Dallas (CNN)A female usher reaches across the church pew and hands a woman a stack of tissue. She presses it against her face, the tears rolling down her cheeks. She can hardly contain herself.
Where do we go from here? A nation united in grief seeks answers
There's too much pain in this city. There's too much pain in the black community. She cannot hold it in any longer. Fellow churchgoers embrace her, and tell her it will get better. This is where change begins.
For three hours she and other Dallas residents of all races sat alongside police officers, the mayor and government officials seeking a sanctuary from the pain that has torn this nation apart.
They packed the pews on Sunday in Dallas at the Potter's House Church, bound by their grief for five fallen officers. They were joined by the words of two families of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana shot and killed by police this week.
"We live in troubled times," Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter's House Church told his congregation. "Our faith has been tested, our resolve has been tested."
But there was no line drawn about whether black lives matter or blue lives matter. Instead, at this emotionally charged town hall, they wept together inside a church that acted as a haven for a country united in mourning. They sought healing for all communities in the wake of protests and tragedy. They toed the fine line of praising police in Dallas and paying tribute, but shining a light on officer-involved shootings.
They were determined to pray, but also to seek answers and action. And churchgoers listened to the heartbreaking words of those who are forever intertwined with this week of tragedy.
A police officer, a senator and the mayor of Dallas spoke. The aunt of Alton Sterling shared the stage, describing her devastation about how he was killed by police. His mother spoke to the parishioners by phone. Philando Castile's fiancée, who livestreamed the aftermath of his killing by a cop, called in to the service from Minneapolis.
They each spoke of their losses, their struggles and frustration on policing. And while they come from different perspectives, they intersect at the very crossroads where this country is struggling.
Community leaders and family members each spoke, equal parts sermon, eulogy and a rallying cry for change.
"I don't want to live in a world without police ... or in a world where my son is shot for doing something stupid. It's not black suffering or white suffering. It's all suffering," Jakes told the congregation.
"Heal our land," the pastor said in prayer. "From the White House to the crack house, heal our land."
And so that's exactly what they tried to do. They bowed their heads and held hands. They listened to those who have suffered unspeakable tragedy. And they hoped those stories could help a shattered nation answer the question: "Where do we go from here?"
Diamond Reynolds said she is still telling her daughter everything is going to be OK. Just like her daughter comforted her as Reynolds broadcast live on Facebook.
Her fiancé, Philando Castile, had just been shot in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
"To get it on camera, the immediate aftermath, wasn't for anything except to be heard for justice," Reynolds told the church crowd in Dallas, explaining the need for a victim's side of the story to be told.
That's the world you live in as an African-American today, she said as congregation members sighed and dabbed away tears.
"Because at the end of the day the people that are here to serve and protect us, we call upon them when we are in need, but when the officers are the ones that are hurting us who do we call?"
She cried as she told the congregation over the phone how she and Castile were headed to a "family night," and she wishes they made a simple choice to take another route. Maybe then, her fiancé would be alive, she said. It shouldn't be a decision a black family has to make, along with taking out a camera to film the aftermath, she said.
"I posted that video so everyone across the world can know that we don't do these things to ourselves, these things are done to us."
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings pulled no punches. His city is devastated.
"We have to do some mourning," he said. "Families are burying their loved ones. "We have come together."
And while 12 of his officers were shot, and five were killed, he made sure to let the mostly African-American congregation in Dallas know he stood with them, too.
He wasted no time addressing the larger conversation about police interaction with African-Americans across the United States.
"Race is the big issue," he said. "We have to be honest."
The crowd chanted amen and threw their hands up in the air.
"But there are two questions: Do we really want to change? That's a personal question. We can't vote on it and make everyone change. Most people want the other guy to change. Do we want to change? If so, we have to get the right medicine for this. What we're taking right now is separatism."
His second question?
"Can you be wrong but still good? Can somebody disagree with someone but not demonize them?" Rawlings asked, addressing the divisive climate. "Words matter. I was only mad twice. Mad at the shooter. Mad when I heard a politician call protesters cowards."
For all the protests, rhetoric and hashtags to mean anything, there must be action, he said. He implored leaders to get together and address the underlying issues to ensure this moment doesn't slip by the country again, before another brutal shooting occurs.
"History works through those tipping dominoes," Rawlings said. "We have to understand yes it is about race, but also income, education and opportunity disparity. I want to fight tomorrow's battles, build a bridge and get over it."
Dallas Area Rapid Transit police officer Steve Gentry was watching peaceful protests in Dallas while working at the jail. It quickly became chaos as a shooter opened fire on the police. The 27-year veteran went to the scene of the shooting, where his colleague would be shot and killed.
"None of us wake up hoping someone passes away," Gentry said, beginning to sob. "Whether our people, or our citizens."
Jakes walked over and hugged the tearful officer, who said a friend suggested he come to the service as a way to heal his pain.
As an officer who cares deeply about his community, the chain of events over the last week echoes a horrific period of strained relations between cops and residents, he said. And it worries him.
"The last two years, there's been lot of blame on both sides," he said. "And I hate it. It disturbs me, it keeps me awake at night."
Gentry said he hoped telling this to the congregation would be the start of a conversation.
He acknowledged this wasn't a church he'd normally attend.
The crowd embraced him as one of their own. He welcomed the chance to try to heal some wounds. And to prove that no matter your skin color or profession, everyone bleeds the same color, and everyone's tears stream down their face equally in grief.
"Whether you like police officers or not, we're with you," Gentry said.
Sandra Sterling's life changed the moment her nephew Alton was killed by a police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge. When she first saw the video of his death, she thought, at least he didn't suffer. And then a video from another angle surfaced.
"When I saw the second tape, he suffered," she told the crowd, as she sat on the church stage.
"I haven't slept since," she said.
Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of one of Alton's children, spoke to the church by phone about how she wanted people to remember him.
"He was a very generous guy. There was nothing you couldn't ask him for," she said. "He was very caring and very sweet."
Sandra Sterling has hope justice will come for her nephew. And she plans to protest when necessary, but is relying on ministers to help get her family through this tough time.
The family has hired the lawyers who represented Walter Scott, who was shot and killed by a North Charleston police department.
L. Chris Stewart, one of the attorneys for the family, spoke to the church about the character assassination that takes place when police shoot a black man. That's one easy change to make, he said.
"There's always [a] character assault first," he said. "Those had nothing to do with the day of his death."
His statement drew a rousing applause from the crowd, echoing a feeling protesters around the country have voiced. Too often, they say, before facts of the shooting are known, details about criminal history that may not have anything to do with the shooting or are unknown to officers are made public. It colors the investigation from the start, Stewart said.
Sandra Sterling doesn't rule out larger changes that need to occur within police departments. And while the service was full of much praise for Dallas police, she questioned whether things in Baton Rouge needed to change.
"Maybe we need to change the policies and retrain these officers," she said.
For the bishop leading the service, having this frank conversation is just the start.
Jakes prayed that faith would help the community begin to heal, but the true changes would happen once they walked out the door.
He urged his parishioners to reach out to those of different faiths and ethnicities and to conduct random acts of kindness.
He said this all is about more than the officers injured, the ones who lose their lives, and the two men fatally shot by police this week.
"Life is so fragile," Jakes told the crowd, urging them to hold on to the person next to them. "One blink and the person you love is gone."