ST. LOUIS (CNS) — People are seeking an understanding of why race is such a contentious subject in St. Louis, wanting to get to the “underlying issue” of why it is “so embedded” in its history, said Laura Downing, a student at St. Louis University.

The senior social work major from Decatur, Illinois, was a volunteer when the university’s campus church, St. Francis Xavier, offered a “safe space” the night the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case was handed down.

More than 100 people came to the basement of the parish center Nov. 24 during the turmoil following the announcement that a grand jury did not indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

The place of prayer and comfort was open for 48 hours as people stopped in to talk about the issues involved in the protests and violence that followed, with volunteers facilitating the discussion.

The Jesuit-run university’s campus ministry program led a prayer vigil at the clock tower on campus, and some students attended a protest south of the main campus and the school’s medical campus.

Downing said students reacted with questions, curiosity and confusion.

She was with a group of primarily students who wondered why protesters were burning buildings, what the meaning of it was, and why people were so mad, Downing told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper.

“We also talked a lot about the need to see people as people, drawing on empathy — of course people are mad, and when they are mad they do stuff like this. It doesn’t justify it,” she said, but it offers an explanation.

Downing, who attends St. Francis Xavier (College) Church and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, got involved because “everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. As a Christian, Jesus wants me to love all people. It really, really hurts him deeply when his children are being hurt and oppressed.”

St. Louis puzzles her, as she sees churches that are predominantly African-American and others that are predominantly white but few that are fully integrated. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be. We let our human nature — of wanting to separate ourselves because we’re afraid of people who are different — we let that idea permeate ourselves and the church. And that’s not what the church is supposed to be about.”

Instead, she said, people need to come together because “we are the body of Christ.”

Downing does not want Catholics to be afraid of others or the issues. “It’s like JPII (St. John Paul II) or Jesus — they said, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And what do we do? We get afraid. I do it myself. I get afraid. But it’s really just about trusting in God. Telling God, ‘I’m afraid right now, but I’m going to submit to you, really try to do your will, to reach out to this person because you made this human being, you love this human being.'”

Patty Libby, a senior political science and women’s studies major from St. Louis, said the campus ministry program made an impact by highlighting the human issues and social justice issues involved. Others praised the leadership of the university’s president, Fred Pestello, for promoting conversation.

Nebu Kolenchery, a senior public health major from Arlington Heights, Illinois, said that the safe space was a response to “a very trying time.” He was one of six people who took charge of the effort, with an overwhelming response from volunteers.

They wanted “to be present to our reality instead of pretending we’re not part of the city,” Kolenchery said. “It was very good to see people coming together here. … The majority were seeking dialogue with people different than themselves. I’d like to think that cultural change is happening.”

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Kenny is a reporter at the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.