EATONVILLE, Fla. — Wearing hooded sweatshirts similar to the one that Trayvon Martin wore on the night he was killed, many preachers and worshippers echoed calls for justice Sunday in the shooting death of an unarmed Black teenager in Florida last month.
The one-month anniversary of Martin’s death is Monday. He was shot while wearing a “hoodie” as he walked home on a rainy night in a gated community. The neighborhood watch volunteer who shot him, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, is the son of a White father and Hispanic mother, and the demands to charge him in Martin’s slaying have grown ever louder. He had called police to report the hooded figure as suspicious; the 17-year-old Martin was carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone.
In African-American and other religious centers from Florida to Atlanta, New York and Chicago, messages from pulpits couldn’t help but touch on a seemingly avoidable tragedy that continues to be rife with more questions than answers. But while the call continued for the arrest of Zimmerman, there were also pleas to use the incident to spark a larger movement.
“How do we turn pain into power?” the Rev. Jesse Jackson asked a standing-room only congregation of hundreds while preaching at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, Fla., about 20 miles from the site of the Sanford shooting. “How do we go from a moment to a movement that curries favor?”
Jackson preached a sermon entitled “The Substance of Things Hoped For.” He called for Martin’s “martyr” death to be used as an opportunity to revive the Civil Rights Commission and draw attention to long-standing issues. Very young children and teens sat in the choir behind him.
“The blood of the innocent has power,” Jackson said to shouts of “Amen” and loud clapping.
Jackson invoked the names of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy bludgeoned and shot to death in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a White woman, and slain civil rights figures Medgar Evans and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“There’s power in the blood of Emmett Till! There’s power in in the blood of Medgar Evers! There’s power in the blood of Dr. King!” declared the 70-year-old Jackson, who marched with King.
Jackson made a direct plea to change the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law that many believe authorities in Florida used to avoid arresting him.
Amid the outcry over the lack of charges against Zimmerman, the Sanford police chief and state’s attorney in the case have both stepped aside. The U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights probe into the shooting, and a grand jury is scheduled to meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.
Zimmerman’s attorney has said he believes the case falls under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which dictates that a person has the right to stand his or her ground and “meet force with force” if attacked. Attorney Craig Sonner has said Zimmerman is not a racist.
After Jackson’s sermon, congregants said the civil rights activist’s message resonated.
“This kind of activism never stopped in the church, that’s what they do for us in the Black community,” said 34-year-old Nacia Bradley of Orlando. “That’s what they’re here to do.”
Black churches have long served as catalysts for change and were instrumental during the civil rights era.
“The activism (in the church) is bigger and better than ever,” said Kenneth Byers, 47, of Orlando. “Everything Rev. Jackson said was right on time.”
At Chicago’s St. Sabina Catholic Church, a predominantly Black congregation, the Rev. Michael Pfleger wore the hood of his robe over his head while celebrating Mass. Pfleger, who is White, has long spoken out against violence.
During Mass, one congregant held a sign reading, “We are all Trayvon Martin.”
In New York City, Middle Collegiate Church pastor Jacqueline Lewis said the church must assume both a spiritual and political role to end “the epidemic” of racism. She encouraged her congregants to send packages of Skittles to Sanford police, sign an online petition and attend an April conference on building multiracial congregations.
It’s that sense of activism that resonated with Michael Ambrosini, who left the service wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt. He said he attends the church in part because “such violence dictates strong political action, and this church takes action.”
In the nation’s capital, the pastors of Reid Temple AME in Glenn Dale, Md. and Metropolitan AME in downtown Washington, both wore hoodies.
Reid Temple’s pastor, the Rev. Lee P. Washington, put the hoodie on his head and held up a box of Skittles and a can of iced tea before his sermon, “Trusting God When You Don’t Understand,” in which he discussed the Martin case. Metropolitan AME is just blocks away from the White House, and President Barack Obama worshipped there with his family in January, 2011.
At Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his father once preached, dozens of people wore hoodies in Trayvon Martin’s memory, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
“They said his name was Trayvon Martin. But he looked like Emmett Till,” said Warnock, referring to the boy whose lynching more than a half-century ago raised awareness of the brutal realities of Jim Crow laws. “At least with Emmett Till someone was arrested. And that was in 1955.”
The men charged with killing Till were acquitted by an all-White Mississippi jury, though they later confessed to the crime in a Look magazine article.
Ingrid Lester, 64, showed up for services wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a Skittles wrapper pinned to it. She said the Martin case reminded her of the struggle to end segregation in the 1960s, when she was a teenager. And she said the church had a crucial role to play now, just as it did then.
“We need a voice, and the church is our voice,” she said.
At First Iconium Baptist, another predominantly Black church in Atlanta, the Rev. Timothy McDonald told congregants at the early Sunday service, “We will not rest until Mr. Zimmerman who killed young Trayvon Martin is arrested. This could have been any one of our children.”
— Associated Press