Protests and prayers
Warren G. Blakney Sr.’s long fight for racial equality stretches…
The same big screen displayed photos of five Memphis police officers charged with murder in the 29-year-old Black man’s death.
The images reflected the importance of the case to Christians in this Mississippi River city of 630,000, where Nichols’ death and graphic videos of his beating sparked protests that spread across the nation.
Coleman Avenue — a predominantly Black congregation — offered special prayers the last two Sundays and talked “in no uncertain terms” about the case, said longtime minister John DeBerry Jr., a former Democratic state representative who now serves as a senior adviser to Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
“I think it is a systemic issue and that it is not a new issue,” said DeBerry, who as a teen witnessed civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech before his 1968 assassination.
“While we focus on violations of law and protocol and civil rights, and we especially focus on it when it crosses racial lines,” the minister added, “this is especially concerning to a lot of us because all five of these officers are Black.”
Authorities identified the officers as Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith. Two other officers have been relieved from duty and three emergency medical technicians fired amid ongoing investigations into Nichols’ death.
“We’re concerned about the level of violence, the level of malice,” DeBerry said of the police actions. “They tased him and pepper-sprayed him and then beat him to death. There is just no excuse for it.”
Sarah Brooks didn’t want to see the videos.
News reports about Nichols’ fatal beating were bad enough.
“That’s what’s so dangerous about social media is that it autoplays. And so I did — I saw a portion of it,” said Brooks, 35, a Christian speaker and White mother of three young boys. “It was easily one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen and just absolutely gut-wrenching.”
The videos show officers beating Nichols on Jan. 7 after stopping him for suspicion of reckless driving. The FedEx worker, avid photographer and father of a 4-year-old son died three days later at a hospital.
Brooks, who grew up in Memphis, flew into her hometown Friday to keynote Saturday’s Mid-South Girls Conference, hosted by the Highland Church of Christ.
Unease gripped the city as officials released the videos Friday night.
Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, which has the fifth-most adherents of Churches of Christ of any county in the nation, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian. Shelby County’s 63 Churches of Christ account for roughly 16,000 men, women and children in the pews.
Unlike Brooks, Jimmy Stokes II, minister for the Northeast Side Church of Christ in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett, purposely watched the videos.
Stokes, who is Black, wanted to see if the actions of the officers charged with murder were as bad as portrayed.
“You were sort of trying to give them a little grace,” Stokes said. “But watching the videos just confirmed that it went extremely too far.
“This young man calling for his mother could be any young man out there who is trying to get home,” added the minister, who addressed Nichols’ killing in his sermon Sunday. “So those emotions were painful.”
Related: Protests and prayers
The fact that the fired officers themselves are Black adds to the hurt, Stokes said.
The case has sparked dialogue on systemic racism in the U.S.
“Whether it’s a White officer, a Black officer, anybody that would do this — it’s sin,” Stokes said. “It’s evil. And we have to address these things as being evil things that God would not permit.”
Before the videos’ release, Josh Ross, minister for the multiethnic Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, emailed his congregation and invited members to join him in prayer for the city.
“Pray for our leaders,” wrote Ross, who is White. “Pray for Tyre’s family. Pray for our law enforcement. Pray for our children throughout the city who are being shaped by the actions and responses of those they see.
“Remember this,” he added. “God’s grace can hold us through any emotion we feel.”
“Pray for our leaders. Pray for Tyre’s family. Pray for our law enforcement. Pray for our children throughout the city who are being shaped by the actions and responses of those they see.”
At Sunday’s service, Ross, a native Texan, read a love letter of appreciation for his adopted city.
“Memphis, I don’t know if you knew this, but this past week, it was as if national media wanted to see you burn and for violent protests to erupt,” he said. “It would have made for clickbait. It would have given the left and the right people to blame and specific acts to point at, yet Memphis, you made us proud. You modeled grit and determination.”
Sycamore View member Julie Williams Sanon, who is Black, said she appreciated Ross’ words.
“Tyre is not the first, and he certainly won’t be the last,” Sanon, 65, said of young men of color killed in police custody.
“And so what you often see is, people are shocked and appalled. People feel compassion,” she added. “Like with George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and so many others, the shock wears off, then we go on, and nothing really changes.”
Sanon, who serves as COO for Agape Child & Family Services in Memphis and Shelby County, said she’d like to see Christians move beyond statements of concern.
“Our God is a God of action. Our God is a God of love,” she said. “At some point, if we really, really want to make a change and make a difference, we have to stand up with boldness like the prophets of old, and we have to speak truth on systemic injustices. More importantly, we have to live out truth. It is what we are called to be, agape to our community.”
As Memphis braced for the videos’ impact, Mid-South Girls Conference organizers were unsure if the weekend event would proceed.
Brooks, a member of The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas, waited in her hotel room for news.
“We were praying a lot, obviously, for peaceful protests,” said Brooks, who grew up in the Sycamore View church, where her father, Curt Sparks, was the preacher. “But at the same time, the outrage is very real. I mean, if you were not outraged, even just hearing about it, then something is wrong.
“I think everyone was waiting for Memphis to explode, and they didn’t. I think that shows the heart of Memphis.”
“I think everyone was waiting for Memphis to explode, and they didn’t,” she added. “I think that shows the heart of Memphis. It’s a gritty city, but we’re a resilient city. I was just so thankful to have boots on the ground during such a hard weekend.”
Protesters shut down the Interstate 55 bridge near downtown Friday night, Brooks noted, and a handful of church groups stayed home because of travel concerns.
But the conference went on as planned, drawing 300 girls from the Memphis area and nearby states.
Even as Brooks stood on stage, she worked to process her feelings.
“You know, my thoughts were all over the place, and I had to come back to what I know is true,” she said, recalling what she told the girls. “And that is that God is good, that God is with us, that God has more for us and for this city.”
At the mention of Nichols’ name, the audience — especially those of color — seemed to lean in, she said: “They were like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to talk about this, which is really good because we’re all hurting.’”
“If events like this seem remote, Tyre Nichols was beaten to death just a few blocks from my wife Andrea’s childhood home,” Turner told the congregation. “During this month, other parents in that neighborhood with young children looked out their window onto those streets feeling that their kid could be next. That the person they love more than anything in the world could be treated like a punching bag in the middle of the street.”
“Police should be given what they need to protect the community. … But they should also be properly trained and held accountable for what they do.”
Back at Coleman Avenue, DeBerry said he supports law enforcement and views the idea of defunding the police as “stupid.”
At the same time, the preacher and politician demands accountability.
“Police should be given what they need to protect the community. They should be given what they need to make sure we’re safe,” he said. “But they should also be properly trained and held accountable for what they do. And I’m hoping that these five men are held accountable for what they have done.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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