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From Tampa Bay pulpits, agony and prayer in wake of verdict

Tammy Haynes, left, Whitney Tillman, center, and Crystal Haynes react during a sermon at a youth service at the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford on Sunday.  Many in the congregation wore shirts in support of Trayvon Martin following the acquittal of  George Zimmerman, who had been charged in the 2012 shooting death of Martin.

Associated Press

Tammy Haynes, left, Whitney Tillman, center, and Crystal Haynes react during a sermon at a youth service at the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford on Sunday. Many in the congregation wore shirts in support of Trayvon Martin following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had been charged in the 2012 shooting death of Martin.

The morning after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering an unarmed black teenager, black religious leaders in the Tampa Bay area called during their Sunday sermons for calm.

"Justice was done, based on how the law says it's supposed to go," the Rev. Desmond Cribb, a minister at the Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, told a room packed with worshippers.

"The bottom line is: We said let justice prevail, so we have to be able to accept that," he counseled, telling the congregation to "let it go."

Protests across the country have drawn hundreds of supporters for Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who Zimmerman shot and killed in February 2012 in Sanford. Zimmerman said the killing was in self-defense, and on Saturday night a jury acquitted him of murder and manslaughter.

In April last year, Martin's parents were part of a town hall meeting at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in Tampa that drew some 400 people.

On Sunday, the Rev. W. James Favorite told more than 100 people at the morning service that the verdict was an "injustice."

"It is really very irritating that a black teenager (can be) shot … and then have someone claim they were defending" himself, Favorite told parishioners. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Favorite criticized a justice system that would try a man for killing a black youth and allow a jury of six women — five of them white and one Hispanic — on the panel.

"We have a right to a jury of our peers," he said. "Where are our peers in this situation?"

He added, "There is not justice for African-Americans in this country. We may as well accept it. ... We do not like that kind of justice. Lady Justice has her blindfold off in regards to us."

Favorite finished by saying, "But we can pray. And that's what I urge us to do today."

Many churchgoers said Sunday they were struggling to make peace with the jury's decision.

Those who stayed up late Saturday to hear the verdict said they spent the night worrying, thinking of their children and grandchildren and the seeming randomness of Zimmerman's encounter with Martin.

Betty Nelson, 74, who attended the 7:45 a.m. service at Mt. Zion Progressive Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, said she lay awake for hours, praying for her grandsons.

The criminal case was alluded to, but not explicitly mentioned, during the St. Petersburg church's early morning sermon, a fact that Nelson said spoke to the black community's willingness to move on.

"Contrary to what everybody thinks, black people are not out there ready to riot," she said. "We believe in justice and we believe in the court system. Even when we don't like it."

In the parking lot of Bethel Community, following Rev. Cribb's sermon, Katherine Jones, 87, said she was surprised to hear the minister say justice had been done.

"That might be it," she said, referring to the possibility for closure. But nothing about the jury's decision struck her as just, she said. "The people are not satisfied."

Cribb urged the congregation to think of Martin as an example.

"We need to teach our young men how to realize that sometimes the best thing to do is just walk away," he said. "Everybody in Florida has a gun, everybody. You never know what you might be up against."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

From Tampa Bay pulpits, agony and prayer in wake of verdict 07/14/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 14, 2013 8:46pm]
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