Pastors in Long Island and New York City churches Sunday called on congregants to take action through protests and their pocketbooks against a criminal justice system they say has not held white police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed black men.
"What the system has done is wrong, and we've got to stand up and we've got to voice our opinions, we've got to raise our voices against the injustice of this nation," the Rev. Sedgwick Easley, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Hempstead, told a packed church.
"I know this ain't your regular hallelujah-thank-you-Jesus-type sermon. I really want you to have some righteous indignation," said Easley, urging the congregation to attend a rally and march Sunday in Amityville. "I want you to leave mad when you leave here."
He called the decisions by grand juries not to indict police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island examples of miscarriages of justice.
In the local case, Eric Garner, 43, who was black, died July 17 after a confrontation with NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 29, who is white, and other officers in Staten Island during an arrest on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A Richmond County grand jury did not indict Pantaleo, leading to a series of protests in New York City, other major cities nationwide and Sunday's rally on Long Island.
At Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III called on more than 500 congregants to protest police violence on African-American men through "economic sanctions."
Butts asked his congregation to protest from their "pocketbook and not spend needlessly. . . . We too will engage in protest with days of abstinence -- economic sanctions. We encourage you to save your money."
Butts said he believes the officers involved in Garner's death should be fired. If the NYPD internal investigation drags on, he said he would want Police Commissioner William Bratton to be fired.
Bratton said Sunday the Internal Affairs investigation will take three to four months.
In East New York in Brooklyn, the Rev. A.R. Bernard at the Christian Cultural Center touched on the Garner case in his sermon. "These are times when your convictions are challenged, and what you stand for is challenged. You have to make a decision -- are you going to fold to political or social pressures, or are you going to stand by your convictions?" he said.
He later added, "Just because we have a black president, racism just didn't evaporate or disappear."
One congregant said the issue had touched a nerve in her family. "I have a Michael Brown. I have a Trayvon Martin. I have an Eric Garner. I have a young black son," said Lisa Smith, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who was attending the service. "I talk to him, but I am very much confused as to how these things can happen but nothing is done."
At Riverside Church, the iconic Morningside Heights church often at the forefront of civil rights and social justice advocacy, the Rev. Amy K. Butler described the protesters as "bringers of hope -- prophets of light." She said, "We must speak: no justice, no peace."
Fred Cotton, 60, a former charter-school teacher from Far Rockaway, said there is a lot of unrest because the proceedings of the grand jury are secret by law. "We don't know what was presented," he said.
At Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt, Herman Robinson, 60, a Uniondale resident who plays saxophone at the church, said: "To be treated equal, you have to be considered equal to someone. It's not a fair, level playing field."
Churchgoer Leith Shields, 54, of Roosevelt, said, "It's hard because I believe no matter what you do, you can't win, just prayers." She tells her 13-year-old son, "in whatever situation, please don't resist when a cop has pulled you over."
In Hempstead, Easley cited the case of Kyle Howell, who was beaten in April by Nassau County police officers who suspected him of having drugs and said he was reaching for a weapon during a traffic stop in Westbury. Howell suffered a broken nose, fractures near both eyes and facial nerve damage.
Charges against Howell were dismissed. Nassau police Officer Vincent LoGiudice has been indicted on assault charges and has pleaded not guilty.The case is pending.
"Our faith is not in the judicial system, our faith is not in a grand jury, our faith is not in a judge, our faith is not in a lawyer, our faith is not in the New York Police Department. But you must remember as people of God that our faith is in God," Easley said.