot gear in August and shot tear gas at them.

Those same people wanted them there.

As Williams led in the group, which had swelled to about 21 people, including kindergarten-aged children, grandmothers and men with criminal records, eyebrows were raised. Then everyone in the room stood.

Some of the officers recognized the protesters. Some of the protesters saw familiar faces in uniform. Both sides knew the others by name.

That's when the real discussion began.

Protesters talked about the "pain of being pulled over for shameless things," said Anderson, the Maryland-based pastor and national radio show host.

Lt. Jerry Lohr, whom the Los Angeles Times said is called "Officer Friendly" by Ferguson locals, told Lost Voices that even though police wear bullet-proof voices, they can still be injured by words. Anderson remembered Lohr telling protesters his family was threatened -- specifically his wife -- and he was actually told "death to your family."

Nothing was off-limits for the rest of the meeting. Frustrations about how the protesters were treated were laid on the table. At one point, Williams remembers one protester asking an officer why the police treated them so differently on the streets than in the church.

The emotion was unfiltered, but tempers never boiled over, although there were a few close calls. Curses were prevalent -- not directed at anyone in particular, just part of the heated atmosphere.

Williams watched some members of Lost Voices start to soften as the police showed a human side by talking about going home to their families. Williams remained calm. He didn't curse. He didn't get riled up. He was a voice of reason in a discussion in which reasoning wasn't everyone's first priority.

"He was humble, and he was respectful," Anderson said. "He never had a chip on his shoulder, like I should know who he is. He was much more of a pastor who really cared about the community."

The meeting went so well that a second night of talks was scheduled. Both meetings went to 10 p.m., and nobody left early. By the end of the second meeting, protesters and officers were talking off to the side, with the officers giving Lost Voices tips on how to be safe when specific situations arose. There was no tangible result of the meeting, Belmar said, besides those relationships.

But with an unpopular verdict coming down two weeks later, relationships might have been the difference between freedom and jail.

"I got more out of those two nights," Belmar said, "than out of any of my other meetings combined."

All because Aeneas Williams wanted a tuna sub.