Jacob Watson, a corporal with the Batesburg-Leesville Police Department, slipped out of his pew, stepped to the microphone at Christ Community Church, read from the biblical Psalm 46 and prayed.
“At this time, let us pray that God will protect the lives of all people from violence, oppression and evil,” Cpl. Watson solemnly said, moments after a small but culturally-diverse congregation of hurting souls sang “Amazing Grace” with one somber yet hopeful voice.
Faith leaders from across the Batesburg-Leesville community and others who are leaning deeper into their faith for comfort gathered Tuesday night at a Community Prayer Service. The gathering came eight days after an unarmed black man, George Floyd, was killed by a white cop and his fellow officers during an attempted arrest in Minneapolis, Minn.
The killing was captured on cell phone video, as Mr. Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe!” and eventually died on the pavement with the policeman’s knee on his neck. His death stoked generations of racial tension between law enforcement and black suspects and has sparked day after day of protests – some of which have exploded into nighttime riots and looting – in cities across America.
“The nation seems to be divided so it’s important for us as a small town to come together to show folk that, yes, we may have differences but there’s more stuff that we have in common than we do different,” said James R. McDaniel II, Associate Minister at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
Minister McDaniel was joined by fellow pastors Kent Suits of Christ Community Church and Kevin Taylor of Cedar Creek Church in leading a series of five prayers. Recent high school graduate Shanez Padgett, who served as Batesburg-Leesville High’s student body president and played organ during the Prayer Service, also led one of the prayers.
During such trying times, in the face of systemic racism and other human failings, people of faith have to set an example “even when it’s tough, even when it don’t seem like we want to,” Minister McDaniel said.
“People have a right to be angry. We understand anger. We understand the frustration,” he said. “But in the anger there can come some hatred. So, we try to come together and love. The Bible says, ‘Love conquers a multitude of sins.’ Love is greater than anger. So that’s why we’re just trying to love on one another.”
‘It saddened me. It angered me.’
In response to the shocking coverage of Mr. Floyd’s killing and the fiery aftermath, Pastor Suits quickly organized the Community Prayer Service and a day of fasting for his congregation. He invited other faith leaders and believers also to gather under the steeple at Christ Community Church.
“It saddened me. It angered me. There was a whole mixture of emotions,” he said.
Pastor Suits’ current sermon series is preaching through the Psalms and the wide array of emotions those ancient biblical texts inspire. His most recent message centered on Psalm 35, which begins, “Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and armor; arise and come to my aid.” (Psalm 35:1-2 NIV)
“That’s David, crying out to the Lord for justice because of the injustice that he is going through,” Pastor Suits said. “I just couldn’t ignore the fact that all of this was happening at the same time. I woke up on Sunday morning, getting ready to reach Psalm 35, and I see what’s going on in the news. It was like God laid it on my heart: you’re going to preach this, but how are you going to pray it?”
In fact, the fourth prayer of the Community Prayer Service was a Prayer for Justice & Healing, led by Minister McDaniel, “that God would end the evil of racism, hatred and retaliation and heal relationships in our nation.” He referenced biblical passages Micah 6:6-8 and Amos 5:24.
Pastor Suits and others at the Community Prayer Service expressed the hope that Tuesday’s gathering would not be a solitary event but that it might inspire ongoing cooperation among the faith community. A continuing candid dialogue may yield action, real solutions to racism and other social ills that plague humankind.
“I would love to see our churches do more like this going forward,” he said. “More prayer times together, more times where we worship together. That would be great.”
When the service was over and most of the congregants had slipped out into the evening, Pastors Suits, McDaniel and Taylor huddled in a tight circle with others – black men and white men together, their arms wrapped around each other – and bowed their heads to pray again in the church’s center aisle.
Eight men. One community. One collective voice lifted in prayer for peace, healing and real change in this broken and hurting world.