Dallas Officials Push Faith After Ambush, And Find A Willing Audience

After five officers were killed Thursday during a protest against police violence, the city of Dallas has turned to religion, in ways more evident than many other American cities after a tragedy.

Bethany Jennings was downtown during the shootings, though not at the protest. She was at a band showcase at nearby Club Dada. The venue was insulated from any sounds of shots or sirens, but halfway through a set, Jennings said, TVs behind the bar began broadcasting the chaos a dozen blocks and one freeway underpass away. For the rest of the night, at least half the crowd stayed glued to the news.

When the show ended, the bomb threat was still ongoing, and Jennings was torn between booking it back home and staying in place. When she finally decided to leave, she was detoured through downtown, past cop cars as far as she could see. It wasn’t until she drove by the Dallas Public Library that it hit her: “This is where I live.” She started crying in her car.

Meanwhile, northwest of downtown, David Molina was working a late shift at the Children’s Medical Center. When the hospital received word that there may be incoming casualties, Molina called his wife, Danielle, 32, worried she was at the protest. Danielle typically attends demonstrations like Thursday night’s, but she didn’t hear about this one in time. Instead she was watching from their downtown home as “clumps of people” hurried from the area, with the same “shocked, numb” look on their faces.

Danielle’s father is a police officer, she said, and the couple have friends who are cops — they know all about the Dallas Police Department’s strides in de-escalation. Danielle grew up in Dallas, and went to El Centro College, where Micah X. Johnson ambushed the protest, fatally shooting five police officers and wounding seven other people.

"It was surreal. I couldn’t believe it."

Normally, she and her husband love walking through downtown on quiet nights. “To see these places I know so well…” Danielle said. “It was surreal. I couldn’t believe it.”

On Friday, thousands came together at the city’s first public gathering after the tragedy: a massive downtown “multifaith unity prayer service.” But for many like Jennings and the Molinas, being there wasn’t primarily about faith. There was a need to understand what happened to their city; attending the service was an effort to pinch themselves out of a bad dream, to see the faces of other people stuck in the dream with them. And in Dallas — one of the so-called buckles of the Bible Belt — that came in the form of grasping palms in prayer in 97-degree heat.

In its grief, the city of Dallas has turned to religion, but in ways more evident than the many other American cities that have experienced mass killings in recent years. After any crisis, there’s no shortage of interfaith services and candlelight vigils and calls for prayer (from news networks and governors alike). But this tragedy has been particularly entrenched in religion — from the protest’s initial organization to the city’s response.

On Friday morning, two organizers of Thursday’s protest made their first public statements — one was a black Baptist minister, Dominique Alexander, founder of the Next Generation Action Network. The other was a white Baptist minister, Jeff Hood, an independent activist outspoken on police brutality.

Alexander read a succinct statement from a piece of paper. He said that he couldn’t have anticipated “our efforts to save lives would take lives," urging that “together, we can work to heal America.”

But Hood, speaking in the non-rhotic accent of the deep South, stared into the cameras and weaved through the events of the night, his pinstripe suit bookended by a long red beard and Chacos sandals. He yelled “pop, pop, pop, pop, pop” to mimic gunshots, his prayer beads circling the wrist of a finger gun. (When Hood later offered to take questions from reporters, Alexander appeared to try to stop him. Since his public appearances, Hood has been decimated on social media.)

Hood made clear the night’s events were inseparable from the faith that informed the planning of the protest. Before the shooting began, he said, multiple ministers spoke to the crowd near Dallas's courthouse. After the shooting, Hood said, he became a “shepherd,” using the cross he was carrying as a “staff” to guide people away from the gunfire.

Minutes after the protesters’ press conference dispersed, the city held its prayer service. It was by no means an unusual event to hold right after a tragedy. But the volume of both speakers and attendees said much about the city’s reaction to its “darkest day in generations” — in Dallas, tragedy means the line between church and state zigs and zags together.

Speaking at the hourlong service alongside Mayor Mike Rawlings, Sen. Royce West, and Dallas Police Chief David Brown were pastors, a bishop, an imam, and a rabbi, among others. The setting was Thanks-Giving Square, an outdoor space created, as Rawlings described, the year after President John F. Kennedy's assassination as a “place of unity for people of all backgrounds, religions, and races.”

The mayor quoted from St. Paul: “‘In the end, three things remain: faith, hope and love.’ We need all three today,” he said. “We must have faith in each other, in our institutions. We have to have hope and believe that tomorrow will be better. And we must love one another. Because if we don't, the cancer of separatism will surely kill us.”

Later that night, for more than two and a half hours, in the theater-like hall of a Baptist church in south Dallas, leaders from some of the city’s megachurches delivered mini-sermons on faith and race. They were only supposed to speak for five minutes each — but you can’t really tell a preacher how long to preach, especially when he has the attention of nearly 2,500 people.

The pastors played off each other’s performances, alternately rousing and soothing the crowd, unabashedly flying past their time limits. Between monologues, a choir of American Idol shoo-ins sang “storms have come and torn our hearts in two,” as women and men swayed, raised their hands, and, occasionally, wept.

“Our young black men don’t feel safe. Now our police officers don’t feel safe. We don’t feel safe. Fear can be incredibly crippling,” said Bryan Carter, senior pastor at Concord Church, who organized and hosted the service. “We believe that God has uniquely positioned the church for such a time as this.”

Many of the pastors assembled attended the afternoon public prayer, too, but their Friday night addresses were different — here, they more explicitly connected Thursday’s tragedy to Dallas’ longstanding racial divide.

“How dare we expect these yet-to-be-United States of America to become one when every single Sunday the most segregated hour is when we gather to worship our great God?” asked Freddie Haynes of the Friendship West Baptist Church. “We gotta keep it 100 about the fact that there is a division of North and South in Dallas that in a real sense reflects economic inequality and injustice."

Haynes described "possibility and prosperity on one side of town, and food deserts and job deserts and opportunity deserts on the other side of town. ... Until we experience on our side of town 'to-serve-and-protect' as opposed to 'occupy, abuse, and kill,' there will be no unity. I’m just trying to keep it 100, because we cannot heal from what we are not real about. There is brokenness in Dallas that reflects the powder keg that is America.”

Concord’s Friday night assembly of leaders was fairly evenly divided between black and white pastors, though the audience was majority black. Nearly every white man who spoke gave some kind of acknowledgment of this, and their privilege, and the oppression of black Americans.

Jeff Warren, the white pastor of Park Cities Baptist Church, called Dallas “a tale of two cities” divided along racial lines, condemning white pastors who don’t speak up for black lives and declaring himself “pro-black” and “pro-police.”

In one of the only references to conservative-right politics, Todd Wagner of Watermark Community Church told the story of how he moved from an “All Lives Matter” to “Black Lives Matter” philosophy — through a black friend who compared the meaning of BLM to the minister’s own advocacy for “unborn lives.”

Much has been said about how Thursday night’s ambush was the deadliest incident for law enforcement officials since 9/11, and Wagner too referenced 9/11 — as a time when “surface repentance” spiked attendance at churches and drove “God Bless America” onto every other T-shirt and bumper sticker.

“That’s a surface healing,” Wagner said. “What heals the country is not when we gather 24 hours after harm hits our city. “What heals a city is when we go all the way down and we deal with the sin that keeps us from one another.”

The pastor referenced the enormity of Thanks-Giving Square earlier in the day, conjuring the image of a grieving Dallas flocking to its "spiritual people."

“But what are we gonna do with it, now that they’re gathered around?”

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