NEW YORK — Congregants in African-American churches across the country wore black to Sunday services and prayed over the men in attendance in a symbolic stand against fatal police shootings of unarmed black men.
Bishop T.D. Jakes told worshippers at The Potter's House Church in Dallas that black men should not be "tried on the sidewalk." At Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, choir members sang "We Shall Overcome" for worshippers wearing T-shirts that read "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can't Breathe." Men at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles stood more than four rows deep around the altar for a special blessing and message from the pastor, Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake.
"Police forces are charged with protecting all our citizens," said Blake, leader of the national Church of God in Christ, the largest black Pentecostal group in the U.S. "In a very special way, they are to abide by the laws they are called to enforce. They should not bring fear to our citizens, but rather confidence."
The churches were responding to a call from several historically African-American denominations for what they called "Black Lives Matter" Sunday, in response to the recent police slayings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. The church actions came a day after marches and demonstrations by civil rights and other groups around the country pressing for changes to the criminal justice system.
"It is a time to hear God calling us to be relevant and responsive to the needs of people with us and around us," wrote Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, an organizer of Sunday's church action.
At morning services, the Rev. Lee P. Washington, pastor at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland, called black clothing "serious dress for serious times." He said those who contend that the black men who were killed by officers "deserve what they got" for disobeying police, or whose deaths were nothing more than an "unfortunate tragedy," should think about the impact of the deaths on grieving families.
"In our minds, black lives do matter," Washington said.
Several pastors sought blessings for law enforcement officials and noted many do their jobs with integrity, but they said officers guilty of wrongdoing should be held accountable. Bates Memorial Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, tweeted a photo of a pastor and congregants clutching their own necks to protest the chokehold death of Garner by New York City police during his July arrest for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
"We have to just come together and do our part," said Darrell Ward at services at First AME Church: Bethel, a New York congregation that participated in "Black Lives Matter" Sunday.
Some predominantly white churches also participated in their own congregations. The Rev. George O. Wood, head of the Assemblies of God, a major Pentecostal denomination whose U.S. churches are mostly white, asked churchgoers to take part regardless of whether they agreed with the grand juries that exonerated the officers in the Brown and Garner cases.
"Whatever your opinion of those controversial decisions, can we stand with our brothers and sisters and affirm the value of black lives generally and of their lives specifically?" Wood wrote in his request to Assemblies of God members. "If Spirit-filled Christians cannot find a way to work together to heal these divisions, what hope is there for the rest of the country?"
Associated Press writers Sonya Ross in Maryland and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this report.