LYNN NEARY, host:
I'm Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, cramming for the future - a high-stakes graduate exam for South African students is profiled in a new documentary. That's next.
But first, it all began when black students sat under a tree that had traditionally been known as a white student hangout at the local high school. Shortly afterwards, three nooses were found hanging from that tree. That sparked a series of racially charged events culminating in the schoolyard attack of a white student and the arrest of six black teenagers for the crime.
These events have roiled the small town of Jena, Louisiana, and ripped away the veneer of racial harmony there. This week, in our Faith Matters conversation, we're joined by two ministers to talk about how all this is affecting their community.
Joining me now is Reverend Brian Moran, pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Jena; and Pastor Eddie Thompson of the Sanctuary Family Worship Center in Jena. Thanks to both of you for being with us.
Mr. EDDIE THOMPSON (Pastor, Sanctuary Family Worship Center): Thank you.
Reverend BRIAN MORAN (Pastor, Antioch Baptist Church): Thank you so much.
NEARY: Reverend Moran, I wonder, could you describe the mood of the community in Jena right now.
Rev. MORAN: Primarily, right now, the mood of Jena is very, very, very bad. Anytime you have someone who asks to sit under a tree - in which God created all trees - with their Caucasian friends, then after asking the principle to sit under the tree and the principal okayed black students to sit under the tree and then black students went under the tree, the next day, three nooses were hung. It really confuses me why anybody would say that this is not a racist situation.
NEARY: But would you say, Reverend Moran, that the black and white communities in Jena see this completely differently?
Rev. MORAN: Yes, of course.
NEARY: Let me ask Pastor Thompson to describe how he sees the situation, and do you think that blacks and white in Jena are really seeing this in a very different way.
Mr. THOMPSON: I agree with Reverend Moran that there are some difference in how the black and the white community view the events. There were some in the white community that would tend to view the news as a prank at first. And, of course, those in the black community immediately realized the serious nature of the nooses. And eventually, the white community, later on, began to come to realize the serious nature of it. I disagree that there's a level of tension here that has been described in the media - that there's no clashes in the street, there's not a lot of local people in the black community or the white community demonstrating or protesting, in a big sense, the situation that's here.
NEARY: Yeah. Pastor Thompson, we tried to reach several white ministers in Jena. Four of them denied our requests for an interview. Others never returned our calls, which we were a bit surprised about, because we genuinely were hoping to talk with ministers in the town about the sort of moral implications of this and what you're talking to your congregations about. But we're wondering why is that? Why would ministers not want to even talk to us about this?
Mr. THOMPSON: I believe they've watched through the national medias their small southern town has kind of been offered up as a sacrifice for America's national sin. I believe, and I've said this from the beginning, that I believe there is prejudice and bigotry in our community. There's the same problem throughout America. And I believe America has found a scapegoat for its own sin. And I believe the people are seeing their town portrayed in a way, in the national media, that is foreign to them completely.
NEARY: You know, you're talking about how these incidents have sort of exposed certain things in the town that perhaps had been hidden in the past. And I wonder if you think that people in the town, the ministers, for instance, whether they're now gone into hiding, that they don't want to talk about these things. They've been exposed and now they're - people are retreating. Is that happening?
Mr. THOMPSON: From my perspective, the retreating that I see and from what I hear in my conversations with the other ministers and some of the people in white community is more of a situation that, you know, because they have these big, country, bumpkin accents, they make perfect, you know, rednecks for the view of the national audience. The main reason that they have retreated, I believe, is they don't like the way that they're being portrayed. Some of that is, you know, if you don't like how you're being portrayed, well, look and see if maybe if it's the truth that hurts. But also, I believe, the national media have some responsibility for that as well. I do sense what they're saying, and I see it myself as well.
NEARY: Reverend Moran, is there any retreat going on within the black community?
Rev. MORAN: Well, of course. I mean, there's been since day one - ministers who just have decided that they're not going to be a part of the healing process. What I gather from the black standpoint - and I hate to say it - the way I'm saying it is - but that when their voices are heard and when their faces are seen to the national media. They love to speak. When it comes down to the dirty work, no one wants to put their hands in and do the dirty work.
NEARY: What are people afraid of? What are these ministers afraid of?
