The white church and Trayvon Martin

As national attention and moral outrage grows after the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the question arises “Where is the white church?” Leaders of Florida’s predominantly-white churches have issued statements calling for a thorough investigation along with the arrest and prosecution of the shooter. And local Episcopal clergy have joined in with the rallies taking place in Sanford.

Mark I. Pinsky writes at

Few if any white clergy have spoken up to demand that the killing be fully investigated. None can be seen standing by the African-American preachers calling for justice, or marching with Martin’s family members. Why?

As someone who covered this area’s faith community for 15 years, I don’t think the answer is racism as much as it is cultural callousness. Week in and week out, the violent deaths and disappearances of poor, black and brown people – especially immigrants – merit a one- or two-paragraph story in The Orlando Sentinel’s (my old newspaper’s) police blotter. So when a middle-class black teen is gunned down, the reaction tends to be a shrug of the shoulders.

In this part of the country gated communities are considered sacred ground, as much or more than houses of worship. The fear of these preserves being violated is enough to shift the presumption of innocence to the presumption of guilt, including among churchgoers. Couple this with a made-for-vigilantes “Stand Your Ground” gun law and, until recently, there is no reason to question the indifference of local law enforcement in investigating Trayvon Martin’s death….

…in the case of Trayvon Martin, the white religious community – including those affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, this area’s dominant affiliation – has so far been silent and invisible.”

Well, not entirely invisible. This time mainly white mainline churches are taking the question to heart.

Some black Christians are beginning to question this silence. At a predominately African-American Seventh-day Adventist congregation last Saturday, during a previously scheduled discussion of “racial progress,” a man stood up and asked why his denomination had not yet spoken or acted on the Trayvon Martin controversy.

The Rev. James Coffin, a white Adventist minister and executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, who was one of the speakers, admitted that the man was right. Coffin later wrote the man an impassioned e-mail saying his point was valid, and acknowledging his guilt for his inaction. So far, “it’s the victim’s affinity group that has to go to battle for him,” Coffin said.

“African-Americans shouldn’t be waging this battle on their own,” Coffin told me. “While it certainly has racial overtones and undertones, it’s a problem that’s bigger than just racism. So for our own well-being and self-serving purposes, if for no other reason, non-African-Americans need to get involved.”

Here is a statement from the Florida Council of Churches:

Statement of Support for the Martin Family and Call for Just Prosecution

On behalf of our churches, we wish to convey our deepest condolences to the family of Trayvon Martin. The promise of his young life in no way deserved to be ended by a gunshot within sight of his father’s front door on February 26, 2012. We pray for the family’s peace of mind in knowing of the love of God which surpasses death and for justice to be pursued in this tragic mishap so that it does not happen to another family anywhere in Florida.

Trayvon’s death was unwarranted. Florida should be a place where a person of any color can walk in a neighborhood without fear of violence or being presumed a suspicious threat. Florida should be a place where the use of deadly force is rare and uncommon. Florida should also be a place where the misuse of deadly force is not tolerated.

We call upon law enforcement in Sanford to pursue justice in this matter with deliberate effectiveness. The investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death should proceed swiftly without racial bias so that the matter is not continually tried in the media. The Martin family and the community at large need protection from vigilantism and assurance that Florida’s streets are open to all people without respect to the color of their skin. We call upon Sanford authorities to take actions that demonstrate both racial fairness and concern for the safety of the community.

Rev. Kent J. Siladi, Conference Minister, United Church of Christ in Florida

Bishop Leo Frade, Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida

Archdeacon J. Fritz Bazin, Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida

Bishop Chuck Leigh, Apostolic Catholic Church

Bishop Edward R. Benoway, Florida-Bahamas Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Bishop Timothy Whitaker, Florida Area Resident Bishop, The United Methodist Church

Rev. Willie Israel, Moravian Church Southern Province, Florida District

Rev. Dr. Paige McRight, Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Central Florida, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Dustin Lemke, Quaker Representative, Society of Friends (SEYM)

Presiding Bishop James E. McCoy, Alabama/Florida Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Robert Watkins, Florida Mission Center President, Community of Christ

Fr. Richard Doscher, Ecumenical Representative, Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida

Rev. W. Harvey Jenkins, Executive Presbyter (Retired), Presbyterian Church (USA)

Martha R. Beach, District Executive Minister, Church of the Brethren

The Rev. Rory H.B. Harris, Rector of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Sanford describes the situation in his community, the participation of the parish in work on behalf of the homeless, his personal experience with Chief Lee, and the support the parish gave to the rallies yesterday.

“Justice should be blind, but is never deaf or unable to speak” Fr. Rory HB Harris +

Several of our diocesan clergy have expressed concern and interest in the emerging Trayvon Martin death and shooting that has engendered a call for justice across our nation.

