Several United Church of Christ groups, in the aftermath of a contentious case in a Florida murder trial, are responding to the "not guilty" verdict for George Zimmerman in number of ways, calling for legal reform, for confrontation of racism, for prayer, and for change instead of chaos.
Protests in response to the verdict began early morning on July 14, in the hours after a Florida jury found Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The killing of the unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla., on February 26, 2012, fueled a furious debate around the country about equality under the law and racial profiling.
The Florida Conference of the UCC acknowledged that the jury’s decision points to racial inequalities in the United States, and echoed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King in saying that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
A statement from the conference, signed by acting Conference Minister the Rev. Bill Wealand, and regional Conference Ministers the Rev. Sarah Lund and the Rev. Raymond Hargrove, asks people of faith to take action.
"It is with deep sorrow that we reflect on the great injustice to our neighbors this day," the statement reads. "We are a frightened that in a nation where freedom and justice are lauded and defended, a young unarmed man walking home from an errand was shot and killed. We are a nation of injustice when his killer goes free.
"We call for a widespread response to this injustice and to take courageous and bold steps to reform our laws, to hold elected officials accountable, to confront racism and white privilege and to peacefully work for change," the statement concludes.
Former Florida Conference Minister the Rev. Kent Siladi, now the Conference Minister in Connecticut, recalls the attention the case garnered. He, like his former conference, urged togetherness in his response to the verdict.
"My office in Florida was 12 miles from Sanford," Siladi said. "As the news broke and the Trayvon Martin shooting became a national story, it became painfully evident to many that the ‘stand your ground’ laws of the state needed to be changed. The scourge of racism that permeates our planet was sharpened as tempers flared and the tragic unfolding of this case has reminded us one more time of the divisions that continue to pull us apart."
But to move on from the case, with all its tension and agony, would be a "serious mistake," Siladi continues.
"We must talk with one another," he said. "We must work for justice. We must engage this mission in ways that do not cause further division. We must not approach this work with a self-righteous attitude but with humility and openness that we are the ones who need to be transformed."
The Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, shared with the congregation the discussion he and his son had on their reactions to the verdict. He and other religious leaders in Chicago are urging constructive change, not destructive action.
Moss’ son drew pictures of Martin, something the pastor said could be a lesson for society in its reaction. "Maybe we are called to draw. Not to get angry but to draw," Moss said. "Create a new world."
In Atlanta, public protest took to the streets, with one UCC congregation serving as the starting point for a march through the heart of the city. The Rev. Derrick Rice, pastor of Sankofa United Church of Christ, was among the organizers of a Monday night rally with thousands of marchers that began at his church and ended at the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. The rally was a public demonstration against racial inequalities, particularly affecting young African American men who may be racially profiled.
A professor at UCC-related Lancaster Theological Seminary, Greg Carey, wrote in the Huffington Post that the church can be the basis for healing given that it created a void between white communities and black communities on the issue.
"If the church is serious about being an agent of reconciliation, we white Christians will pay attention for a while, listen closely, and respond in solidarity," he writes. "That won't bring justice for Trayvon, but it does represent an essential first step."