Hundreds of Franklin residents overflowed from the corner of the First Missionary Baptist Church parking lot to listen to church leaders, educators, city officials and concerned citizens speak out against systemic racism across the country at a candlelight vigil held June 2.

“If we are to change the hearts of people that continue to spew hate, we must pick up our love,” Pastor Timothy Gaines of the First Missionary Baptist Church said at the event. “If we are to change the hearts of those who refuse to stand with us in the face of injustices, we must lift up our love. If we are to change the hearts of bad cops who give good cops a bad name, we must pick up our love.”

The Jesus and Justice Candlelight Prayer Vigil was held in remembrance of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more black Americans who were killed in recent weeks.

Chris Williamson, senior pastor at the Strong Tower Bible Church, spoke out against racism and the deaths of Floyd and many others while wearing a shirt with the words, “I can’t breathe,” written across the front, which were among the last words spoken by both Floyd and Eric Garner before they died.

“One of the things that helps me during this time of lament, sorrow, anger, discouragement, sadness, rage, is knowing that my savior can identify with this statement on my chest because there was a time he could not breathe,” Williamson said. “Crucifixion was designed to kill its victims through suffocation as a result of hanging on the cross for hours. ... He hung for six hours before he gave his life.”

On May 25, 2020, Floyd died while in police custody after being accused by police for using a counterfeit $20 bill. After being handcuffed and forced to lie face-down in the street, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds despite verbal protests from Floyd. Floyd became unresponsive and was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

“I only saw that video once and I could barely make it through, because when I saw him calling out for his mother, I thought about my own mother. I thought about my son, Dante, who could be in that same situation and has been close to being in that situation. I’ve been close to being in that situation,” Williamson said. “You’re calling on God, you’re calling on your mother and your life is flashing before your eyes, and if you don’t understand that, that’s just part of your privilege. We’re not here today to make you feel guilty but to share our burden so that you can help carry it with us.”

Eric Stuckey, city administrator of Franklin, spoke at the event and said the city was committed to serving and protecting all of its residents.

“I won’t take long, because the most important thing I can do is humbly listen, seek to understand and engage,” Stuckey said. “What we have witnessed shakes us to our core. We’re about protecting life and enhancing life, not taking [it]. We seek to hire and train people who are committed and have a heart for service and the courage to always do what is right. That’s what we’ve got to be.”

Mona Ivey-Soto, professor at Belmont University, spoke about race-based traumatic stress that comes from stressful encounters experienced by black Americans every day across the nation.

“We think about everyday the racial encounters our black brothers and sisters are feeling—not just the ones that make the newsreels, but the ones that they feel walking down the street, the ones that they feel sitting in the classrooms when their teachers don’t believe their stories,” Ivey-Soto said. “We don’t see the daily pain, we don’t see the wounds, we don’t have VA hospitals for them. Essential in our understanding of race-based traumatic stress is not only the presence of trauma, but the absence of long-term individual and systemic healing.”

The candlelight vigil was one of many gatherings across the country organized in response to the deaths of Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25; Arbery, who was shot to death while on a jog near Brunswick, Georgia on February 23; and Taylor, who was shot to death in her home by police in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13.

As the sun began to set in the early evening of June 2 in Franklin, candles were lit and passed around as the names of black Americans who have been killed were read aloud, and the hundreds gathered at the church knelt for prayer.

“As we think about the spirit of white supremacy, the spirit of racism, I want us to, in the name of Jesus, put our knee on the neck of that spirit and not let it get back up to breathe,” Williamson said. “It may be uncomfortable, but may this temporary pain remind you of what our brother George went through for nearly nine minutes on his face.”

Franklin City Administrator Eric Stuckey was misquoted in an earlier version of this article. A change has been made to more accurately reflect what was said.