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Tampa Bay religious leaders speak words of peace and justice, but some remain pessimistic

The deaths of George Floyd and other black people challenge faith leaders to guide and encourage their followers.
After the death of George Floyd following an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. On one side: "George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can't breathe!" On the other: "White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492."
After the death of George Floyd following an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. On one side: "George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can't breathe!" On the other: "White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492." [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Jun. 2, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — As the nation has seethed and pontificated over the death of George Floyd, local spiritual leaders have not been immune to expressions of pain and recriminations juxtaposed against images of horror and shock.

In Tampa, the Rev. Magrey R. deVega, brought immediacy on Sunday to the observation of Pentecost, a significant Christian feast day, at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

“We struggle for words in the wake of more evidence of how broken we are by injustice and inequality,” the congregation prayed. “You give voice to our sighs in the form of names — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd — and countless others.”

Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which encompasses five Tampa Bay counties, issued a statement Monday about the issue that as been roiling the country.

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

“The manner in which George Floyd died is an atrocity to the humanity and dignity that each person has as a child of God," Parkes said in part. "As a church, we stand in solidarity with peaceful protesters who demand justice and respect for black individuals who have suffered the effects of racism for generations.”

Related: George Floyd: Frustration in Tampa Bay after another ‘I can’t breathe’ death
The Rev. Manuel Sykes
The Rev. Manuel Sykes

Even as they are expected to offer words of comfort and guidance, some faith leaders are candid about their anger. The Rev. Louis Murphy, pastor Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, said he isn’t sure what to say.

“I’m in deep meditation right now. What can you say to a people, to a congregation? People are looking for answers,” he said. “It’s time for us to stop hiding behind this curtain of upsetting white people. It’s time to have serious dialogue with people of color and courage.”

Pastor Louis Murphy
Pastor Louis Murphy [ Rev. Louis Murphy ]

“The only comfort that can come from a situation like this is a guarantee of justice,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “We need justice that is swift and complete.”

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The Rev. Doral Pulley, president of Interfaith Tampa Bay held an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the situation and issue a statement from the diverse group.

“We believe that unjust killings by the police are symptoms of deeper problems, and that we need to work for equity in education, housing, political access and economic empowerment if we are to see a truly just multi-racial society,” it said. “Our deep concern is that the commitment to the work of justice would continue after this crisis has passed.”

The Rev. Stephan Brown, who leads St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, one of two predominantly African-American Catholic churches in the Tampa Bay area, wants to focus on peace.

“Obviously, when people are yelling and burning stuff down, they can’t listen. I want to talk to people about how they feel about what has happened. Talk about the killing of African-American men. Then we need to talk about how we move forward. From anger to action, hate to hope and from justice to peace,” he said.

The Rev. Stephan Brown, St. Joseph Catholic Church, St. Petersburg
The Rev. Stephan Brown, St. Joseph Catholic Church, St. Petersburg [ T ]

Brown has arranged a forum for 5 p.m. Thursday with St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway. It aims to bring a small group together for a discussion that will be streamed online.

The Rev. Andy Oliver, whose Allendale United Methodist Church is known for delving into controversial issues, again used his church sign to signal the church’s stance. “George Floyd was lynched today by the police. We can’t breathe!” one side said. “White supremacy: The most dangerous virus infecting our country since 1492,” the other side said.

Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg,
Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, [ CORTNEY LESOVOY | Special to t ]

“As a Christian, my hope is in a God that will never leave us or forsake us,” he said, "and that hope is realized when I show up in that same way for my neighbors who are hurting.”

During a sermon Saturday, Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel emphasized Jewish values in the treatment of others. Jews, he noted, come in all hues.

“We must do the work of creating connections,” he said. "We must lead, and we must hold each other accountable.”

Imam Abdul Ali, whose father, Joseph E. Savage, organized the civil rights era sanitation strike in St. Petersburg and after whom the city’s sanitation complex is named, wants harmony and justice.

“We don’t want to see our brother’s death be in vain," he said. “I believe we are going to get behind the racism that’s really plaguing us. In time we will prevail, maybe not in my lifetime.”