Talking race, faith 2 weeks after Sam DuBose killing
I reported and wrote this story as a daily the Sunday after Samuel DuBose's funeral, after the bodycam video was released showing University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing shoot and kill DuBose during a traffic stop. This was also the same week that Tensing was indicted on murder charges by a grand jury. I had covered all of these events on this week, and talk of race was prevalent in columns and comments.
This piece was originally published as the page one centerpiece in the Cincinnati and Kentucky editions of The Enquirer Monday, Aug. 3, and online Sunday, Aug. 2. It took first place in the best religion reporting category and second place in the best minority affairs reporting category of the Ohio SPJ annual contest.
Sundays for some are a day of reflection, questioning, praise, prayer.
It was exactly two Sundays ago that the life of Samuel DuBose was taken by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a routine traffic stop. On this Sunday, leaders of churches and religious centers throughout the region focused on different messages: some preached forgiveness, some preached justice, all preached unification.
Before the 25-year-old white cop, Ray Tensing, and the 43-year-old black father ever crossed paths that evening, before body cam footage showing graphic details of the fatal shooting was ever spread across the world, and before the DuBose family stood on national television, grateful that their brother, their son would not end up a stereotype, discussions about race were already happening around the country. Next week will mark one year since Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, killings by police in Baltimore, New York City and Cleveland have echoed what Cincinnati, too, is now grappling with again.
As the eyes of the nation focus on Cincinnati, it was clear that some local religious leaders felt a heightened sense of responsibility. Pastor Brian L. Taylor of Bethel Cincinnati in Clifton called together a special prayer group before his regular service on Sunday.
“I believe we’re here because people who lived in Cincinnati were praying over this city, and we are part of that answer,” he said.
The group prayed for city leaders, for law enforcement. They prayed for the DuBose family, for peace.
“Cleanse us of our prejudices, cleanse of us our defensiveness, cleanse us of our right to be right, cleanse us of those things in our hearts that aren’t like you,” said Taylor.
The group of 15, comprised of different ages and races, called out, “Umm-hmm. Amen.”
Bill Towles of Finneytown closed his eyes and spoke. “Lord, I pray not only for justice, but for the ability to endure injustice.”
The 62-year-old, who spent his first 15 years in Memphis, bowed his head. Though he never mentioned it there, Towles was speaking from experience. Having grown up in the segregated South, he was relegated to drinking from separate water fountains, eating at separate restaurants and attending separate schools from whites.
“I don’t think that we’re ever going to come to a time when we get away from the injustice and the racism. Not in my lifetime,” Towles said. “As Christians, we have to learn a new way to deal with it.”
“Thank you, Jesus,” the others whispered. A Norwood woman wiped away tears.
Towles, a husband and father of three grown children, was moved by the response of the people of Charleston, South Carolina, during a June mass shooting at a black church by a white teenager.
“I distinctly remember them forgiving him.”
He also distinctly remembers the day when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He was just a teenager when the civil rights leader was gunned down in Towles' own city.
He invoked the reverend, who once said, “Forgiveness is a catalyst, creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.”
"The spirit of forgiveness has been lacking from this whole movement. We aren’t promised easy times, a life without difficulties,” Towles said. “But that’s when we’re supposed to shine.”
A call to action for unity in Cincinnati and beyond
At Beloved Community Church in Roselawn, Pastor Nelson Pierce, 37, preached going outside the church’s doors to promote change.
Pierce, who spent four months in Ferguson, Missouri, organizing clergy and young people shortly after Michael Brown was killed, has been participating in some of the Black Lives Matter marches locally.
“Part of it is fighting the mindset and the mentality, that somehow black lives are worth less than others,” he said.
As a pastor of a mostly black church, he says that, at times, he has to challenge members of the black community itself.
“Eighty-year-old Mrs. Johnson may not feel comfortable talking to the guys hanging out on the corner. If we can bring them together, we can help create a stronger, healthier, more vibrant community right here.”
Be bold, be courageous, be willing to speak out, he asked. Participating in marches is a start, but you must speak out in the home and in the workplace to interrupt systems that perpetuate injustice, he said.
“I am a person who believes that justice has to predicate forgiveness. If there is no system of justice, then all I do in forgiving you is give you permission to do it again.”
Before the service let out, a circle formed.
“You know that I was mad at Mayor Cranley for getting up in that press conference, saying ‘be peaceful, be peaceful.’ As if the black people aren’t politically aware enough to know that an indictment at least means that we’re on the road to justice, like our natural reaction is violence.”
Young people, old people, men and women, took each other’s hands. Pierce asked each of them to look into the eyes of the person next to them, and get to know their names.
A surprise friendship in a place of healing
A couple hours later Madisonville, about 250 people lined both sides of Madison Road, just outside of a strip mall. Black and white hands joined as traffic passed through the middle, a few blocks from the site where Cincinnati police officer Sonny Kim, a Korea-born immigrant, was shot and killed in June by a black man.
“And so today, gathered here in this city, we come before you,” said Dustin Nimmo of Christ the King Church in Madisonville. “The God of all things, the God of all people, the God of all races, the God of all nations. The God of this country, this world, this city, this neighborhood.”
Ann Boland spotted a friend, promptly left her patch of shade and ran across the street to Wanda Locklayer. Boland's sunburnt and freckled arms wrapped around Locklayer's long dreads. The two hugged as the pastor continued on the microphone.
“May you change us by your good news.. And God knows, you know, we need it.”
Both Boland and Locklayer describe their friendship as “a surprise, a gift.”
Locklayer admitted that, not long ago, she didn’t trust white people. Where she lived, she was surrounded by hate.
“When there’s a person of a different race who comes to your aid – your rescue – then you have to look at that,” she said.
Locklayer lost her home in the King Towers apartment complex fire in March. Boland showed up as a concerned person in the same neighborhood, unaffiliated with any group, just to see that residents were getting proper help.
“If I color every black person as being scary, or whatever my prejudice is, I’ve lost out on friends,” Boland said. “And if, as a black person, you think all white people are here to screw me and aren’t trustworthy, then you’ve lost out on friends.”
Locklayer said that where she lives, the only thing people had to say about police were bad.
“After the officer lost his life two steps up from me, there was a change in my heart about the police.”
She remembered meeting Kim a couple of times, remembered him being a good man.
“Oh God, bless our officers. Bless us, God,” said Rev. Crystal Bossard of Gaines United Methodist Church in Madisonville. “This is soul searching time... What is it you want me to do?”
The short gathering ended. Reginald McGill, who goes by D.J. Hiram, was about to play the final song of his reggae, Christian rock, gospel hip-hop mix. (He had starting spinning records three hours before the service began, drawing people out during the hottest part of the August day.)
Bob Marley’s “One Love” played through the speakers set up in the grass and Boland asked a rhetorical question to the crowd: “When is the last time that you, as a white person, had a person of color come share a meal at your house? As a person of color, when was the last time you shared a meal with a white person.”
“Yesterday!” Locklayer blurted.
The two women laughed. It was Sunday afternoon, but it would soon be Sunday night. Locklayer's friend asked her a real question
Could she stop by later with dinner?