Rev. John K. Jenkins, Sr. looked out at the congregation of First Baptist Church of Glendarden and sighed.
Less than 12 hours after jurors in Sanford, Fla., found George Zimmerman not guilty in the fatal shooting of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin, he was having “trouble” coming to terms with the verdict and what it meant for justice, and righteousness, or the lack thereof, in this country.
Though the church celebrated its annual Music and Arts Ministry on July 14, Jenkins had a heavy heart. His topic for the day was “Directions for Troubled Times.”
“I was speechless,” Jenkins told his audience about his reaction to the verdict. “It took the breath out of me.”
Jenkins said he found particularly disturbing statements made by one of Zimmerman’s defenders. “I heard the man’s lawyer say he did nothing wrong…I heard the killer’s lawyer say [Trayvon] used the concrete as a weapon.”
At one point, tears began to roll down his cheeks.
Even for men and women accustomed to explaining evil and wrong, the verdict that freed Zimmerman proved difficult. Jenkins and several other pastors from Baltimore to the metropolitan Washington area decried the verdict July 14 and urged their members to understand that the verdict indicated that Black life was not as valuable as White life, despite some race gains over the last 50 years.
While some Americans believe the verdict delivered by the six-woman jury was just, many Blacks found it implausible that the jurors could acquit Zimmerman in the 2012 slaying of Martin, 17.
Rev. Dr. Beryl Whipple, pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in White Marsh, near Baltimore, said he was not surprised by the jurors’ decision.
“This is a wake-up call not just for America, but for African Americans,” he said.
“This is a call to finally put an end to the senseless violence and be active in their community to make sure a tragedy like this never happens again.”
Whipple, like Jenkins, heard the verdict on television.
“I was watching CNN at home,” he said. “I don’t think he was innocent…Zimmerman killed a minor. In this case, we missed the mark on our opportunity for justice. I can only assume they came to that verdict based on their own life experience….They sided more with the community watch patrol officer than the young man trying to get home.”
Rev. Grady Yeargin, pastor of City Temple Baptist Church of Baltimore, preached in a hoodie, the morning after the verdict, as did Rev. Tony Lee, pastor of Community of Hope AME Church in Temple Hills in Prince George’s County.
Trayvon was wearing a hoodie on the night Zimmerman reported him to police as a suspicious person, then followed, fought with and fatally shot the youth.
"When you have great progress, there is always great pushback,” Lee told his congregation. “We want to act like we're in this post-racial society where everything is ‘Howdy, howdy’ and everything is all good. Just because you found you have a Black woman, Black man, Black baby girls, a Black dog and a Black grandmamma in the White House, you thought it was a post-racial society."
Several pastors said they believe race figured in the verdict, just as it did in the shooting and the investigation by law enforcement officials in Sanford, Fla., where Martin was killed.
Trayvon was “racially profiled from the beginning” to the end of the case, Whipple said.
“With this verdict, it showed that in the 21st century, we haven’t really moved forward as we should have it terms of racism,” he said. “We didn’t have justice in this case.”
Like Jenkins, he took offense at the idea that Trayvon had assaulted Zimmerman during the fight that ensued after Zimmerman refused a police dispatcher’s order to stay inside his car and followed and confronted the youth. Trayvon was returning to his father’s home in the community after going to the store to buy snacks.
“Travon Martin was trying not to get shot, he didn’t use the concrete as a weapon,” Whipple said.
At Turner Memorial AME Church in Hyattsville, the Rev. William H. Lamar IV asked his members to call out the names of the Black men they love—children, brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, etc.
“I’m very clear that this nation continues to tell us that America does not value Black flesh the way it values the flesh of others,” Lamar told the AFRO after the service. “My whole context was that our ancestors were true freedom fighters, but we are asleep at the wheel. We have confused civil rights victories with the ultimate victory of the freedom struggle. And [Supreme Court Chief] Justice John Roberts told us in the recent decision [on the Voting Rights Act] that they do not even intend to let us keep our civil rights.”
Jenkins, who preached from Psalms 27:1-6, urged his members to continue to praise through the troubled times, as well. The congregation, led by the male chorus and praise and worship team, sang a lengthy rendition of Psalm 3:3 from the Bible.
“For thou, Oh Lord, are a shield for me. A glory and the lifter-up of my head…I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who set themselves against me round about,” they sang.
Be encouraged and continue to pray, Jenkins told his members.
“Although the world is ugly, we serve a beautiful God.”
Teria Rogers contributed to this report.