SANFORD, Florida (CNN) – As opening arguments begin, courtroom seats are at a premium at the trial of George Zimmerman, charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.
But in an unusual arrangement, four seats in the second row, just steps from the jury box, have been assigned to a group called “Sanford Pastors Connecting.”
The multi-racial ministerial association has pledged to bear witness to the high-profile proceedings during the trial and to keep the peace afterward.
All of the clergy in the courtroom project have agreed to support the jury’s verdict in the racially-charged case, which sparked large rallies and marches led by civil rights figures like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
As needed, the pastors will report courtroom events to crowds expected to gather outside the courthouse, as well as to their congregations, and have agreed to head off inflammatory rumors.
“Regardless of what the verdict is, we can avoid the violence," said the Rev. Robert K. Gregory Jr., of the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry in Sanford. "If we work together, trust can be built.”
Zimmerman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch in his gated community, is accused of stalking and fatally shooting Martin, who was staying with his father, on February 26, 2012.
The defense claims that Martin, returning from a convenience store, turned on Zimmerman, who then fired in self-defense.
Two dozen media spaces on the courtroom’s polished wooden seats have been assigned by lottery, with an equal amount set aside for the general public. Another twelve spots in the rectangular chamber are reserved for the Zimmerman and Martin families.
The pastoral rotation is the idea of the U.S. Department of Justice's Community Relations Service. A Seminole County Sheriff’s inspector, who is also an ordained minister, handles the scheduling. Among the Christian clergy who have signed up, there are evangelical and mainline congregations; tiny, urban parishes and suburban megachurches.
“We’re looking at providing leadership, to comfort people through the word of God and prayer,” said the Rev. Sharon Patterson, of Getting Your House in Order Ministries, a small African-American congregation.
“We want our presence to encourage them to understand that as long as God is in control, everything will work out all right,” the pastor said.
Patterson brings a particular past to her courtroom witnessing. She once aspired to be a lawyer herself, spending summers when she was first teaching public school, and had no air conditioning at home, going from trial to trial.
While most Sanford-area African-American congregations rallied around the Martin family and their call for justice immediately following the shooting, some predominately white churches and clergy were divided.
The Rev. Alan Brumback, pastor of Sanford’s Central Baptist Church, was one of the first – and few – local white clergy to join the predominately black marches and demonstrations in the wake of the Martin shooting.
However, Brumback, whose congregation is multi-racial, said he would not be a part of the courtroom program.
“I am calling my church to pray for our city and to share the only news that can bring reconciliation,” he said, “the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is my only agenda.”
Whatever it is, the verdict will be God’s will, said the Rev. Lowman J. Oliver III of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford.
“We pray that the outcome will be just and fair to all parties,” he said. “How will it look? I’m not able to answer that. Our roles are as peacemakers. It’s more important that we send a message that we sustain the peace.”
However, Oliver said, peaceful acceptance of a verdict does not mean people will have to agree with it. They can certainly have “a righteous response,” as long as it is nonviolent.
“There is a history of division in this community, and there is a history involving violence against black youth” that must be addressed, said the Rev. Joel Hunter, of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida. A prominent evangelical, Hunter is also a close confidant of President Obama's.
After a long, tedious day of sitting together during jury selection, Hunter, Oliver and Gregory were finishing each other’s sentences.
Laughing, they admitted that they were unused to sitting still and silent in unpadded pews for so long – while others did the talking.