Please pray for the City and community of Sanford as we attempt to seek justice while maintaining a peace that honors this young man’s life, and moves our community to wholeness and healing.

There are two rallies planned for those who want to express their concerns over how the matter of Trayvon Martin has been handled after his shooting death by George Zimmerman on February 26th.

Tonight, March 22nd, Thursday at 7 p.m. the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose mother died this morning (R.I.P.) will conduct a rally at the Fort Mellon Park on East 1st Street (Rte. 46) with some 2,000 to 20,000 expected to attend. There is some concern that this rally may get out of hand (a word of caution). The rally was originally scheduled to be at the Shiloh Baptist Church on Elm Street but has just recently been moved to Fort Mellon Park.

The main rally will be on Monday, March 26th at 4 p.m. at the Sanford Civic Center off Commerce Street and Sanford Avenue – 1 block north of 1st Street – Rte. 46. The Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson are expected to lead the rally prior to the City of Sanford’s City Commissioner meeting at 5 p.m. I plan to attend this rally as a member of the Sanford Ministers Fellowship, and as Vice Chair of Seminole Action Coalition Serving Our Needy (S.A.C.S.O.N.), a faith based community working on issues surrounding homelessness and the needy.

I will have part of our parish parking lot allotted for parking for Monday’s rally. Our lot is at 4th Street and South Park Avenue (400).

This issue has become a national issue over the conduct of Sanford’s police department in not arresting George Zimmerman who was the Home Owners’ Association head, who apparently stalked Trayvon Martin after being told by a 911 operator not to follow him, that the police were being dispatched and would handle this.

Zimmerman continued to follow Martin who was entering the gated apartment complex where he was staying with his father and his father’s fiance. He had just come back from a 7-11 with a box of Skittles and a soda, when Zimmerman started following him in his truck and eventually got out of his truck and ostensibly forced a confrontation that led to Zimmerman feeling threatened for his life and shooting and killing the 17 year old Trayvon Martin (this is Zimmerman’s side of the story).

Since the incident on Feb. 26th, the Police Department released the 911 call from Zimmerman which shows he was asked not to follow Trayvon Martin, and his family obtained records which clearly show that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend back in Miami (where his mother lives) and that he was afraid that someone was following him, and was advised by his girlfriend to run away.

The issues surrounding this tragic event relate to the actions of the Sanford Police who arrived on the scene after the shooting. The officers did not arrest or take Zimmerman into custody, nor did they confiscate his weapon (a Kel Tec 9 mm semi-automatic handgun), nor test Zimmerman for alcohol or blood test for drugs, nor run a back ground check on his criminal record. They took his story that he was attacked from behind and defended himself, carrying a gun under the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law. The police did check Trayvon Martin’s blood and alcohol content, but did not go door-to-door to ask if a teenager resident was missing!

The initial police report does not show that Zimmerman had a bloodied nose, or wet T-Shirt from a wrestling struggle with Martin, those were disclosed in a second police report a day later.

The City of Sanford City Commissioners voted a “no confidence” vote against Police Chief Bill Lee last night by a 3 to 2 vote. Mayor Jeff Triplett voted “no confidence” as did Commissioners Velma Williams (our African American Commissioner) and Mike McCarty who initiated the motion, and has been asking the Police Chief to resign because he didn’t feel the Chief was arresting enough panhandlers and homeless persons. (Politics makes strange bedfellows, as Mayor Triplett and Velma WIlliams have been working positively on the studied panhandling ordinance and homeless issues after Sanford was featured on two episodes of 60 Minutes concerning having two-thirds of the homeless population in Seminole County).

The continuance, suspension or firing of the Chief of Police, Bill Lee is entirely in the hands of City Manager, Norman Bonaparte, Jr. who has called for a Inquiry of the Sanford Police Department before making his decision.

Personally, I feel that Police Chief Bill Lee has been a good chief for Sanford.

He is a compassionate man who I serve with on the City’s Task Force on Homelessness. I do feel, however, that his thoroughness in investigating this matter and lack of timely release of information (“communication” issue cited by Mayor Triplett), the non-arrest of Zimmerman, and a history within Sanford’s Police Department of giving latitude to those connected to the police department have led us to a “no confidence” situation with Chief Lee.

I ask your prayers for the City of Sanford, which was feeling very positive and proactive about itself and its steps to address the homelessness issue through a Transformation Center before this incident erupted. I ask your prayers for the Martin family, the Zimmermans, the Lee family and our community — all caught up in a very human tragedy.

In Christ’s love and service,

Fr. Rory Harris +

Rector of Holy Cross Episcopal Church

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