EATONVILLE, Florida (AP) _ African-American community churches around the U.S. on Sunday amplified the cries for justice in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, with the increasingly loud calls coming from the pulpits of what have been cultural and often political institutions in America.
The one-month anniversary of the black teen's death is Monday. He was shot while wearing a hooded sweatshirt as he walked home on a rainy night in a gated Florida community. The neighborhood watch volunteer who shot him, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, is the son of a white father and Hispanic mother, and the demands to charge him in Martin's slaying have grown ever louder. He had called police to report the hooded teenager as suspicious; Martin was carrying a bag of Skittles candy and a can of iced tea, talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone.
In religious centers from Florida to Atlanta, New York and Chicago, messages from pulpits couldn't help but touch on a seemingly avoidable tragedy that continues to be rife with more questions than answers. Many preachers and their congregations wore hooded sweatshirts in Martin's memory. But while the calls continued to be for the arrest of Zimmerman, there were also calls to use the incident to spark a larger movement.
“How do we turn pain into power?'' the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader, asked a standing-room only congregation of hundreds while preaching at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, Florida, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the site of the Sanford shooting. “How do we go from a moment to a movement that curries favor?''
Jackson preached a sermon titled “The Substance of Things Hoped For,'' and called for, among other things, that Martin's “martyr'' death be used as an opportunity to revive the Civil Rights Commission and draw attention to long-standing issues. Very young children and teens sat in the choir behind him.
“The blood of the innocent has power,'' Jackson said to shouts of “Amen'' and loud clapping as he invoked the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and other slain civil rights activists.
Jackson made a direct plea to change the “Stand Your Ground'' self-defense law enacted in Florida that many believe local police used as a shield to avoid arresting Zimmerman.
Afterward, congregants said Jackson's message resonated.
“This kind of activism never stopped in the church, that's what they do for us in the black community,'' said 34-year-old Nacia Bradley of Orlando. “That's what they're here to do.''
Black churches have long served as catalysts for change and were instrumental during the civil rights era. Kenneth Byers, 47, of Orlando said that hasn't changed.
“The activism (in the church) is bigger and better than ever,'' he said. “Everything Rev. Jackson said was right on time.''
At Chicago's St. Sabina Catholic Church, a predominantly black congregation, the Rev. Michael Pfleger wore the hood of his robe over his head during Mass. Pfleger, who is white, has long advocated against violence.
During Mass, one congregant held a sign reading, “We are all Trayvon Martin.''
In New York City, Middle Collegiate Church pastor Jacqueline Lewis said the church must assume both a spiritual and political role to end “the epidemic'' of racism. She encouraged her congregants to send packages of Skittles to Sanford police, sign an online petition and attend an April conference on building multiracial congregations.
It's that sense of activism that resonated with Michael Ambrosini, who left the service wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt. He said he attends the church in part because “such violence dictates strong political action, and this church takes action.''
At Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the place where civil rights icon the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, dozens of people wore hoodies in Martin's memory, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
“They said his name was Trayvon Martin. But he looked like Emmett Till,'' said Warnock of the 1955 lynching in Mississippi of a 14-year-old boy that raised awareness of civil rights abuses in the southern states. “At least with Emmett Till someone was arrested. And that was in 1955.''
Ingrid Lester, 64, showed up for services wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a Skittles wrapper pinned to it. She said the Martin case reminded her of the struggle to end racial segregation in the 1960s, when she was a teenager. And she said the church had a crucial role to play now, just as it did then.
“We need a voice, and the church is our voice,'' she said.