Two scenes appeared on screen from massacres of schoolchildren, one in South Africa 26 years ago, one in Connecticut two days ago.
“God!” thundered the reverend below. “Why did you allow something like this to happen?”
Rev. Jason Turner asked that question Sunday from the pulpit of Community Baptist Church in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood.
He displayed scenes from the slave trade, from a Southern lynching, from the Holocaust, from the 1976 massacre of some 200 Soweto schoolchildren by the apartheid South African government. Then he showed the instantly iconic photograph of children being led from Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School this past Friday morning after a gunman killed 20 little children, six adults, then himself.
At moments like these, Turner declared while facing the packed pews at one of New Haven’s bedrock black churches, “we put God in the interrogation room. We ask God for his alibi.”
Turner didn’t end up producing that alibi Sunday morning. He did end up linking the suffering in Newtown to a historical thread of evil to which his congregation could relate. And he challenged people in their everyday lives to create, through small decisions, the kind of world where such inexplicable evil, such inexplicable violence, can be held at bay.
In the process, Turner offered a glimpse of how a tragedy that took place in a suburban Connecticut community looks to an African-American community 25 miles—and in some ways a world—apart.
Quoting sources ranging from Grandmaster Flash and Marvin Gaye to Gov. Dannel Malloy and the biblical author of Psalm 46, Turner proclaimed that evil had once again paid a visit through an unspeakable tragedy.
“These were children and adults who were not in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he noted to murmurs of assent. “They were not out trying to sell drugs. They were not out on the streets menacing people. They were at school where they were supposed to be. These adults were at their place of employ. And here comes evil into their midst. And I can only describe how I feel like many of you as if the wind is knocked out of me, as if my world has been rocked. And now I am left almost speechless.”
Ultimately, Turner confessed, “I don’t know why” God allowed the massacre to happen.
Turner does know, he told the Shelton Avenue congregation, that everyone present can play a role in reversing a culture of violence that not only claimed dozens of young lives in Newtown this week but also claims young lives on the streets of cities like New Haven all too regularly. At this point he was citing Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ. He told his flock: “Turn the other cheek.” “Love your enemies.” “Stop picking fights and arguing!”
“We all in our ways, if we are not careful, perpetuate violent and aggressive behavior instead of trying to live like Jesus to foster a culture of peace,” Turner argued. “Y’all don’t want to hear this this morning. If you want peace, you have to be peaceful. I’m not talking about passive aggressive. Some of you feel like just because you didn’t say anything, that’s not aggressive behavior. But if you want peace, you have to be peaceful. ...
“Stop arguing! Stop cussing! Stop being argumentative! You ought to cultivate a culture of peace. Parents and children, stop arguing with each other! …
“Do your part to bring peace in the world! We don’t always need policy. We don’t always need an act of Congress. If you make up in your mind, if you’re going to stop perpetuating a culture of violence in your home and in our community.”
The congregation clapped, sang, bowed heads in prayer, hugged, called out “Yes sir!” and “Come on now,” listened with rapt expressions, at times wiped away tears during Sunday’s two-hour service. They responded as their minister made his plea for peace in the face of unfathomable violence. That violence touches all of our communities in different ways, he suggested. And it offers everyone a chance to resist responding with violence, to heed God’s wishes to make a more peaceful world.
His sermon lasted around 20 minutes, 20 minutes of a cry from the heart for a more loving world. Click on the play arrow on the video at the top of the story to watch highlights of Turner’s sermon. And read on for an abridged version of what he told Newhallville (including the Malloy, Gaye, and Grandmaster Flash references) two mornings after evil showed its deadly face to Connecticut.
From Trayvon To Newtown
From Rev. Turner’s sermon:
There are moments throughout human history in each generation that knock the wind out of us and leave us speechless. Moments such as the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage, where millions of Africans were taken from the continent of Africa, packed onto ships like sardines, which took months to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Many did not make the trip. Those that did were worked like animals and brutalized at any sign of defiance.
There are moments that knock the wind out of us and leave us speechless like the post-Reconstruction period, this reign of terror [with] groups such as the KKK, when blacks of this nation were lynched for things as trivial as looking at a white woman.
There are those moments like the Holocaust when six million Jews were murdered behind a twisted and sick ideology of ethnic cleansing by the Nazi regime. Where Jews were led to the concentration camps and killed in gas chambers, and if they weren’t, they were worked to death.
And there are moments such as the massacre of youth in Soweto, South Africa, in the late ‘60s who were protesting being taught in a language different than their own but who were gunned down by the apartheid government. And one of the youths named Hector Pieterson fell dead that day. But when he was picked up and carried from the street, his limp body was photographed and went around the world.
