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DALLAS — The preacher stood wearily on stage, wiping tears…
NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A thin sheet of snow and ice covered the ground outside the Levy Church of Christ this week as hundreds of mourners filed into the auditorium.
Charles Smith Jr. — “C.J.” to friends and relatives — lay in an open casket adorned with red and white flowers and flanked by a giant memorial banner featuring the 17-year-old high school senior in his blue cap and gown.
Some sported dark suits and fancy dresses. Others wore jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with Smith’s smiling face. Loved ones choked back tears as they approached the coffin and kissed the teen on the way to their pews.
The death of any young person is tragic, be it from cancer or a car wreck.
The circumstances of Smith’s final moments, though, are particularly perplexing to those trying to make sense of the baptized believer’s untimely passage from, as one funeral speaker described it, “earth to glory.”
“Like many of us from time to time, he made bad judgments,” Duncan Martin, minister for the Southside Church of Christ in Little Rock, said in Smith’s eulogy. “But bad judgment does not deserve a death sentence. If that were true, this auditorium would be empty today.”
At first, the Levy Church of Christ’s connection to Smith seemed merely circumstantial: He died in a shootout with police just 30 feet from the urban congregation’s ministry center.
Only later did Levy church leaders discover that Smith — portrayed in news reports as a gang member facing decades in prison if convicted on robbery charges — attended the Southside Church of Christ, a sister congregation.
North Little Rock police stopped a vehicle occupied by Smith and two other individuals just after 1 a.m. Jan. 7 — a Sunday morning.
According to police spokesman Sgt. Brian Dedrick, officers found a gun on the teen while patting him down. A struggle ensued between the officers and Smith, and the teen fired at least one shot, Dedrick said. Officers returned fire, fatally wounding Smith.
A five-minute dashcam video released by police three days after Smith’s death seemed to confirm the official version of events.
“Since the incident, a great deal of erroneous information has appeared on social media outlets,” Police Chief Mike Davis told reporters as he shared the video. “I want to make sure we clear that up today.”
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However, those inclined to distrust authorities remain highly skeptical.
“Don’t look at the video because the video was fixed,” a black Christian named Earnest Franklin said to applause at the funeral.
As happens frequently in America — even 50 years after the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — responses to the shooting split largely along black and white lines.
“Fundamentally, it tells us how powerful race is in dividing opinions and perceptions of events in the United States,” said John A. Kirk, director of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity.
“Race seems to trump religion in this regard,” Kirk added. “Take, for example, the fact that African-Americans represent the most reliable core base of support for the Democratic Party, while white evangelicals represent the most reliable core base of support for the Republican Party.”
Tanya Smith Brice, a black scholar in South Carolina, edited the book “Reconciliation Reconsidered: Advancing The National Conversation On Race In Churches Of Christ.” Texas-based Abilene Christian University Press published the 220-page volume in 2016.
“I am ever shocked by the apathy displayed by white Christians,” Brice said in an email, lamenting what she characterizes as the “systematic murder of black bodies.”
Eager to support the grieving family and contribute to the fragile peace in its community, the Levy church opened its building to crowds who came to light candles and pay respects to the fallen teen at the nearby street corner.
“Certainly, our desire and our goal is to serve everyone, to be sensitive to all, and to pray for everyone who is involved,” minister Danny Dodd said of his 600-member congregation, which is about 80 percent white and 20 percent black.
In his sermon a week after the shooting, Dodd preached from the New Testament book of Romans and reflected on the tension between Jews and Gentiles then — and blacks and whites now.
“We don’t need to stumble,” he told the congregation. “The answer to all of these things is found in Christ. It’s not going to be found in political agendas. It’s not going to be found in passing laws. … All of us — red and yellow, black and white — need to let the Word speak to our hearts where we are and deal with our attitudes.”
The Levy flock includes police officers, but none was involved in the fatal confrontation with Smith.
Smith had played basketball in the Levy church’s gymnasium, and deacon Ted Bowsman — who coordinates the congregation’s community-building ministry — recognized the teen’s mother and grandmother from past outreach events.
The Levy church, in the shadow of government-subsidized housing projects, hosts annual giveaways of school supplies and winter coats.
“I knew the names and the faces,” Bowsman said of Smith’s relatives. “We had a connection.”
Smith often brought friends to worship at the Southside church, which has Sunday attendance of nearly 200, Martin said after preaching at the funeral.
“Nobody made him come to church,” the minister told The Christian Chronicle. “He’d been coming to church for the last three years on his own. He started off by himself, got a feel for the church, and then he just started bringing all his friends.
“Every Sunday, we never knew how many he was going to have — sometimes four, sometimes 10, sometimes 20,” the preacher added. “And they would say, ‘I’m with C.J. He brought me to church today.’ He was a good guy.”
In a poem read at the memorial service, a cousin said, “The C.J. that I know was a God-fearing young man … with a heart of gold.”
“C.J. loved his mother, sisters and grandmother so much,” his funeral program declared. “He considered himself the ‘man of the house.’ He loved being with his family, going on road trips, out to eat and being with his church family.
“C.J. was very loving, funny, kind, and had a million dollar smile!” the obituary said. “He was loved by many and will be missed dearly.”
Such descriptions stand in stark contrast to the suspect shown in the video struggling with police and crying out, “I can’t go to jail.”
“I can’t make sense of it,” Martin said.
But the black minister said he doesn’t question the authenticity of the video. “I felt the training lacked when he was on the ground,” Martin said. “I felt they could have constrained him before he was able to get the weapon.”
However, the officers seemed to act professionally, the minister added: “But C.J. had just gotten out of some trouble, and I don’t think he was saying ‘I can’t go to jail’ because of himself; I think he was saying it for his momma. Because he had just put her through some stuff, and they got out of debt, and he was afraid.”
The Southside preacher praised the Levy church for its role after Smith’s death.
“They’ve bent over backwards,” Martin said. At a vigil after the shooting, “they had children on the (parking) lot doing drugs, and some guy was in a car doing doughnuts, and they easily could have said, ‘No, we don’t want no part of that.’
“But they’ve opened the doors, and everything the family requested, they’ve given it,” he added. “So you couldn’t ask for any more.”
Besides hosting the funeral, the Levy church — with help from the Southside church and the East 15th Street Church of Christ in North Little Rock — catered a family meal afterward.
For deacon Bowsman, the shooting’s aftermath reinforced the congregation’s decision to remain in the neighborhood.
“We need to be a light to this area,” he said. “And the best way to be a light is to be in the area. … This, to me, is why we stayed.”
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