A group of about 100 individuals recently gathered in McGovern Park on Milwaukee’s northwest side to pray for the city. The event, convened by Believers United, a group whose Facebook page says it is “a community of Christians standing together for what they believe in by showing faith in action,” brought together a diverse, but largely African-American, group of individuals from multiple churches in the Milwaukee area.
The event, Prayer in the Park, which lasted about 30 minutes, focused largely on ways individuals could impact their communities through action and love, but also addressed conditions in some of Milwaukee’s most distressed neighborhoods.
Milwaukee’s 29 percent poverty rate is almost twice the national average, with much of that poverty concentrated in the 53206 ZIP code. Employment rates for African-Americans, and black men in particular, are some of the lowest in the nation. In 2015, Milwaukee saw one of the most violent years in recent history with 153 homicides; the overwhelming majority of those killings were shooting deaths that affected young black men.
“We see all this stuff going on in our city and we’re not doing things like this,” said Markasa Chambers, an attendee and founder of The Alternative. “So, this was very exciting.”
Chambers has organized similar events in the past that only a few people have attended; she said she was happy to see the turnout and that “other Christians are looking to break out past the four walls (of the church building).”
Ronald Sain, one of the leaders of Believers United, talked about uniting the Christian community “to become a strong force to change the city of Milwaukee and the surrounding areas.”
Sain said the goal is to come together and encourage each other to be proactive and Christ-like. “If you’re not a believer, we want to surround you with individuals who do believe so we can show you faith in action,” he said. “We’re gonna give you the reality of what you’re reading; we’re gonna be the example and show you exactly what it was that Christ was doing when he walked the streets, when he … touched the person that everybody else bypassed. We want to be that individual … we want that individual.”
In the wake of the recent mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a national debate has erupted over the intentions and motive of the shooter who killed 49 people and injured another 53. Some have blamed Islamic extremism as the cause, while others have pointed to a long history of American puritanical rhetoric, demonization and state-sanctioned violence against LGBT people, dating back before the 1969 Stonewall riots.
LGBT Americans are targeted with violent hate crimes more than any other group in the country, even Muslims and black Americans. Of the LGBT people murdered in the United States in 2014, more than 80 percent were people of color.
During the prayer event, less than two weeks after the Orlando shooting, Pastor Melva Henderson equated homosexuality with murder, suicide and prostitution, calling them “plagues.” Henderson, along with her husband, is one of the senior pastors of World Outreach & Bible Training Center. She also leads an annual event in the Milwaukee area called Women in Worship.
Henderson added, “But, father, we thank you that our position is to walk with you, to love you, to serve you, to be a witness, to be a light to the world, to the hurt, to the homeless, father god, to the hurting. Help us to be a light, father god, help our light to be real, help what we have to be real.”
There is substantial scientific evidence that homosexuality is at least partially determined by biological factors.
Milwaukee Stories attempted to contact Henderson for comment on this story. She is currently traveling outside of the country.
The African-American community, and church in particular, has a long and complicated relationship with homosexuality. Many black pastors were critical of President Barack Obama’s decision to openly endorse same-sex marriage in 2012. However, shortly after that endorsement the NAACP passed a resolution supporting the move, “as a continuation of its historic commitment to equal protection under the law.”
For others, such as Everett Mitchell, a Madison pastor who has addressed the need to love all people, including those in the LGBT community, “This was not an evolution.” The Madison State Journal reported in 2015 that Mitchell, who pastors at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, has married a same-sex couple, as well.
Mitchell said, “I had gay family members growing up who I thought were the most beautiful people in the world. The idea that God would exclude them because of that never seemed rational to me.”
After the event Chantell Sain, Ronald’s wife and another leader of Believers United, said they “invite everybody to pray” and can’t control what others say. She said they want to allow people to express themselves.
At the same time, Ronald said they don’t want to be offensive. “We really want to unite, and we can’t unite if we’re offending in the same breath,” he said. “We don’t want to contradict ourselves.”
“As far as Believers United is concerned, we don’t care what your sexual preference is, what your background [is] — whether you’re in the street, out of [the] street, whether you’re homosexual or you’re not,” Chantell said. “That doesn’t matter to us. Believers United is about uniting everybody together.”
She added, “Your sexual preference is not a concern … If they believe in god, we want them together with us.”
Ronald was a facilities manager at World Outreach for four years and has served as the church’s worship arts director for more than two years. Chantell was previously an administrator and volunteer coordinator at World Outreach for almost seven years until 2015.
Chantell said the event was an effort to get the warm months started on the right foot, but made it clear that there is more to do. “This is just the beginning,” she said. “Prayer is only the beginning. We’re not gonna stop here; we’re not just gonna go back, and go back in our homes and not do nothing.”
Believers United will host a roundtable on July 2 in the hopes of getting churches, ministries and community groups talking. The group will also host a series of social events in August and another “Prayer in the Park” in September, where the goal will be for a different church to occupy every park in the city.
“We know that if we can come together that our impact can be so much greater,” Chantell said.
“It’s not about who you are and what you did. It’s about what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not our job to come here and judge and convict,” Chambers said. “We’re just here to simply love and share the love of Christ.”
“I’m praying that people would move into action and be engaged to do the work, to help change,” said Chambers.
She added, “It’s not gonna be, like, this big, huge thing that’s gonna change overnight. It’s gonna take lots of work. But people are starting to wake up and sense that.”