Dallas residents look to churches for hope and answers in wake of police deaths

Dallas — The pews and pulpits of Dallas were full of people seeking hope Sunday after the slaying of five police officers. Of people exorcising their anger over the latest police shootings of young black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. Of people looking for some measure of kindness and unity in a country that suddenly seems in short supply of both.

Mostly, people filled the churches of this rattled city looking for something that even the pastors preaching to them struggled to offer: answers.

Even men of God could not explain the violence that has gripped this city — and the nation — over the past week. Instead, they tried to help a battered community find its bearings after an angry, delusional Army veteran named Micah Xavier Johnson gunned down five officers and wounded seven others Thursday night. Pastors mourned the dead, prayed for the living and insisted that Americans must find a way to love their neighbors as themselves.

“The question isn’t, ‘Who is our neighbor?’ The question is, ‘Who isn’t?’ ” the Rev. Joseph J. Clifford told his predominantly white congregation, which included Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (D), at the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. “There is so much that keeps us from loving one another — race, class, ethnicity, nationality, even religion.”

Clifford implored his audience to resist the impulse to give in to fear and to refuse to hunker down and withdraw from anyone different or unfamiliar.

“It is hard to love one another when we do not know each other. When we rarely see each other. When our lives are so separated and segregated,” he said. “If our lives are lived only with people who are like us — people who look like us, people who act like us . . . then how can we love those who are not like us?”

Some of the same tensions that have played out across the nation were on display inside the city’s churches. At Friendship-West Baptist Church in South Dallas, the Rev. Frederick Haynes III called not just for prayer but for action and change.

“I’m tired of having a service the week after a tragedy. We have done this too much,” he said to rising applause from the overwhelmingly black congregation. He denounced calls for unity that do not also demand an end to “structural injustice.”

Even the news that President Obama would be in Dallas on Tuesday to speak at an interfaith memorial service left him frustrated.

“Mr. President, I love you, I support you, I’ve defended you. But I need you to go to Minnesota,” Haynes said. “Maybe if the same energy and love we bring when blue lives die, maybe if we bring that same attention, affection and love when black folk get killed in the hands of cops, maybe we’ll save a generation.”

When the worshipers streamed out into the midday heat, some were in tears.

Vena Webb, 47, said the service had brought much-needed solace to an anguished community. “They knew today that we needed to breathe, to process and to move on so we can act without all these emotions,” she said.

Standing alongside her daughter Venetia, the mother of two started to cry as she spoke of deepening racial divisions in the local community.

“But I refuse to let the actions of other people break us,” Webb said. “Change has to start here, now, and with all of us, refusing to give in to his hatred.”

Another parishioner, Karecia Nathaniel, said the past week has made her worry about the America her children must confront.

“I’m having to tell my young children how to behave, how to watch their moves. We’re here to provide a better life for them, but it feels like it’s not enough,” Nathaniel, a teacher, said. “I’m a mother, and it’s ground-shaking to see the road this country is heading down. The only thing I can do is take a step back and ask what my role in all this is. We have to stand together. That’s all we can do now.”

At the Potter’s House megachurch southwest of downtown, Bishop T.D. Jakes turned his regular Sunday service into a town hall meeting. He invited Dallas Police Chief David Brown, Rawlings and Saundra Sterling, the aunt who raised Alton Sterling, the 37-year-old black man who was gunned down by police last week in Baton Rouge. All three attended.

Sterling’s death was captured on video, as was the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of 32-year-old Philando Castile the next day in a suburb of St. Paul, Minn. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the video on Facebook, called in to the Sunday morning service in Dallas. “This shouldn’t have happened,” she told the congregation. “The police are supposed to protect us.”

Jakes, in a black suit and gold tie, prayed for the families of Reynolds and Castile. He also asked for blessings on the Dallas police force.

Pastor Robert Jeffress, of First Baptist Church in Dallas, had a less conciliatory message for some of his peers. During an appearance Sunday on “Fox & Friends,” he said ministers needed to instill in their congregations more respect for police.

“Frankly, I’m getting very sick and tired of so-called ministers who do nothing but sow seeds of distrust and disrespect for the police,” Jeffress said. “Those kind of bogus ministers need to be exposed and need to be called out for what they’re doing.”

Even as tens of thousands of people gathered in sanctuaries across Dallas, the nation outside kept churning.

Tense protests continued in Minnesota and Louisiana. Officials released more information about Johnson, including that he had taunted police during Thursday’s standoff and wrote cryptic messages on a wall with his own blood.

During a news conference Sunday at Baylor University Medical Center, a woman injured in Thursday’s shooting, Shetamia Taylor, recounted how a Dallas police officer had helped her as she shielded her sons from gunfire. She was hit by a bullet in the leg. Taylor said she had seen an officer fall to the ground after being shot in the melee. “I don’t think he made it,” she said.

Near a mall in Dallas, tensions flared Sunday afternoon as a Black Lives Matter protest was met by a gaggle of men who said they had come out to support the police. That episode ended peacefully, but there was talk of another protest later in the evening.

Inside the Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church in South Dallas, the Rev. Michael Waters spoke about the chaos and division unfolding outside the doors of the small sanctuary and then offered his congregation a challenge.

“True peace is something you might have to fight for,” Waters said. “Are you a peacemaker? For if peace won’t make itself, are you committed to the hard work of finding answers to difficult questions? Are you willing to struggle alongside someone else, who may see the world differently than you do?”