In Sanford and Beyond, Churches Seek to Make Sense of the Verdict

In Florida and in other cities, pastors are telling their congregations to be remain calm but committed to social change.

Posted: 07/14/2013 10:06 AM EDT

REPORTING FROM SANFORD, FLORIDA -- In Sunday worship services here in Central Florida and throughout the nation, the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was a central focus of sermons and conversations in African-American congregations, with pastors urging calm and prayer for the family of Trayvon Martin.

It was a challenge, many pastors said, to focus on the disappointment felt my many in their congregation while trying to help their members grapple with what the considered a miscassiage of justice.

“I’m telling my congregation is that this isn’t over,” said the Rev. Lowman Oliver, the pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church here in Sanford, speaking with BET.com.

“Even though we are at peace, we are torn and we are very, very heartbroken,” Oliver said.

“You will hear some people say that, now that the verdict is done, we need to move on. But I say, we need to get up and challenge our anger into litigation and in changing some of these laws like stand your ground,” Oliver said of the controversial Florida law that enables people to use deadly force if they perceive imminent danger.

The Rev. Everett Gates, the pastor of One In Christ Ministries in Claremont, Florida, just outside Orlando, said he was concerned about the disappointment many in his congregation feel about the verdict.

“But at the end of the day, God is in control and we have to be careful about what we allow to control us,” Gates said, speaking with BET.com of the need for citizens to protest in orderly ways. “We have a choice. Either we trust God or we take matters in our own hands. We have to do the right thing.”

In fact, there was a conference call among many pastors in the Orlando area on Sunday morning where the ministers agreed to ask their congregations to pray for Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the parents of the dead teenager, and to keep their discussions about disappointment about the verdict at a minimum.

“So far, we’ve had no incident of unrest and everything seeks to be going smoothly,” said the Rev. Walter T. Richardson, the pastor emeritus of the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Cutler Bay, Florida. “That’s what we had all hoped would happen.”

Indeed, the possibility of unrest had been a significant concern among many of the pastors here and in the Greater Orlando area. And there were few if any acts of demonstrations here in the hours after the verdict was announced.

Outside of central Florida, some of the nation’s most prominent African-American pastors said they felt compelled to address the verdict in their sermons, saying that members of their congregations were wrestling with how to deal with what they viewed as a grave injustice.

“I had a sermon prepared but, after the news, I changed my sermon to the title to ‘When the Verdict Hurts,’” said the Rev. Howard-John Wesley, the pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

“We have to live with this verdict and we have to bear the weight of a young Black man that won’t receive legal justice,” Wesley said. “But how we carry this weight will affect our children. I don’t want to be so bitter that my children use race as a crutch for not being productive. It’s important that we carry this in a way that our children are inspired.”

The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, said that the verdict presented an important moment to look at how young Black citizens interact with police.

“We have to begin to emphasize the training of our young men not to be overly conciliatory when they are stopped by the police,” Butts said, in an interview with BET.com. “Instead, we need to help them understand that we need to stand our ground and to know our rights.”

He added, “But at the same time, this is a moment where we need to turn to each other and not on each other.”

Nonetheless, many of the ministers interviewed said that the verdict represented a challenging moment for them in seeking to make sense of the death of Trayvon Martin.

“It’s very difficult,” said the Rev. David A. Bullock, the pastor of the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church outside of Detroit. “We want to maintain our belief in human dignity and respect. And we don’t want any emotions to manifest negatively in behavior.”

Bullock, who also heads Change Agent Consortium, a Detroit advocacy group, said that he, too, would ask his congregation for prayer for the family of Trayvon Martin.

 “But after asking for deep prayer, there are some obvious issues that need to be addressed,” Bullock said. “The question is, what is the value of the life of an African-American? It seems to be a major setback in terms of the faith that we have in America moving beyond race.”

**Watch the BET Special on the George Zimmerman verdict today at 12:30P/11:30C**

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(Photo: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

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