Can Sanford Pastors' Success Work in Other Cities?
A Sanford prayer vigil, days after George Zimmerman was acquitted.
A diverse group of 40 pastors gathered in a Detroit hotel today to hear a remarkable tale: how the pastors of Sanford, Florida, spared their city from the racially charged protests that erupted nationwide last month after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering Trayvon Martin.
Sanford could have understandably been the epicenter of outrage over the controversial July verdict, which inspired significant protests—some marred by vandalism and violence—from New York to Los Angeles. Instead, this commuter suburb of Orlando weathered the aftermath so successfully that its pastors are now on a mission to spread the progress they've made toward calm and reconciliation to urban centers nationwide.
Already on the list after Detroit: Toledo, Charlotte, New York, Denver, and Minneapolis.
"The timing is absolutely right for this. There is no question about it," said Derrick Gay, pastor of Sanford's Dominion International Church and an organizer of the tour. "We as the church have been given, according to 2 Corinthians 5, the ministry of reconciliation. There's no other institution on earth that has been given this authority—not the government, not the banks, not the education system that we have."
The collaboration, in which pastors across racial, ethnic, and denominational lines meet to eat, pray, and candidly air racial concerns, is even more notable in a city with the historical distinction of being where Jackie Robinson was ousted from minor-league baseball training in 1946.
Leading the charge is Sanford Pastors Connecting (SPC), the interracial, cross-denominational group first organized by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to help the city of Sanford navigate fallout from the shooting death of unarmed, 17-year-old Martin there in February 2012.
The Department of Justice sent veteran mediator Thomas Battles to Sanford to help keep the peace after Martin's death. He, in turn, organized pastors to form SPC. The pastors were given four reserved seats daily in the local courtroom during Zimmerman's trial. The pastors rotated through to witness the proceedings firsthand and to relay what was going on to courthouse crowds and to their own congregations.
SPC pastors agreed to support the jury's verdict, whatever it was, and keep the peace afterward. When the jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, it seemed it might be a problematic promise to keep.
But solidarity and prayers played a big part in diffusing any violence that might have broken out in Sanford, either during the initial unrest over Martin's death or when Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted, said Joel Hunter, a SPC member perhaps best known as one of President Barack Obama's spiritual advisors.
"We had already built up a very solid core of people who were committed to not just reacting to a verdict, but sifting through how we could improve the community because of this," said Hunter. His congregation, Northland: A Church Distributed, near Sanford is predominantly white, and is the largest evangelical church in central Florida.
Hunter said that sitting together through the somber, racially charged Zimmerman trial ironically helped to bridge some of the long-entrenched disconnect between Sanford's black and white clergy.
Positioned side by side, chatting before and after court proceedings, and having lunch together during breaks "has built a much closer relationship between many of the African-American pastors and Anglo pastors," said Hunter. "You can say talk is cheap. But when you go through something like this and you have an ongoing dialogue, the closeness of relationships that happens is really remarkable."