Days before news broke that the Uhurus had allegedly been wooed by the Russians to foment racial and political discord in the U.S., an unsettling headline appeared in a local publication.
“Black residents sign resolution to create an African People’s Militia,” it read.
The African People’s Militia, the piece by the Uhuru Movement said, “will monitor police activity to prevent and protect our people from the threat of white nationalist attacks on the African community, protect our children, and strive to rid our community of social ills such as drugs and alcohol addictions.”
As I read the Uhuru Movement’s words, I thought of a network of mostly Black faith leaders whose approach to injustice and other community concerns is decidedly different.
The group meets every Saturday morning to pray in a rotation of churches, except for once a month, when their place of prayer is in front of the St. Petersburg Police Department. The small group representing about a dozen congregations calls itself the Gathering of Pastors.
These men and women of different denominations have been meeting to pray since 2015, the year seven teenagers in the community were murdered in the span of two months.
“Pastors reached out to pastors and gathered their colleagues together, saying, we have to pray,” recalled the Rev. Dr. Doral Pulley of Today’s Church Tampa Bay.
Another crisis demanding urgent prayer arose in 2020 with the police killing of George Floyd.
“I did a prayer on the steps of City Hall,” Pulley said. “My prayer was that we can be one and that we can find common ground and that everyone can express their thoughts and feelings and be heard. Then we can make changes. Then we can work toward solutions. I felt that the pastors were in between the police and the people. I felt that we were the mediators.”
The city hall gathering led to monthly prayers in front of the Police Department. The religious leaders meet at 9 a.m., on the third Saturday of the month. If the weather is bad, they’re invited inside, Pulley said. Officers sometimes join them.
Bishop Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church spoke of why it’s important.
“One, the Bible tells us to pray for those in authority, and number two, it is to really forge a relationship so it’s not us versus them and to show that there are police who are Christian,” he said. “You can’t let that small, bad percentage create that distance and tension that doesn’t have to be there.”
Pastor Bobby Musengwa of Maximo Presbyterian Church and a founding member of the Gathering of Pastors, explained further. Amid the heightened tensions of 2020, the group wanted law enforcement officers to know that they were praying for them too, he said.
“We want the police to succeed in doing the job that they’ve been called to do, while respecting the community. Because when police succeed in the best way possible, then the community succeeds. We want a good, stable community where all people feel safe,” Musengwa said.
“Then we have this channel through Pastor (Kenny) Irby,” he added, speaking of the pastor of Historic Bethel AME Church. Besides being a member of the Gathering of Pastors, Irby also is director of community intervention for the St. Petersburg Police Department.
“We’re able to have briefings about communal concerns,” Musengwa said. “Basically, we are building trust, so when things of strife happen, we can work together to resolve problems.”
The Gathering of Pastors includes prominent African-American clergy. Pastor Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME Church was the group’s first president. Pastor Frank Peterman of Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church is a former City Council member, state representative and a past president of the group.
The gathering got its start because of a need for “a center point organization that could bring pastors together to address the concerns of primarily African-American residents here in St. Petersburg,” Peterman said. “I’d like to think we’ve seen some results.”
An example, he said, is improved communication between religious leaders and public safety officials and others in city government.
“We know that we can’t do without the police,” Sykes said, “but to have a relationship, it just helps to meet people one-on-one. It kind of dispels a lot of prejudices, preconceived notions. It gives our community a human face. I think that’s always a good thing. A lot of times, people don’t really understand policing, the people behind the badge. Just like sometimes, they don’t see the people behind the skin color.”
Despite good intentions, there’s no denying that the relationship between community and police can be complicated.
Sykes offered suggestions. “There are improvements that can be made, a national standard of training and operations, vest cameras that are self-activated — not by the police — and I think swift accountability when police do something wrong, because when it drags out, it loses its edge when it comes to justice,” he said.
“If, all over the nation, police are expected to operate in a certain way and they are not allowed to ad lib and be cowboys, I think we’ll see a better relationship.”
As both a pastor and police department employee, Irby is uniquely qualified to discuss what he refers to as the “overlapping relationships and opportunities” that have developed between local religious leaders and police.
He describes the Gathering of Pastors as “a spontaneous spiritual movement” that emerged in response to the murders of seven teenagers toward the end of 2015.
“The faith community, primarily Black pastors on the Southside, began to pray on Saturdays and participate in community vigils and gatherings,” Irby said. “It was in response to gun violence and what we all agreed was a spirit of murder.”
The creation of the Gathering of Pastors, he said, tracked with former Mayor Rick Kriseman’s commitment to invest up to $1 million in juvenile programming in conjunction with the city’s My Brother’s and My Sister’s Keepers initiative.
Besides the Gathering of Pastors, Irby also wanted to bring attention to another relationship-building effort between religious leaders and police. Clergy on Call, he said, is a citywide, interfaith collection of 67 religious groups conceived by Police Chief Anthony Holloway as an expansion of his Park, Walk and Talk community policing initiative.
“Clergy on Call allows for the leadership of the Police Department to share information and to engage the leaders of the religious community in strategic planning and community outreach,” Irby said. As part of that effort, the Police Chief gives briefings and holds check-ins with faith leaders.
“The key to Clergy on Call is to build relationships and trust with the faith community during times of calm. The extension of that is that when a crisis comes, we are not an unknown to the community, but part of the community,” Irby said.
Of the smaller, more intimate Gathering of Pastors group, Musengwa emphasized the importance of their weekly meetings. “Pastors tend to be isolated, working in their own congregations….I get to learn more about the concerns of the community from this gathering,” he said.
Pastors, he added, “can come from a variety of theological positions, as long as they come out to pray.”
They pray for the “C’s,” said Pulley, who leads “an all-accepting, Bible-based, Christ-centered, metaphysical church.”
“We pray for the community, the city, for the country and countries, continents and cultures,” he said. “It’s all encompassing, because we have to lift up the energy on the Earth and the vibration in the universe.”
No better time than now.