SANFORD, Fla.--The mayor, police chief, pastors and other leaders of this central Florida city called for peace and unity at an inter-faith prayer service in a local church Monday, two days after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
A dozen pastors lined the altar at New Life Center Church near downtown Sanford at noon for the service, which lasted about an hour and a half and drew more than 70 people.
The pastors themselves -- five white, the rest black -- were a nod to the racial unity they have been working to achieve in the wake of Martin’s death, Zimmerman’s trial and Saturday’s not-guilty verdict by a six-woman jury.
Together they prayed for the families of Martin and Zimmerman.
“We know this trial has polarized much of the nation, so we’re going to pray for racial reconciliation,” said the Rev. R. W. Merthie.
Police Chief Cecil Smith, who is black, noted that the verdict in the racially charged case sparked large protests and clashes with police in other cities -- including Los Angeles and New York -- but not in Sanford.
“Everybody wants to see us act up. We didn’t. We came together and talked about our issues,” Smith said. “We can say we don’t like what’s happened but we need to come together and move on.”
Smith thanked the community “for keeping the peace, for being an example to everyone around this nation.”
“We still have struggles,” he said, but asked the city of 54,000 about 25 miles north of Orlando to continue to set the tone for the country.
“We are at the forefront of making all of these changes, not just in Sanford, but all around the world,” he said.
The crowd gave him a standing ovation, and together they sang a gospel hymn, “Victory Today Is Mine.”
The gathering was organized by Sanford Pastors Connecting, a group formed after Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot the unarmed 17-year-old Martin in a gated community on Feb. 26, 2012. The pastors have been working with Smith to improve relations between police and the community, and with the U.S. Justice Department, which is still investigating Martin’s death and sent a staff member to Sanford to speak at the service.
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett credited local ministers with preaching and keeping the peace during the trial.
“It’s always going to be a part of our history, but it doesn’t have to define us,” Triplett said of the trial.
He said city officials crafted contingency plans for the verdict, and that so far, they and residents appear to have avoided rioting. No arrests or violent incidents related to the verdict had been reported as of Monday, Smith said.
“You always have that worry, but I think if it was going to happen, it would have,” Triplett told the Los Angeles Times.
To ensure it’s a lasting peace, he added, “We need to make sure we continue to walk the path we started walking 18 months ago.”
That includes community meetings with police and the chief’s weekly “walk and talk” tours of city neighborhoods on Thursday afternoons, which Smith said he plans to continue this week.
“We can’t change the verdict,” Smith told The Times as he left church, “But we can change the city of Sanford.”