Uniting in prayer and rallying for justice in the wake of the shooting death of an unarmed Florida teenager, United Church of Christ national staff members, ecumenical partners from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and local Clevelanders worshiped and marched in solidarity March 28 in downtown Cleveland.
"My colleagues know me pretty well, and they know that sometimes my emotions get the better of me," said the Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and guest preacher at the service in the Amistad Chapel of the UCC's Church House. "I can already tell you this is one of those days, so ... bear with me, or join me."
Speaking from her heart about the Feb. 26 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Watkins' reflection centered on the parable of the Good Samaritan and "loving thy neighbor as thyself." Williams was shot and killed after being reported as "suspicious" by a local block-watch captain, who then followed the teen against the dispatcher's advice.
Referencing the parable's beaten and abandoned traveler, Watkins said, "Today our hearts are breaking in part because of the tragedy where ‘neighborhood' was misunderstood and where no Good Samaritan got there in time to avert the worst."
Watkins said she considered Mark 8 - in which Jesus' initial attempts to restore a blind man's sight were "sort of" successful - as the basis for her sermon. "The man had to go back to Jesus for some corrective vision," said Watkins. "So often, the problem for us in America around race is that we don't see quite right. Our eyes are clouded, our vision is distorted by centuries of racism. What we are seeing is not quite what is really there."
"Racism causes us to respond inappropriately - disastrously sometimes, with deadly results," she said. "We must grapple with the racism that warps our vision, that distorts the way we think, that affects the way we act. Surely, we must use that reflection as part of our way forward today."
Watkins cautioned against moving too fast, however. "Maybe we should stay by Trayvon's side a little longer, and sit with his mother and his father in their grief," said Watkins, her voice cracking, "to linger beside the long-burning embers or our own grief; our own loss."
"But the story of the Good Samaritan reminds us not to sit and stay for too long," she said. "It urges us to get up and go, to take action. Where must we go? What must we do?"
Watkins noted that the Samaritan was neither a religious professional nor a leader of any kind. "And he was far away from anyone's neighborhood, a stranger - one from a despised group - and he showed mercy."
Following the noontime service, about 100 people - led by UCC and Disciples leaders - took part in a silent march of witness through downtown Cleveland. Many of the marchers wore hooded sweatshirts as a visual representation of standing in solidarity with the Martin family.
Addressing marchers outside the Church House before they began their walk, the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, said, "We cannot wait for another tragedy like this to tear the fabric of our families and our communities apart."
"We join those seeking to stop the proliferation of gun laws that allow the destruction of our young people's hopes and dreams," said Black, reading from a statement released by the UCC's Collegium of Officers. "And we must work to stop the ‘get them first before they get us' attitude - the paranoid attacks on our young people."
Along their city-block route, marchers raised placards with the image of a hoodie-wearing Trayvon and the message, "We walk and stand in solidarity with the family of Trayvon Martin." Onlookers, passers-by and diners on sidewalk cafés quietly observed the procession, several showing their respect with looks of shared pain and nods of compassion.
The United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have been in full communion partnership since 1989, recognizing each other's sacraments and ordained ministry, and committing through their partnership to seek opportunities for common ministry. The Common Global Ministries Board, formed by the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and the Disciples' Division of Overseas Ministries, unites the international mission work of the two churches.