The last week had left the preacher distraught. It had left him disturbed.
Early Sunday morning, Emanuel Cleaver III’s voice rose, and he began to shout. All the senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City could say was that he was frustrated, he was angry. That he was disappointed, he was hurt.
The chaos of the last few days had begun to settle. But that didn’t mean what had come to pass in the shadow of Independence Day, the deaths of five police officers in Dallas and two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, was far from the mind of churchgoers in the Kansas City area over the weekend. Churches and holy places in the area reflected on the nationwide sense of loss. And on Sunday, many congregants prayed, remembering all the deaths: of the civilians, of the fallen police officers.
Before his sermon, Cleaver looked toward the crowd and spoke to the young black men in the church. If you’re stopped by police, your best chance of survival in spite of what happened last week is still to listen to the officers, he said. Cleaver, the son of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, said he had been stopped by police for doing absolutely nothing. He remembered being harassed in states across America.
“I believe still, the best chance of survival, is to comply,” he said. “It’s better to fight in court than it is on the streets.”
And for the next week, he told his church and invited other churches to pray at 9:06 p.m. The minute mattered, he said, because it was around the time that Philando Castile was shot to death in his car and the immediate aftermath was streamed on the internet.
Maybe by praying together at the same time each night, Cleaver said, their sadness would be felt, their pain would be heard.
“We need to come together as a nation and face racism,” said Leola Evans, a longtime parishioner at St. James. “We never want to talk about it, but we need to talk about it.”
The Rev. Stephen Cook spends his days serving two Catholic churches near Troost Avenue in Kansas City. Among some of the black parishioners, Cook said, a sense of hopelessness could be felt.
“You try to do the right thing, it doesn’t help,” Cook said of the deaths. “Try and do it the right way, it doesn’t help.”
His weekend message to churchgoers was short: Be a beacon of hope amid the violence. He could understand the pain. He could understand losing hope. But even in this time of turmoil, Cook said, churches like his can still be a place where people come to feel welcomed and accepted, loved and honored. There was still confusion, and it was still hard to know just what to say.
“Something needs to be done, but what?” Cook said. “This is a serious problem in our country, how do we address it? And I think (there’s) a real desire to address it. But just how do we do it?”
And on Sunday, like so many days before, an answer of any kind was hard to come by.
At the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, senior pastor Adam Hamilton recounted the events that had unfolded in the past week in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas, and read the names of the seven shooting victims.
“The president noted yesterday in his press conference that he does not believe that we are as racially divided as the news would seem to convey,” Hamilton said. “I agree with that. “
Most police officers want to and do treat all people with respect and dignity, he said, and most black people want to trust law enforcement and to support them.
“They grieve the events in Dallas, and none of us want racial tensions or violence to escalate,” he said. “Instead, we long for the day when Dr. King’s dream would become a reality.”
However, Hamilton said, “one of the things that we fail as whites to understand is the experience, perception and concerns of African-Americans.”
Hamilton urged black people to share their experiences with their white friends and white people to ask their black friends about their feelings.
“When whites hear the phrase ‘black lives matter,’ many immediately want to respond: ‘But wait. Wait. All lives matter.’ Of course all lives matter; everybody understands that,” he said. “But the reason why ‘black lives matter’ needs to be said is because one of the assumptions in parts of our society is that black lives matter less than white lives.”
Churches need to get more involved in healing the nation, Hamilton said.
“We as the church may very well be the answer,” he said. “But we’ve got to own the fact that God wants to use us to make a world that looks very different. And if we don’t, and if we just pretend like this isn’t really an issue, it’s going to get worse and worse and worse and worse.”
A policy change won’t end the violence, said Rabbi Daniel Kirzane of Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park. It has to be a shift in the way people feel about one another. And on Friday night just hours after the shootings in Dallas, Kirzane said that people cannot understand evil. But they can withstand it.
“I know there’s a lot of rancor from a lot of different communities,” he said before the weekend service. “What we share is a horror at the taking of life.”
In a small pink church in Kansas City, Kan., a mostly black congregation prayed together, just like many Sundays before. They prayed about the death they’d seen and the losses the country shared last week. The Tabernacle Baptist Church celebrated its 113th anniversary Sunday.
The violence of the day was not the answer, the Rev. George DeBose said. If there was ever a time that people needed prayer, it was now. He told the members of the congregation to not do anything stupid. If police pulled them over, be smart, he said. Don’t do anything foolish. The way things were going just wasn’t working, he said. Something had to give, sooner or later.
“Let’s change something,” he said from the pulpit. “Instead of just saying black lives matter, all lives matter.”
At the end of the service, the congregants agreed they were there to try to make sense of the pain, the suffering of the last week. They said they’d look to God for help and support. They admitted there were no easy answers.
“We’re in a vicious circle,” DeBose said after the service. “It seems like either we cannot or we’re not willing to break out of it.”
The service, the sorrow and the songs made Dominic Porter, 14, feel confident. It made him feel better to know that other people were concerned, that other people wanted the killing to stop. Dominic had already seen too much death, too much dying.
“I’m sick and tired of it.”