Usually I go to a Good Friday service in the evening. This year was different. I went to a special morning Good Friday service in Sanford, Florida—the famed city where on February 26th, Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman.
Sanford is just 20 minutes north of Oviedo, where I serve at Reformed Theological Seminary. A special two hour Good Friday prayer service for area pastors and religious leaders was called at Holy Cross Episcopal Church.
As you know, there is an on-going investigation into the death of Martin that has captured national attention. The story is all over our newspapers every day with claims and counter claims. One article says that it is a case of racial profiling and murder and that Zimmerman should be arrested immediately. Another article says that Martin beat Zimmerman and threatened his life—the shooting was in self defense after he was attacked.
One makes it a case about civil rights and racism. Yet another makes it about gun rights, “stand your ground” laws. One complains about the “doctored” photos of Zimmerman and his injury. Another complains that the photos of Martin are from when he was a younger boy which are used to evoke sympathy.
People on both sides are rushing to judgment, proclaiming Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, or Martin’s “innocent blood” or suspicious character. Some members of congress have called Zimmerman a murderer before he has even been charged. Others are assuming Martin must have started the incident because of the recent events of his life. Resentment and hatred are building. The New Black Panthers have even offered a bounty for Zimmerman’s capture! Just about every day when I read this stuff, I mutter to myself–“what a mess!”
I went to this service because it was not a demonstration. There was no grand standing. To my knowledge, there was no media. It was a prayer meeting where African American, Hispanic, and Anglo pastors came together to ask for God’s help and to contemplate our lives before the cross of Jesus. What light does the cross shed on the Trayvon Martin case? Plenty.
1 Part of the service focused on our sin and desperate need for forgiveness. Think about it. And start before February 26th please. Why do we have gated communities and neighborhood watch captains anyway? There was a man walking in our community recently who was raping women in our town. Our society is coming apart. The problems of this case started before the shooting. The shooting was symptomatic of bigger trends and deeper problems—selfishness, greed, hatred, racism, etc..
Add to that the deep history of African Americans in the South. As one pastor asked—“why is this case getting so much attention? Because there is “an echo of a much longer history and a much larger hurt.”
Sanford itself was founded by a man who wanted to send all black Americans back to Africa! It is one of those cities in the 1940s where Jackie Robinson could not play baseball because he was black. The crowd booed him off the field. The Robinsons were run out of town with threats of violence. And in recent years, there have been other allegations of racial injustice. Now the trust level between African Americans and Sanford authorities is at an all time low.
This history is complicated by a rapidly changing demographic landscape. In Central Florida, an unprecedented number of Latino immigrants have arrived. Zimmerman is not an Anglo southerner. He is a Hispanic. His mother is from Peru. Of course, anyone can be a racist. But this is not your typical black vs. white affair. Instead we have a multi background city, like many other cities in America, where people have a hard time getting along.
In the days ahead, everything will be much more complicated as lawyers go to battle and try to make either Martin or Zimmerman look even worse.
Deep sinful patterns and self justification are part of our own lives. We all stand unclean before a holy God and need his forgiveness. As Romans 3 says, “there is no one righteous, not even one.”
2 Part of the service focused on the cross and our need for grace. These pastors seemed to understand what many in the media do not. That is, this is so messy that only a gospel solution is an adequate remedy. Yes, we want truth and justice to come out in the proceedings, but ultimately, we need more than a legal remedy here.
Given the depth of our sin, especially highlighted on Good Friday, we were driven to focus on the cross. Because just as our sin is worse than we want to admit, so too, the news of God’s stunning grace through the cross is more wonderful than we can fathom. When we bring our sin to the cross and confess it, there is full forgiveness.
Ephesians 2.11ff speaks about insurmountable walls of division—between Jew and Gentile. It says that Jesus is one who destroys dividing walls of hostility. He is our peace. He makes peace through the cross and puts to death our hostility. He brings access to the Father and a new ground for relationship to one another. His purpose is to create one new body out of the two formerly hostile parties.
It is this same Jesus who, according to 2 Corinthians 5 gives us a message and ministry of reconciliation. It says that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”
It seems to me that what is needed more than anything else is a moderating gospel voice in this whole mess that points to the deeper solutions found in Jesus Christ.
The church holds the key for breakthroughs in Sanford, as well as for other parts of our nation that are coming apart.
So, a lot of us were “amening” as a black female preacher thundered that “our hope is in the gospel of reconciliation.”
3 Part of the service focused on intercession for the city of Sanford. Why is prayer always the last resort? I don’t know. But I do know it is good when pastors and Christ followers pray together. We prayed for the Martin family, and we prayed for the Zimmermans. We prayed for the city officials, the media and the special prosecutor. We prayed for righteousness, truth and justice. And we prayed for the churches in Seminole County, that they would be the place where new community and new trust is built.
Will you pray for these same things?
Meanwhile, engage in conversation with people of other racial backgrounds. Listen to each other. And let your conversations drive you to the cross as well.
None of us know what will happen next. But we do know that if the church is praying together like this, there is great hope for Sanford. It will lead to sacred and civil conversations that can lead towards rebuilding this community.