In unprecedented year, Black pastors carry extra burden

By Desiree Stennett, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Religious News

As the time came to start considering what change activists wanted to see come from the protests, Pastor Roderick Zak, who leads Rejoice in the Lord Ministries, a 3,000 member predominately Black church in Apopka, offered to help.

In the 1990s, Zak, as then-president of the Orlando chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, organized local marches calling for accountability and equity after Los Angeles Police Department officers were caught on camera beating Rodney King. King's beating, like Floyd's killing, launched a nationwide outcry.

The efforts of Zak and his fellow activists helped launched an alliance that increased public contracts for women- and minority-owned businesses in the mid-1990s. The alliance lasted about 10 years.

Nearly thirty years later, Zak opened his church for a meeting with activists and the Stono Institute for Freedom, Justice and Security, a human rights institution and think tank. It wasn't about projecting his own concerns onto the new movement, but rather making sure the new generation of activists would be able to clearly voice their own demands to those in power.

"I know what it's like to be out there trying to march and protest and let your voice be heard and negotiate with public and private entities for substantive change to take place," he said. "Advocacy, I know, can produce something if approached properly."

The demands presented so far by local activists have called for the declaration of racism as a public health crisis, the reallocation of some funding for the Orlando Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff's Office to combat that crisis, and deputizing citizens trained in deescalation techniques to embed with law enforcement officers.


Vanessa Keverenge, an organizer with activist group The People 407, was part of the meeting to formalize the demands.

The meeting "became a catalyst for the protest groups coming together to cement more solid demands," Keverenge said, adding that it also taught the activists how "messy" the process can be when attempting to find solutions that satisfy everyone when some simply want to reform the existing policing system and others want to abolish it and start fresh.

As calls for police reform continue, both Zak and Gray said they are also getting more regular calls from OPD and OCSO officials who want to share more insight about their community policing tactics.

Now, as the November presidential election nears, the pastors have stretched their focus to consider how they can help ensure that every member of the congregations and the surrounding community will vote.


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