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Rev. Richard Cizik Headshot

An Evangelical Voice for Trayvon

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The death of Trayvon Martin ought to provoke some righteous indignation. Not just from the folks who turn out in Manhattan and Florida, where protests are occurring, but from the white evangelical community in pulpits throughout the country.

True, not all the facts are known, and a number of witnesses have come forward with presumably relevant information. Yet it is undeniable that a young man is dead and without the protests and media coverage, the person who took his life would have most likely walked away scot free. That's an outrage and reminiscent of days long before the Civil Rights movement's hard work to guarantee civil rights for all Americans.

Among those who protested in New York City was our friend and Advisory board member, the Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel. Peter is a preacher, writer and professor whose books such as Jesus and Justice argue that evangelicals must address justice issues such as racism, income inequality and a living wage, a cause for which he is a leader in that foremost of American cities, New York.

Heltzel is also a voice for a new more collaborative relationship between black and white evangelicals. This is now more and more the reality than a dream. He argues that a stream of prophetic evangelicalism emerged in the 1970s that sought to carry on the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for racial and economic justice. In contrast to the religious right, prophetic evangelicals seek to be anti-racists and are active leaders in movement for social justice. Heltzel see the election of Barack Hussein Obama as a watershed moment in the life of our nation, one that presents the evangelical church with an opportunity to claim its prophetic legacy. It is time for evangelicals -- black, brown, white and every shade in between -- to overcome our divisions on racial lines through confession of sin and repentance collectively embodied in the growing movement for justice.

As evangelicals, we've come through our desert-like wilderness experience. It's a time now in which "new evangelicals" and other like-minded believers are recovering their voice and biblical witness against the sins of racism, discrimination and inequality. You see it in the numbers of those who voted for Obama, despite the color of his skin. You see it in the sympathy given to the Occupy movement's protest that one percent of society benefits at the expense of the other 99 percent.

Heltzel marched in the "One Million Hoodie March" on March 21 in downtown Manhattan to protest, as he starkly puts it, "the fact that the man that shot and killed Trayvon Martin did so because he was black and wearing a hood." But is Heltzel the exception to the rule? If so, here's one more voice saying what happened to Trayvon Martin is an outrage.

The facts as we know them are disturbing enough. A young, unarmed, black teenager is shot dead, which is awful in itself. But then the local police department does not pursue an investigation. Not until, that is, protests by leading African-American, civil rights and religious leaders. What explains this? I am wont to only speculate, but it looks like race has something to do with police inaction. Now, a full investigation is underway. Good. Maybe it will result in charges against the neighborhood watchman who shot Travyon Martin. I certainly hope so; the facts as we know them seem to warrant it. But the investigation will indicate one way or another.

Until we know for sure, we need to be careful to distinguish between revenge and justice. And while the tragic death of Trayvon cries out for justice, it also calls for love. Let us strive to retain the dignity of all humans, even our "enemies." In this case that would mean the watchman and those in law enforcement who failed to do their duty. This is the way of Martin Luther King Jr., and the way of Jesus, and will not always be attractive to the media.

Meanwhile, some soul searching is called for here. Are we white evangelicals way too ensconced in our "gated communities" to understand the way our black brothers and sisters feel? Sadly, I suspect so. Do we have empathy for the young black males who are targeted by police and law enforcement? Something happened in our family that has forever altered our own perceptions of racism.

Over the course of the last few years, we've opened our home to take in those who are either homeless or in trouble and in need of short-term help. It certainly wasn't something we planned or expected. We did what many other families do when a need arises. When confronted with situations in which young people, sometimes in trouble with the law, need a warm roof over their heads, we did what we think Jesus would do. We offered them hospitality, which turned into weeks and months. It was quite an experience, particularly on race issues. It was a lot more than loud rap music seemingly shaking the walls. It was about their safety and perceptions, some real and some imagined, of being "targets of investigation" and improper police behavior.

When I first heard about Trayvon Martin, I thought first of "Terrance," who was one of these young men who had come to live with us. They even look alike, obviously very intelligent and handsome young African-American teenagers, with one big difference: Terrance came from a broken home, a really troubled background.

He had experienced his father being shot dead standing next to him after church on Sunday morning, and his mother abandoning him to pursue life as a drug dealer. He was as good a kid as you could expect, given his difficult upbringing, and certainly not one to draw undue attention to himself. But he did draw attention, for one reason: He was black, and our neighborhood is predominantly white. I don't recall any difficult experiences, as a result, but that's because he was careful and mindful of the circumstances. Rightly or not, I did take the initiative to urge him, and the others who have stayed with us, to take off the "hoody" at night, if he wanted to take a walk in the neighborhood. I'm open to being criticized for this, I suppose, but most people here were unfamiliar with him and that seemed like a small concession.

More to the point is this fact: Terrance complained with a certain resignation, as did our other house guests, of constantly being watched and stereotyped. They each felt singled out at various times in their lives for harassment and punishment, often which far exceeded what a young, white male would get for the same infraction. It was a symptom, in my mind and theirs, that bigotry and discrimination still exists in America.

Terrance could cite chapter and verse about how he was given detention twice as long as white kids guilty of the same misbehavior. Or how "driving while black" meant getting pulled over for the slightest of driving errors. Or how being with a white male (me), could give him a measure of protection. Do we understand how wrong it is for these things to be happening in America?

It makes you more sensitive to the racial realities that still exist in America. We aren't yet living in a color-blind society. There is still racism in our communities. There's a black man in the White House, but there are many places where you can get killed just because of the color of your skin. That's really sad, and just one reason why evangelicals should express some legitimate outrage, call it righteous indignation, when one young man is so senselessly killed. But will we hear of this from any evangelical church pulpit, newsletter, column or blog?