(UMNS) — Many took to the streets to protest the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who was charged in Sanford, Fla., with killing black teenager Trayvon Martin. Many also went to their houses of worship to find peace and seek answers.
Bishop Ken Carter, episcopal leader of the Florida Conference, sent a letter to the pastor and people of First United Methodist Church in Sanford, saying he was praying for peace for them, but also encouraging the congregation to be a sign of God’s grace and peace in the days ahead.
I shared with my church that the criminal justice system is innately racist.
On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by a member of a neighborhood watch in Sanford. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic, said he shot the teen in self-defense. A jury on July 13 found Zimmerman not guilty after deliberating for more than 15 hours.
Bill Mefford, director of Civil & Human Rights at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society, had been asked to preach at his home church, Culmore UMC in Falls Church, Va., before the verdict had been announced.
“I shared with my church that the criminal justice system is innately racist,” Mefford said. “This isn't hyperbole or a dramatic overstatement. This was not said in an emotional outburst. This is a fact and it is confirmed with the acquittal of George Zimmerman who racially profiled Trayvon and then shot him.”
Mefford read to the congregation a blog post he had written in 2012 on “Jeremiah Weeping” asking what he was supposed to tell his son, Isaiah, who is a person of color, and “now must be on guard as he walks in our neighborhood.” when he just walks to get candy. Sadly, I can post this here again, over a year later, and it is still relevant because when it comes to young black men, we still live in a nation where there is no justice.
The victims are many and the conversation on race has grown because of this case, said Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who leads the California-Pacific Conference and is president of the United Methodist General Commission on Religion & Race.
Racism, guns, violence and the lack of security plague us all.
“I pray that as persons of Christian faith we will help guide the conversation in thoughtful and prayerful ways,” Carcaño said in a statement. “The life of a young man has been cut short. His family and closest friends will live with a hole in their hearts. A man has taken a life and will live with that burden the rest of his life. Racism, guns, violence and the lack of security plague us all.” she said in a statement.
Bishop Gregory Palmer of the West Ohio Conference finds a Gospel lesson and Bishop James Swanson of the Mississippi Conference gets personal in writing about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Retired Bishop Linda Lee, interim top executive of the General Commission on Religion & Race, invokes the biblical story of Esther in another piece on this subject. The United Methodist General Commission on Religion & Race (GCORR) also released a statement that speaks out on the issues of violence and incarceration.
A way to move from words to action is for congregations to work together to build new relationships in their communities and churches, according to GCORR. “Building new relationships with people we perceive to be different, even threatening or frightening to us, can be transformative,” the statement said. “Creating spaces and opportunities for people to sit face-to-face with one another in holy conversation about what we are burdened by and what we hope for is an excellent starting place.”
Pastors like the Rev. Doug Cunningham of New Day United Methodist Church in Bronx, N.Y., worked into the early morning to refocus his sermon and worship service on the outcome of the racially charged trial.
On his Facebook page Cunningham wrote: “We can’t preach peace when there is no peace.”
“There is a lot of hurt, and there were a lot of tears,” said Melissa Hinnen, student intern pastor at New Day. Members of New Day participated in a rally and march from Union Square to Times Square Sunday night.
Bishop Mike Coyner of the Indiana Conference said it is important to remember that being found not guilty is not the same as being found innocent.
“George Zimmerman is not innocent of the death of Trayvon,” Coyner said in an E-pistle. “Moreover, our whole culture is not innocent of this sad situation. … All of us bear some responsibility for creating or allowing a culture of violence, suspicion, racism, crime and tragedy to exist in our nation.”
Our whole culture is not innocent of this sad situation.
Coyner said that the multiple murders in Indianapolis in recent weeks are a reminder that the Zimmerman case is not unique. He pointed out that such violence is everywhere, and the problems between whites, Hispanics and African Americans seem to be growing,”
Kathryn Lohre, president of the National Council of Churches, said that in the wake of the acquittal, people of faith should join in a renewed call for racial justice.
“The day after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, we acknowledged the tragic reality that exists for young men of color and their families who, because of their appearance, fear they will be victims of violence at the hands of police and others,” Lohre said. “As we seek to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin, we are called to action to protect the lives of all from fear, violence, racism and injustice.”
Temptation to disengage
New England Conference Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar also called for peace and a nonviolent spirit. “It may take much prayer for God to give this kind of strength to us and to all those who feel deep anger, shock and betrayal in this time,” he said.
“In the face of such oppression, there is a temptation to become disengaged,” said the Rev. Theon Johnson III, co-chair of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church. “We as the Church must advance the dialogue. We will move forward from this experience. How we move forward, however, will be determined by our willingness to show up and announce justice.” The Rev. Pamela Lightsey of Boston School of Theology said, “you can’t lose what you never had” to the question of whether black Americans have lost faith in the justice system after the acquittal of George Zimmerman.
“So, to put this question to a grieving family, ‘Have you lost faith in the justice system?’ demonstrates an ignorance of the tragic history of slavery, civil rights, legal racial profiling and now Stand Your Ground laws,” Lightsey emphasized. “One simply cannot lose what has never been.”
The more sensitive question, according to LIghtsey, should be: What can we all do to ensure a legal system that ensures justice for all citizens and residents in our country?
Visible signs of peace
Bishop Carter said he is encouraging the congregations in the Florida Conference to reflect diversity, to question more publicly the “Stand Your Ground” law of the state of Florida. As in more than 20 other states, a “Stand Your Ground” law provides significant leeway for using deadly force if a person feels threatened.
“I am praying for people of The United Methodist Church in Sanford,” Carter said. “I am praying that they will be an outward and visible sign of God’s peace, justice, reconciliation and healing in the days ahead. I am praying that they, and we, do not waste this teachable moment.