"Our little church district in our little urban area feels, in many ways, so unprepared for the intensity of the issues we’ve faced this past week," says Pastor Zack Payne. "But the nation’s eyes are on our community now, and that community needs Jesus."

August 28, 2020

Wisconsin pastor reflects on unrest in Kenosha

"What happened on Sunday, and what’s happened since, we weren’t ready for that."

I live and pastor in Southeastern Wisconsin, in the Kenosha/Racine area. The two small cities are really more like competing twins that make up one medium-sized urban area of about 300,000 that link the larger cities of Chicago and Milwaukee. We see our fair share of crime and gun violence here. We see our fair share of injustice and division. We’re a known hot spot for human and drug trafficking. These are all things we deal with and situations we try our best to minister to. As local citizens and church members, we’re no strangers to real-life, in-your-face issues.

But what happened on Sunday, and what’s happened since? We weren’t ready for that.

Of course, no one can be prepared for the trauma brought on by excessive police force. Jacob Blake was shot in the back by Kenosha Police Officer, Rusten Sheskey, seven times during an altercation. The officer’s actions were extreme, very public, even in view of Blake’s children. A video of the event soon went viral and became the subject of national attention. That evening, the first of a series of protests took place, and these demonstrations were nightly followed by riots that local law enforcement were--very apparently--not equipped to handle. As I write this, federal support has now been lent and while there are still nightly demonstrations, they have toned down quite a bit in the face of a much larger and more prepared law enforcement presence.

However, before the feds rolled in, it was a different story. While rioters (many of them from out of town) set a number of vehicles on fire and looted a few local businesses pretty thoroughly the first night, the second night was filled with more serious destruction. I watched on a live-stream as, only nine miles away from my home, half of a city block went up in flames due to arson. I had some church members who left town due to fear of personal safety, and others who looked for ways to protect their livelihood from devastation. I had to cut short a memorial service for a church member due to a caravan of rioters rolling into town, making the funeral home employees and caterers nervous to stay out too long. Yes, playing the role of minister during the past week has been a very different experience. In many ways, my job has been reduced to devouring every news update so that I can best counsel and pray with and assist my membership on how to cope with the unprecedented events now surrounding them.

There’s so much more I wish I could do. I’ve been reaching out to local emergency response and community action entities about getting groups together to help meet local needs and I’ve been met with busy signals and voicemail. I went downtown yesterday (Wednesday, Aug. 26) with one of our directors, in order to pray, assess the situation, and ask authorities and civilians about the ways we can best help. We’ve got plans formulating now for this weekend, but in the midst of so much unrest, even some of my most willing and service-oriented volunteers are hesitant to set foot in the affected areas. Of course, let’s not forget that this is all during a time of pandemic and social distancing, so my volunteer force is already cut in half.

But, despite the challenges and limitations, we are called, as ministers and as members of the body of Christ, to speak truth to power, to bring light into darkness, and to be ambassadors for Jesus. I want everything we do as a church to be all about standing up for justice in our community. It’s one of the reasons I moved to the city, instead of out in the country--because I want to be where the issues are so that I can better be aware of and address them. As Adventists, we have a long history of community involvement and practical Christian engagement with societal issues. Our little church district in our little urban area feels, in many ways, so unprepared for the intensity of the issues we’ve faced this past week. But the nation’s eyes are on our community now, and that community needs Jesus.

Please pray for us as we lead the way for the cause of Christ in our city, as we minister to families broken by injustice, and as we quite literally pick up the pieces of our community. We know God has brought us here for such a time as this. And if you’re not too far away and you’d like to help, please reach out. We’re needing all the help we can get.

[If you're interesting in joining a group to minister to the community, meet this Sabbath, 10:00 a.m. at Library Park, 711 59th Pl., Kenosha, Wisc. The plan is to have a short service , then split off into different areas of town to clean up a neighborhood, meet with someone whose business burned down, hand out water and fruit and pray with people through the neighborhoods.]


Zack Payne pastors the WISEN (Wisconsin Southeast Network), comprising Racine and Kenosha counties. During the early days of the state lockdown, Payne and two other area pastors, Sheldon Bryan and Myoung Kwon, took a regional approach to online ministry and started the Greater Milwaukee Adventist Fellowship Facebook group where they had twice daily devotional talks for 11 weeks.

Photo credit: Chrystelle Sachse and Zack Payne