A Sanford pastor and other Christian leaders are going to play the important role of peacemaker during the high-profile trial of George Zimmerman, accused of second-degree-murder in the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
"We, as religious leaders, can have a calming presence. We can soothe tensions," said Pastor Sharon Patterson of the nondenominational Getting Your House in Order Ministries in Sanford, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "The main concern is that this is such a high-profile case, that there are a lot of feelings, and there will be a lot of misinformation about what is taking place. So it's important that people listen to the facts from someone who is there and tell them that the wheels of justice are turning and to stay calm."
The case has attracted so much national attention because of the racial aspects involved – Zimmerman, who is a white Hispanic, shot the African-American teenager in an act he claims was self-defense, but others are saying this was a racially-motivated killing. Zimmerman, who was patrolling the area as a volunteer neighborhood watchman, apparently followed 17-year-old Martin who was returning to his father's fiancée's house, which led to the confrontation.
In May, defense attorneys said that text messages found on Martin's phone from the night of the incident suggested he was "angry," which might have led to him lashing out on Zimmerman and striking first, as the neighborhood watchman has claimed.
"This is relevant to Mr. Martin's overall demeanor that day and relevant to his emotional state," Zimmerman's attorneys said, arguing that the evidence "may assist the jury in understanding why Martin chose to hide and then confront George Zimmerman rather than simply going home."
The prosecutors, however, have called it a "desperate and pathetic attempt by the defense to pollute and sway the jury pool."
"Is the defense trying to prove Trayvon deserved to be killed by George Zimmerman because the way he looked?" asked Martin's family lawyer, Benjamin Crump. "If so, this stereotypical and closed-minded thinking is the same mindset that caused George Zimmerman to get out of his car and pursue Trayvon, an unarmed kid who he didn't know."
The trial, which is to begin on Monday, is likely to attract large crowds outside the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, Seminole County, Florida. The Orlando Sentinel noted that pastors will mingle with the people outside to try and prevent tensions from escalating.
"Pastors have a spiritual presence ... so we can help alleviate any problems that could arise," said the Rev. Valarie Houston of the 600-member Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Sanford.
Jeffrey Krall, pastor of the Family Worship Center, a predominantly white church, noted that for a number of generations black and white residents in Sanford have gone to separate churches, and there is limited interaction between black and white pastors.
"When you speak to the black pastors, many have stories from their congregations that they feel the [justice] system is stacked against them. But many in the white communities don't recognize that," Krall said, according to the Orlando Sentinel. "This is so they can see the process firsthand and then use whatever influence they have to share it with their communities."