Sound the Alarm: Bronx pastor responds to Zimmerman verdict

An Open Letter to the United Methodist Church

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly; gather the people.  Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.  Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.  Between the vestibule and the altar, let the pastors lead our congregations in weeping.  Let them say: “Spare your people, O God, and do not make your heritage a mockery…”  JOEL 2:15-17 

This is not the time for usual pastoral letters indicating support for the aggrieved while being careful not to offend the white majority. The killing of black teenagers is rampant nation-wide, and is now legal in Florida.

A lot of white people don’t see a problem with this verdict and United Methodists in the United States are 92 percent white.  Denominational leaders, who are already concerned about institutional decline, may not want to risk ruffling white feathers on this one.  But this moral crisis must be addressed.

When an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed in my community by a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer last year – in the teenagers’ own home – it occurred to me that this wouldn’t have happened in the white suburb where I grew up.  When I joined 12 pastors in a meeting with the NYPD’s Bronx commander about the shooting, the black and Latino pastors also shared their personal experiences of being harassed by the NYPD.  Neither I nor any of the other white pastors had a similar story to share.

To what extent was George Zimmerman’s suspicion of Trayvon Martin connected to race?   Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and its interpretation in the Sanford verdict declare that it was legal for George Zimmerman to follow his suspicion, confront the teen, and then when feeling threatened, to kill him.

In the words of one black father, “Now, what do I tell my boys?  We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”1

It is time for United Methodists to declare a fast – a national day of mourning in all our congregations.  And then we should decide not to hold any denomination-wide meetings in Florida until it rescinds its “Stand Your Ground” law. This will sound the alarm in Florida and across the country, and encourage some much-needed straight talk about race.

Doug Cunningham, Pastor

New Day United Methodist Church

Bronx, New York

1  Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed page, New York Times, July 15, 2013.

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