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Local churches hold peaceful prayer gathering in Savannah in lieu of recent racial unrest

Updated on July 12, 2016

Savannah churches host a gathering to pray in unity for healing and peace

If you hadn't noticed lately, racism seems to be on the rise in the United States. It wasn't that long ago that Martin Luther King Jr. was giving his speech about having a dream and many believed we were finally leaving old racist ideas behind and beginning to see our brothers and sisters as one in Christ and in the workplace, schools, businesses and elsewhere, but talk to someone who is black and raised in Savannah and talk to someone who is white and you are likely to get two very different opinions on whether racism is a thing of the past or still alive and kicking.

Recent events in Dallas with police shooting an apparently innocent black man on the streets after they had already subdued him, to a sniper who stated that he wanted to kill white people, and took out as many white police officers as possible, has lead to many feeling that something must be done to stop the racial divide and many are frightened about what will happen next.

These fears have led to massive protests around the country and in Savannah which ironically led a few small children looking on to be more afraid of the protestors than what they were protesting against. There was also a reported purse snatching and stabbing of a black woman by a middle eastern man during the protest, which makes you wonder if it was a planned thing as a counter protest or just a dehumanized opportunist thinking he could get away with a crime in a crowd.

In any event, two area churches had decided enough was enough and that rather than turn to open protests, they would turn to prayer and thus the "Shall We Gather" movement was founded as two area churches, one a predominantly white Presbyterian Church and the other a predominantly black Methodist church, met in Forsyth Park to pray for peace and unification of the races and all of all human working toward a common good.

Montgomery Presbyterian and St. Paul's CME join in prayer for a unified community and world

A group of nearly 100 people from two area churches gathered to pray against the recent police killings and racial unrest. Savannah is an eclectic city with many prominent African American community leaders, but while most blacks, whites and other cultures get along well in Savannah, there is still a realization that life for one group is culturally different than the other even though they may live within a block of one another.

One single African American mother said she feared for the life of her son, not from other blacks, but from police officers and said she was afraid her son would run up to a police officer one day and be shot.

A young black male who was profiled at the mall and asked to leave a shop because they thought he was trying to shop-lift said, "this is what it is like to grow up black in America". The shop owner said he had seen the young man and his friends in the shop before and that they never bought anything and wore hoodies over their faces and appeared to be casing the place and made his regular customers nervous. Even though the teen had done nothing wrong, the manager threatened to call police if he did not leave.

These are two contrasting pictures of Savannah: One where whites do not trust blacks, especially those who look like others who do commit crimes, and one where blacks feel like they are targeted just because of the color of their skin, not because of their actions or attitude toward authority figures like police and city leaders, no matter what their racial heritage.

The divide is real and in the thirty or more years that Savannah officials have tried to integrate blacks and whites, the most predominant groups before an influx of hispanics in the late 80s and 90s, it seems like the racial divide has actually gotten wider rather than brought us closer together.

The contrast is actually visible at the prayer gathering as well. Very few white people have shown up for the prayer group and they stand on the outskirts trying to fit in, but sticking out in the crowd none-the-less despite the fact that everyone is friendly and there for the same purpose. The cultural and age differences are also visibly noticeable with whites and younger blacks dressed casually in jeans and shorts and older black members dressed in more church-going attire. Still, despite the differences everyone is here to demonstrate that you can put the power of prayer into action without protesting in the streets.

Pastor John Ruehl of Montgomery Presbyterian Church on the southside of Savannah opens with a word of prayer and a reading from Psalm 46. The group gathers under the shade of surrounding trees, but it is already in the nineties in the shade and sweat is pouring off the faces of many as they stand attentive and do not waiver. Some fan themselves with makeshift paper fans, while others mop the sweat off their brows to no avail as it pops back up again in seconds. Sweat rolls down everyone's back and it is hard to breath in the thick humid air.

Reverend D'Henri Thurmond from St. Paul's CME Church prays next for the community, city officials and the world and its leaders. He prays that people will turn to Christ in this crisis and not to taking the law into their own hands, but following God's laws for peace and justice.

Two more associate pastors pray asking for a healing for the hurt. One intimates that the U.S. has become like a third world country rather than an advanced nation where the color of one's skin does not matter so much as the content of one's heart. They pray for protection for young men growing up in violent neighborhoods and for police who have to deal with danger and the threat of death each time they respond to a call. Everyone nods in agreement and says amen in unison.

The group closes by singing "We shall overcome". A few onlookers stand nearby watching, perhaps feeling they don't belong as well, but curious as to what is going on. Maybe they expect to see signs that read "No peace - no justice" or "black lives matter," but this group has turned it's attention upward to the heavens and is asking God to open the hearts of those who hate and fear, asking them to focus on the love of Christ, not the wickedness of man.

Will prayer stop the nation from sliding further into chaos? Will it stop terrorists on a grand scale or petty thieves and drug dealers on a local level? Maybe not, but prayer does make us focus on the greater good of all people. When people gather in the hottest part of the day to pray for those they do not know and to encourage others to live in peace, it lets others know that not everyone is out for their own good and their own desires without regard to the needs of those who feel pushed out of mainstream society because they don't fit into the culture.

There may always be differences between cultures and races, but they don't have to end in violence. We may never feel like "best friends" with one another, but we can get along and share and respect those differences without hating the things we do not understand or making demons of the very people who are trying to protect us all from evil people who want to stir up trouble rather than bring peace.

Many at the prayer group felt that the racial unrest was not due to police not being held accountable for their actions alone, but was in part from parents who taught their children to fear authority; remembering the days where police officers barred blacks from entering businesses and threatened blacks who stood up for equal rights with false imprisonment or threatened them physically if they did not do as they were told.

It then became an us vs. them situation and so few African Americans trust law enforcement. In many communities gangs have taken the place of policemen and feel they are taking care of their own and taking the law into their own hands thus increasing black on black violence. While government officials can only do so much and law enforcement is limited in what they can do as well, recent posts on social media have focused more on the positives of police officers working with local youth and helping those on a tight budget buy groceries or make home repairs, even buying outdoor basketball hoops and playing in the streets with the local teens.

The hope is that the more we pray, the more we turn to God, the more we discard old ideas about who someone is and especially don't allow the media to dictate our actions based on their focus on the bad things, while failing to report the good (there were tons of reporters covering the protest, but not a single one covering the prayer gathering!), then we can flood the world and social media with good things, with people uniting for a just cause without accusing or blaming anyone for the world's problems.

As the song says, "We are the world..." that means that if we want to live in a world of peace and love and equality, then it has to start with us and trickle down like sweat on a brow until it pools into a river that washes away all the hurt and pain and cuts a path across all the world, providing living waters that will sustain us on our journey together as humans.

Do you think race relations have improved or worsened over the years?

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