Profiling The Life Of An Inspiring Pastor And Black Lives Matter Activist

Guest post by Sarah Stevenson, Grain For All

A biology degree, a Master of Divinity, and 15 military medals: these are achievements that don’t alleviate the threat of discrimination in America. Mike Higgins is a decorated military veteran, but that’s not why he adorns his Chrysler 300 with a license plate that reads “ARMYCH”–Army Chaplain. “If a policeman stops me,” Mike tells us, “if he looks at my license plate, he’ll know he stopped an American before he sees what race I am.” In the predominantly black neighborhood of North St. Louis where Mike grew up, there was the precept, “You have to be proactive in making sure that you’re not just a random black person.” Despite his degrees and medals, the stigma of his demographic remains. So to this day, Mike feels the pressure to prove that he’s an American to be treated like one.

We met Mike through South City Church, where he has pastored since 2012. Sitting in front of the fireplace of his St. Louis home, he told us that he’s an introvert; yet his charisma shined for the cameras as he described his three decades in the U.S. Army. The 60-year-old’s face lit up when he cooly mentioned his St. Barbara’s Medal, and that he was a “top gun” guy in the Army. Climbing the ranks from lieutenant, to captain, to colonel, Mike had succeeded in a structure where his character was valued above his race. Not only did he have friendships with white people, he often had authority over them–something he’d never imagined as a youth in North St. Louis.

Before Mike joined the Army, white flight had sent his boyhood neighborhood into a downward spiral of drugs, violence, and unemployment. He briefly came back to St. Louis to earn his Master of Divinity at Covenant Seminary, but had no intention of permanently returning. But when his alma mater asked him to be Dean of Students, he left his Army chaplaincy and moved back to the hurting city, where racial tensions were more severe than most people realized.

The seminary was meant to be the focus of Mike’s new life, but something interesting happened to him in St. Louis. South City Church, situated in a diverse neighborhood, had asked him how their mostly white congregation could grow to better reflect the population of their surroundings. “Well,” said Mike, “You need diversity in your leadership team.” A few conversations later, this black Pentecostal was the new lead pastor of white Presbyterians. Under his leadership, the church has changed and flourished. His daughter Michelle is the worship leader, white millennials call his wife Renee “Mama Higgins,” and Mike unexpectedly loves working with his hipster co-pastor Sam. South City Church developed into a place that fosters diversity and outreach, and when you walk through its doors, the community emanates harmony.

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Mike Higgins is a decorated military veteran, but that’s not why he adorns his Chrysler 300 with a license plate that reads “ARMYCH”–Army Chaplain. “If a policeman stops me,” Mike tells us, “if he looks at my license plate, he’ll know he stopped an American before he sees what race I am.”
[/notdevice]This seems like a storybook happy ending, but it’s not that simple. Coming into this environment as the first black pastor that most of these people have ever had was terrifying. Mike still struggles with his nostalgia for the black church, the fear that white people will never genuinely accept him, and the frustration that nobody else understands what he’s going through. It is Mike’s courage that has allowed him to invest his life in South City Church, and to create a safe space for people to discuss and ask questions about race without judgment. Because of the Higgins, the church has become a sort of microcosm, a picture of the racial reconciliation that Mike wants for society as a whole.

When we visited the Higgins’ home, we noticed two Black Lives Matter signs in the windows. Upon interviewing Mike, it became clear that “Black Lives Matter” is a simple phrase saying that African Americans are continuously undervalued, and the country needs to act. Somehow, those words create animosity, but the undeniable truth is that egregious inequality is palpable in America. When Ferguson happened, Mike knew that his church and seminary weren’t prepared for the turmoil that would ensue. Although his initial response was to lock himself in his office and turn off the news, he realized that his students and congregation were looking to him for clarity and direction. Covenant Seminary and South City Church have now become platforms for Mike to help people understand race in America, and for him to inspire social justice advocacy.

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“Black Lives Matter” is a simple phrase saying that African Americans are continuously undervalued, and the country needs to act. Somehow, those words create animosity, but the undeniable truth is that egregious inequality is palpable in America.”
[/notdevice]In August 2015, Mike was arrested outside the Department of Justice for peacefully protesting the government’s failure to act against police racism in St. Louis. Not everyone likes the idea of a pastor getting arrested for protesting, but Mike believes that, as a pastor, activism is required. At the time of his arrest, he declared, “I’m here because this country can do better.” This statement is in the back of his mind while he’s marching in the streets, speaking at an event, or even writing a sermon. If he’s preaching the Gospel, then he’s preaching transformation.

Systems and individuals carry on the legacy of racism in America every day–but we have a newer legacy of racial justice to fight for. Mike’s many remarkable experiences inform him that victory won’t come unless we bridge racial gaps, reconcile our differences, and learn to value each other as human beings. In creating this documentary, we saw racial identity through a lens more powerful than any camera’s. We are forever grateful to the man who invited us into his life so that we could capture moments and ideas that bring hope into the movement and the world.

Please watch part one of our documentary, below, and consider supporting our Kickstarter campaign to help us produce more episodes for the series.

Grain Inc. is a creative firm located in St. Louis that specializes in branding, video, and website design.

http://www.grainforall.com

Cover photo: Youtube, screenshot, courtesy Grain For All.

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