Rev. MORAN: I guess some preachers look at that pastoring as a job. And you got a lot of preachers that come into Jena who come to please the people. And if the people seem not to want to be a part of the situation, well then ministers will do the same thing. And because we have such a separation in the black community, and there is a race separation in black community, that's actually the reason why a lot of these ministers decided they weren't going to get up into this situation.
NEARY: I just want to remind our listeners that I'm Lynn Neary, and I'm sitting in for Michel Martin. And you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Reverend Moran, did you have supporters of the Jena Six meet at your church? And if so, what was the reaction in the community to that?
Rev. MORAN: As soon as I heard it, it kind of upset me - I'll be honest with you - because of the fact that I believe that unity is strength. And for all the ministers, not only is it going on in the Caucasian sector, but it's also going on in the African-American sector as well where you have a lot of ministers that care not to speak. You have a lot of people who care not to speak upfront but get in the background. You're hearing all kind of rumors about this person said this and that person said that. And that's really making it hard for us that are staying in the forefront to really try to get some kind of ground as far as us being together, black and white. My thing of it was, that if we could come together, put our heads together, and try to get things done within our community then it would not have gotten to where it is now.
NEARY: I wonder if both of you could talk about how you're dealing with this in your own congregations. Has the church begin to deal with this? And let me hear from Pastor Thompson on that first - if you see a role of the church.
Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I definitely do. In our community, we're a very religious community. Within one mile of my church in the middle town, there - I've counted just the other day - 14 different churches. You go one mile in either direction. We're a very religious community. And our pastors have a lot of influence. And I try to instill the golden rule into my congregation, to do unto others as they would have done unto them. We haven't been strong, maybe, in that perspective and that aspect in our community. I've dedicated my ministry to that. I have a history. I've pastored to church - a church called Maranatha in our community where - had summer programs where I would have lots of children and youth that were of all races. And so I've tried to demonstrate that and tried to teach that because I realize that even when government and law enforcement and the school system has done all it can do, our churches and our pastors and our parents are very valuable and important to reach the heart of our children.
NEARY: Reverend Moran, can you explain why a community like this, a small community with so many churches, why this kind of thing continues to happen?
Rev. MORAN: Well, you said 14 churches, you mean 14 white churches or 14 churches.
Mr. THOMPSON: Strictly white churches.
Rev. MORAN: Okay. We have six. And the black community makes up 15 percent of Jena. And then on top of all that, everybody doesn't go to church. So my thing of it is, first of all, there's too many churches. There's far too many churches. And because there's too many churches, that brings about different views on different situations because you have different leaders that teach and preach different things. Because whether we know it or not, everybody is not preaching God's word the way they need to. Everybody's not preaching, like you said, the golden rule.
NEARY: It sounds to me as if what is going on in Jena right now truly has ripped the community apart and maybe opened up wounds that have been there for a long time.
Rev. MORAN: Right. This - what's going on now has always gone on.
NEARY: Well then how do you begin the healing then? Is there a way to begin it, Pastor Thompson?
Rev. THOMPSON: We immediately, after the event of December 4th, tried to come together as a ministerial alliance. And we had maybe 30, 35 pastors try to come together. We had meeting where we met at the high school. And all the different faiths and all the different races were represented as we had prayer. The children were out on the school where we usually - we stood out there in the football stadium where we usually, you know, meet for football games. Well, they were out there on the field arm-in-arm singing the alma mater, and we were trying to pull together. But then once the charges were set against those six individuals, and then the parents began to fight for their children, and then people began to see the division between the DA's office and the parents and the polarization took place. Then pretty much, what the ministers wanted to accomplish - it sort of fizzled out. And probably something we should have done a long time ago…
Rev. MORAN: Right.
Rev. THOMPSON: …we didn't get to accomplish. And now, pretty much, this story is driven by the trials. And it will be - until the trials are settled, there's not going to be much of an opportunity for us to move forward.
NEARY: You got a long road ahead of you, it sounds like you're saying, both of you.
Rev. THOMPSON: Yes.
NEARY: Rev. Brian Moran is the pastor of the Antioch Baptist Church in Jena. And Pastor Eddie Thompson is the head of the Sanctuary Family Worship Center in Jena. They both joined me via phone from Jena, Louisiana. Thank you both for being with us today.
Rev. THOMPSON: Thank you.
Rev. MORAN: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.