And there are moments like this past Friday at 9:30 a.m. when a shooter forced their way into the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut, killing six adult women and 20 innocent children. Whether you described it as barbaric ... shocking, or cowardly, the irony is quite clear. These were children and adults who were not in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They were not out trying to sell drugs. They were not out on the streets menacing people. They were at school where they were supposed to be. These adults were at their place of employ. And here comes evil into their midst. And I can only describe how I feel lie many of you as if the wind is knocked out of me, as if my world has been rocked. And now I am left almost speechless.
The immediate question that I believe that we all raised is how can someone do something like this. ...
While other countries in this world have very few deaths that come as a result of gun violence, we have an epidemic of violence in this nation. We even have laws where people have not only the right to not only own a gun, but the right to take other people’s lives in the name of standing our ground. Then on the other hand we have stop and frisk laws which give police powers to racially profile black youth and search them for guns. And I wouldn’t have a problem with such laws if we applied them across racial lines equally. Just as they stop the black youth with a hoodie and jeans, they should stop and frisk the white youth buying large quantities of ammunition and high-powered assault rifles.
It was apparent and evident there’s something wrong in these yet to be United States of America. Just think about it. Just this year alone Trayvon Martin killed by George Zimmerman. The mass murder of moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. The shooting at a mall in Oregon earlier this week. Think about in the city of Chicago alone that at the end of October ... there were over 400 murders not including those who were just wounded by gunfire. Not to mention the number of persons killed in this five-by-five square mile city we call New Haven.
Not only do we ask these practical questions: How could someone do something like this? And what’s wrong with America? But people of faith, we put God in moments like this in the interrogation room and begin ask God for not just answers, but we begin to ask God for his alibi. We ask, “Where were you, God, on Friday morning at 9:30 a.m.? After all, you are everywhere at the same time. I mean, we call you omnipresent.” We ask the almighty, we ask God, “Why did you allow something like this to happen? After all, you are all-powerful. There’s nothing that you can’t do. Were you somewhere on vacation, God? Maybe you were shopping int he mall this holiday season?”
We ask question after question. But let’s be honest with ourselves today. No answer would be satisfactory.
The governor of this state said it quite candidly when he said, “Evil visited this community today.” This might not explain much of anything. It’s not a motive. But it’s true that evil is a reality in this world. And I dare you to prove me otherwise. The reality is look throughout history, and you can see how evil has shown its ugly face in the course of human history, from the Garden of Eden when evil came slithering as a snake that tempted Adam and Eve to eventually fall from grace all the way down to the time of Apostle Paul when he tells us, “Evil is always present.” ...
The relevant question is this: When evil invades our lives, who can we turn to? Here’s the take-home truth. If you don’t get anything else, here’s the take-home truth: At times when we feel we have lost control, God is is still in control. And we ought to trust him even when it seems that evil has gotten the best of us. ...
I know people were saying the past two days after that shooting we need to put prayer back into schools. Y’all, that ain’t enough. They mean well, but what about teaching your children how to live the way the God they’re praying to wants them to live? Because we all in our ways, if we are not careful, perpetuate violent and aggressive behavior instead of trying to live like Jesus to foster a culture of peace. Y’all don’t want to hear this this morning. If you want peace, you have to be peaceful.
I’m not talking about passive aggressive. Some of you feel like just because you didn’t say anything that’s not aggressive behavior. But if you want peace you have to be peaceful. We need a Matthew Chapter Five kind of Faith. ...
I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. Y’all don’t want to hear this. Y’all want to be able to come out of here and say, “Pastor said if somebody hits you, you ought to strike them back.” Y’all wanna leave here today with permission that if somebody cusses you, you ought to cuss them back. But ... Jesus says to us, if somebody strikes you, you turn the other cheek.
Listen, when you have a difficult time with someone, stop picking fights and argument … I say to you, Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you … Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther king Jr. [preached] nonviolent direct action. … You can confront injustice and evil people who cause it without being violent, but learning sometimes to love the hell out of them.
Stop arguing! Stop cussing! Stop being argumentative! You ought to cultivate a culture of peace. Parents and children, stop arguing with each other! … Do your part to bring peace in the world! We don’t always need policy. We don’t always need an act of Congress. If you make up in your mind, if you’re going to stop perpetuating a culture of violence in your home and in our community
What I’m trying to say, if there is peace in God, and if God is a god of peace, and we are his children, we need to begin to live the peace we want to see in our world.
People like us who are asking like Marvin Gaye, “What’s going ?” People like us who feel like Grandmaster Flash, “Don’t push, because I’m close to the edge. ” People like you and me who wonder will the violence ever end. …
I don’t know why those children had to die like they did. I don’t understand why God didn’t stop it. I don’t know why evil still exists in the world. But it is a reality. But whatever happens, I know that God is still in control! There are some things I may not know. There are some places I cannot go. But there are good news here today. I’m sure God is real, for I can feel him in my soul! Yes, God is real. He’s real in my soul!