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Martin Luther King Jr. seen during his “I Have a Dream” speech.AP
Flashing lights caught my attention that night. I opened my front door to find a man face down on my front lawn with four cops, guns drawn, standing over him. The man on the ground was black and the police were white. I was ordered back into the house.
This was 14 years ago when I lived in Alameda, California and was pastor of that town’s Episcopal parish. When the movie “Fruitvale Station” opened I was particularly interested in seeing it, especially because I’d taken the BART train from that station many times.
“Fruitvale Station” is based on the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, 22, an unarmed black man shot in the back by a white police officer. Watching the scene where white BART cops surrounded black suspects triggered memories of similar images, like ones of white Los Angeles police officers beating an unarmed Rodney King. And with the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin still so fresh, I find myself among many Americans of faith wondering how to prevent this from happening again and again.
How can we begin to right these wrongs? Some call for a nationwide conversation. Others suggest this conversation can and should be facilitated by faith communities. And although churches, synagogues and mosques increasingly find themselves no longer at the center of community life, it’s a place to begin. In Sanford, Florida, for example, where Trayvon Martin died, black and white clergy are setting aside a long history of mistrust to cooperate, at least for now.
Mutual mistrust runs deep and we have a long way to go before people of color will enjoy the same freedom, the same liberty and justice as whites. But followers of Jesus can embrace the words of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” We need to find ways to bridge the still-cavernous racial divide.
This might look like predominantly white congregations becoming partners in ministry with historically black churches. This might look like sharing worship space with a Hispanic congregation. Outreach could be as simple as creating community events where food and fellowship bring people together.
We must start somewhere. Our nation’s soul is at stake. And people of faith can lead the way.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said 11 a.m. on Sundays is the most segregated hour in America. There may be fewer people in churches than when Dr. King was alive but his words are still true. Faith communities, if they choose, can be examples of inclusion, welcome and diversity.
I believe in a God who created Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant to “have life, and have it abundantly.” As people of faith we believe that the dream of God is a beloved community of all God’s creatures here and now. That’s the community I want to help build.
The Rev. Dan Webster is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and former media relations director at the National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA. He is a member of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.