When a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally turned violent on May 30, the Rev. Melvin Cross Jr. felt sadness. He lamented the fact that people had to act out in order to draw attention to racial prejudice.
“I was thinking in that moment in order for us to be heard, this is what has to be done. Why couldn’t they hear us before?” says Cross, senior pastor of Glory House International.
He is one of many Rochester-area clergy and their congregations who have responded in various ways to the violence that struck the city following the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. Several police cars were destroyed and looters ransacked a number of city businesses. These incidents prompted religious leaders console their congregations, teach them to become antiracists and lead them in prayer.
Cross recalls when racism spurred violent unrest decades ago. Riots rocked the city for three days in 1964, ending only after the National Guard was brought in to restore order.
“An issue that was pervasive even before I entered this world is still an issue,” says Cross, 39.
The Rev. Myra Brown, lead pastor of Rochester’s Spiritus Christi Church, isn’t surprised that some minority group members turned to street violence to air their grievances.
“Dr. King is right when he says rioting is the language of the unheard,” Brown asserts. “We always have the possibility of rioting as a reaction when we allow disenfranchisement, when we allow oppression and injustice to go unattended to.”
COVID-19 has prevented Brown and other local clergy from meeting in person with their congregations, but some have spoken to members individually. Almost all who attend Antioch Missionary Baptist Church are African American, some of whom have grown weary of waiting for social and economic change.
“They’ve learned how to roll with the punches, but they’re also frustrated and disgusted that things haven’t changed, or they’re slow in changing,” says the Rev. James Lee Cherry Jr., senior pastor of Antioch Baptist.
During online sermons, Cherry has encouraged his flock not to view the violence that hit Rochester as way to end police brutality.
“I told them there were some people amongst the protestors that were there to agitate, that were there to incite, that were there to cause damage,” he says. “I said … they weren’t us.”
In the past, African Americans who worship at the Islamic Center of Rochester, have spoken of being a bit nervous when interacting with law enforcement.
“You always got the sense that they were always vigilant, in terms of a police stop,” says Tabassam Javed, the Brighton mosque’s president. “They always were very, very careful.”
Police appeared to give undue attention to Black drivers during past traffic stops just because of problems like broken tail lights, he says.
“Rather than giving them a warning or something like that, not only did they get one ticket, they got two. It seemed like that was an overreaction,” says Javed, a native of Pakistan.
Eighty percent of the mosque’s members emigrated from Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Ethiopia and other countries during the past few decades. Though some of the immigrants might be taken for native-born African Americans, as a group they generally haven’t been subjected to the kind of racial bias that many Black who were born in the U.S. have experienced.
“Many of our congregants have not encountered anything,” Javed says. “I myself, in 40 years in the U.S., have never had a (bad) police encounter.”
He believes that could be because most of the Islamic Center’s members live in Pittsford and Brighton, and some are professionals whose positions give them status in society.
Though they might not have had such encounters, the level of racial bias here has sometimes left members of the Islamic Center concerned. Javed has striven to console them.
“I told them (that) this country did discriminate against the previous immigrants as well—the Irish, the Italians, the Mexicans. Not that it was right, but it happens to be that this has happened to other people,” he explains.
Cherry believes the U.S. has made progress on racial issues, as represented in legislation such as the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and in the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president. Nonetheless, he thinks the country still suffers from systemic and institutional racism.
“We still have a long way to go, and I think the demonstrations and peaceful protests are helping lead the way,” Cherry says.
One way to make progress on racial issues is to change how U.S. police departments hire and train officers.
“We can do some psychological training or psychological evaluations of young men and women as they enter the academy to make sure they don’t have these tendencies or bents toward these attitudes that led to the George Floyd or Breonna Taylor (killings),” Cherry says.
Cross is heartened that Antioch Baptist’s congregation, which includes whites, African Americans, and Latinos, has come together on racial issues.
“It speaks volumes to me when our white congregants stand alongside the congregants of color and say, ‘We hear you. We want to play a part in this change,’” he says.
To help spur change, Cross has led church members to different parts of Rochester to pray in public.
“We’ve mobilized to pray for our city … pray for the peace of our nation, for justice and righteousness and equity,” he says.
Spiritus Christi annually offers antiracism training to help the members of its congregation, most of whom are white, understand racism and its effects.
“Many would not understand the lived experiences of people of color, as they live under a system of racism and a system of white supremacy,” Brown says.
In addition, she has striven to educate the public about racial issues and civil rights as the founder and head of the Spiritus Anti-Racism Coalition.
“SPARC’s mission is to work to dismantle institutional and systemic racism … through education, through advocacy and through corrective, proactive campaigns and projects,” Brown explains.
As part of that effort, SPARC is raising money to transform Baden Park, a city property on Rochester’s north side, into a civil rights heritage site. Once completed, the Civil Rights Park will commemorate the lives of Frederick Douglass and other local civil rights activists. Brown hopes to break ground on the project sometime in spring 2021.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.