A tragic week inspires sermons in Dallas, Baton Rouge and St. Paul

DALLAS — Park Cities Baptist Church Senior Pastor Jeff Warren, who is white, and Concord Church Senior Pastor Bryan Carter, who is black, are renowned for their work espousing racial unity. They once swapped pulpits as a way of uniting their congregations and recently made a joint pilgrimage to Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, site of the horrific 2015 massacre that left nine dead.

This week, they've helped their flocks and their community heal after sniper attacks left five Dallas law enforcement officers dead and more wounded, teaming up for events including a citywide prayer service midday Friday and a vigil that evening. On Sunday, messages of hope and healing filled their respective sanctuaries.

“On Tuesday, we cried as we watched Alton Sterling down in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday, we cried as we watched Philando Castile die live on video,” Carter said, referring to the police-involved shooting deaths in Louisiana and the Minneapolis area. “On Thursday, we cried in our city as five police officers were killed. My soul is downcast. At the same time, we know violence is not the answer. We know that the justice system is slanted against people of color. We cannot try to erase 350 years in the 50 years since the civil rights movement. It does not go away overnight. We live in difficult days.”

Warren, officially on sabbatical, didn’t preach Sunday. Instead the congregation at the 10:45 a.m. traditional worship service heard from Travis Cook — who happens to be a Marietta native and a Kennesaw State University graduate.

“It’s not an easy Sunday to lead worship,” said Cook, who served for five years as a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain and is now Park Cities’ minister to singles. His message stressed the importance of grace and compassion.

“You can’t be self-centered and maintain unity,” he said.

At the Potter’s House in Dallas, nationally prominent evangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes convened a town hall summit on Sunday morning, themed “Conversations With America.” Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, whose harrowing Facebook Live video showed Castile after he was fatally shot, and Quinyetta McMillon, mother of Alton Sterling’s son, joined the event via phone. Law enforcement officers, a man incorrectly identified as a possible suspect after the Dallas shooting and Sandra Sterling, Alton Sterling’s aunt, joined worshippers.

“When I saw the first tape, it hurt me and it pained me,” Sterling said, referring to one of the cellphone video clips of her nephew’s shooting outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge. “When I saw the second tape … he suffered. He suffered.”

Her voice dissolved into tears.

Congregations in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, sites of the police shootings that sparked subsequent days of protests nationwide, also heard sermons inspired by the week's tragic events. In Baton Rouge, Star Hill Baptist Church Pastor Floyd Jetson told his congregation that he prayed with two police officers at a Starbucks on his way to church.

“Whether they stand on street corners or wear uniforms of blue, we pray for their families,” said Jetson, whose church is located less than a mile away from the Triple S market, where Sterling was fatally shot early Tuesday. “We refuse to turn against our brothers and sisters. To those who refuse to love us, we love them anyway.”

Sterling’s death, and the subsequent video that showed him pinned to the ground as he was shot, have put many Baton Rouge residents on edge, fearing, if not expecting, the worst. The tension between police and demonstrators has been as palpable as the stifling summer heat, with 101 people arrested overnight outside of police headquarters. More protests were planned Sunday afternoon and evening.

“Will we believe those who tell us we are hopelessly divided by race?” Jetson asked. “Do we accept that the conditions we face are hopeless? Or do we refuse to believe evil can win? Our God is able.”

In St. Paul, worshippers gathered beneath the stained-glass windows at Pilgrim Baptist Church, Minnesota’s oldest African-American church, to find words of strength after a difficult week. The church is less than 5 miles from where Castile was shot and killed by a police officer, and a short walk from the freeway protest late Saturday that shut down a major highway and erupted into violence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” Senior Pastor the Rev. Charles Gill said. “Really? Really? I don’t think everyone here sees this evidence quite as clearly.”

His words struck a nerve with congregants. Maggie Barnes said she knew Castile, a cafeteria manager, through her job as a child care worker for students who attended the school where he worked. She arrived at the service after spending the evening on the freeway with demonstrators.

“I told those young people, don’t get caught up in the chains of sin,” Barnes said. “That is not what Martin Luther King (Jr.) is about. That is not what Black Lives Matter is about.”

But the orderly Black Lives Matter protest was overshadowed by angry bystanders throwing water bottles, chunks of concrete, firecrackers and orange traffic barrels at a line of officers wearing riot gear. Some 100 people were arrested and five officers sustained minor injuries.

“I need to be here at this church to find peace,” Barnes said.