SANFORD, FLORIDA -- In the halcyon days of the 1960s civil rights movement, no march, protest or demonstration in the South was complete without white ministers, priests and rabbis prominently in the ranks, linking arms with their African American brothers and sisters. Each was acting -- as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once described himself -- as a "drum major for justice." Of course, in that era, most of the white clergy were from up North.
But in the case of the movement in support of the cause of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, 17-year-old African American fatally shot Feb. 26 in a gated community in this Central Florida town, local white faith leaders have been missing from action in the movement for justice for nearly a month.
From both this world and the Great Beyond, I can hear a chorus of that great trio of social action veterans, Father Theodore Hesburgh, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, reciting the verse from Deuteronomy (16:18-20): "Justice, justice, shall you pursue!"
The first white clergy didn't appear publicly in support of the Martin family until March 21 -- and that lone exception was there by invitation. Leaders of the growing movement, primarily local and national black pastors and elected officials, invited a Southern Baptist preacher, the Rev. Alan Brumback, of the diverse, 1,000-member Central Baptist Church of Sanford, to lead one of the opening prayers at an evening rally at the city's lakeside municipal park, which drew a crowd of more than 8,000.
Brumback stuck to the standard gospel, eschewing the many other strident calls for justice for the slain teenager from others on the stage.
On the crowded platform, which included the Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown and Martin Luther King III, Brumback prayed, "Father, as you know, a great tragedy has befallen our city that has shaken the entire world. We do not understand as you do the entirety of the situation, the motives of man nor the outcome but we know that you are in full control."
"If anyone can understand the pain of losing a son, surely Father you do, in that you showed your great love for us in that you did not spare your one and only Son Jesus to save us," he prayed, citing John 3:16: "Father, we pray not only for the family who is mourning and hurting but also for the city. ... Father, we pray for those who would seek to use this horrific tragedy to profit gain or instill hate. Lord, we pray that instead of allowing Satan to bring about division in our city that you would take that 'which was meant for evil and bring about good,'" quoting Genesis 50:20.
Before the night was out, the preacher's prayer was widely circulated on YouTube.
Later, Brumback said, "I felt that being a part of tonight's rally was an opportunity to show solidarity in the community among pastors and civil leaders. To me this was not so much a racial issue as it is a gospel and justice issue."
"I felt nothing but embraced tonight at the rally," he said afterward. "Obviously, I was the only white guy on the stage, yet in no way, shape or fashion was I made to feel that way by those who organized the event. I will say that I do not fully agree with all the political wrangling that took place tonight, but I am in favor of looking for ways to reconcile."
The mood of the crowd that evening was spirited but polite and disciplined, likely buoyed by news that earlier in the day the city's police chief had stepped aside from the investigation, and that Gov. Rick Scott had appointed an outside special prosecutor to handle the case.
Also that day, the Florida Council of Churches had finally issued "A Statement of Support for the Martin Family and Call for Just Prosecution," calling Trayvon's death "unwarranted."
The Council, which represents mainline Protestant congregations, said that our state "should be a place where a person of any color can walk in a neighborhood without fear of violence or being presumed a suspicious threat. Florida should be a place where the use of deadly force is rare and uncommon.
"The Martin family and the community at large need protection from vigilantism and assurance that Florida's streets are open to all people without respect to the color of their skin."
At long last, the magnitude of what had not been happening was beginning to sink in. Over the weekend, some pastors of predominantly white congregations interrupted their normal schedule to address issues of justice and reconciliation raised by the Trayvon Martin shooting, each in the context of their respective faith traditions.
In his Sunday column in the Orlando Sentinel Scott Maxwell considered why it had taken so long for this area's majority community to understand the significance of what was happening in Sanford:
"It took speeches and demands from the likes of Sharpton, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, state Sen. Gary Siplin, state House Rep. Geraldine Thompson, Martin Luther King III and NAACP leader Ben Jealous.
Do you notice anything that all of those people have in common?
They're all black.
White leaders have been conspicuously absent."
Why were white clergy so reluctant to engage in this issue? It may be because they lead suburban congregations composed by and large of parishioners whose daily lives are socially isolated, antiseptic, homogeneous, and largely segregated by race and class. It may also be the lingering legacy of the South, except that many of the faith leaders, like those in the pews, have moved here from other regions of the country. They have different explanations for the silence. They may simply have been waiting for all the facts of the incident to emerge, and not rush to judgment.
"To be honest, I don't know why," said the Rev. David Charlton, the recently arrive pastor of Sanford's First United Methodist Church. "I don't have a good answer, and it's happened on my front steps."
"Some of us are hesitant to get out front," said the Rev. Charles Higgins, of Westview Baptist Church, which he described as a diverse congregation. "We do things in the background. We're trying not to make this a racial issue. We're trying to bring peace and reconciliation to the city and to represent Jesus Christ."
In any event, by Monday, two days after President Obama added his words of concern for Trayvon and the Martin family from the White House, things began to improve. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Sanford's Centennial Park, across the street from the city's unofficial "Church Street," a leafy drive lined with mainline houses of worship, white and black, for a rally and march led by Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. While there were few white faces in the crowd without notebooks, microphones or cameras, across the street in the First United Methodist Church of Sanford, it was quite different.
Two dozen clergy, including 10 white men and women, including Alan Brumback, joined hands in a circle and prayed. "As a white man, I can be a blessing to people of every color," said the Rev. Wendell Bishop, of First Baptist Church of Sanford, just across the street.
"My heart's been breaking," he said, "wanting for this opportunity to be an encouragement to those who are hurting. Our heart's desire is to help."
In another room, the Right Rev. Gregory O. Brewer, the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida, and about a half dozen other Episcopal priests met with other local clergy.
As for why it has taken a month for white clergy to join the call for justice in the Trayvon Martin case, Brewer said, "I am very sorry it has taken this long. ... I believe in a God that says everyone matters. Some people decided that Trayvon Martin didn't matter."
The Rev. Randolph W. B. Becker, one of three Unitarian Universalist pastors -- all wearing yellow T-shirts -- said he had come from Key West because "Justice should be at the heart of every religion. The God that calls me is color blind."
Then the clergy, black and white, were ushered to the march as it was about to step off.
Mark I. Pinsky, former religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is author of 'A Jew Among the Evangelical.'
Follow Mark I. Pinsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarkIPinsky