Black student who prayed over white cop in viral photo is from Harris County

On Sept. 21, 2019, Harris County High School graduate Juan O’Neal, now a senior at Stetson University, blesses Volusia County Sheriff’s Office sheriff’s deputy Cameron Tucker at a Zaxby’s in Deland, Florida.
On Sept. 21, 2019, Harris County High School graduate Juan O’Neal, now a senior at Stetson University, blesses Volusia County Sheriff’s Office sheriff’s deputy Cameron Tucker at a Zaxby’s in Deland, Florida.

You may have spotted Juan O’Neal, a Columbus area native, in some of the recent viral social media postings or perhaps on a national television show.

A photo of O’Neal, who is a young black male, reaching out and blessing a white sheriff’s deputy in a Florida restaurant has gone viral. But the extraordinary attention the college student has received comes from something that he does often.

Justine Tucker took the Sept. 21 photo of O’Neal praying over her husband, Volusia County Sheriff’s Deputy Cameron Tucker, at a Zaxby’s restaurant.

In an era of controversial news about interactions between black males and white law enforcement officers, the contrast of that image struck a hopeful chord with thousands of folks on social media:

  • “Love to see youth walking with the Lord,” Sharie Walters wrote. “. . . Maybe there is hope yet.”
  • “That city is blessed to have this young man,” Amelia Hundley Gaillard wrote. “Perhaps others will be inspired to do the same.”
  • “This picture alone is proof that we are all Your children and can show love to one another as YOU would have us do,” wrote Michael. R. Wilder.

In the month since Tucker posted it on her Facebook page, the photo has received more than 50,000 likes, 25,000 shares and 4,800 comments. O’Neal and the Tuckers also have been featured in national media, including an appearance on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”

O’Neal graduated from Harris County High School in 2016. He is a senior marketing major and ROTC cadet at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.

For the past three years, O’Neal has prayed multiple times per day with people he meets, motivated by someone who approached him as a freshman. In fact, he prayed with the cashier at Zaxby’s a few minutes before he blessed the sheriff’s deputy.

His father, Ron O’Neal, is a retired Columbus policeman who now works as a Harris County sheriff’s deputy and resource officer at Harris County Carver Middle School. So the younger O’Neal grew up with a positive view of law enforcement.

All of which factored into O’Neal’s decision, he said, when he saw Deputy Tucker eating with his family.

“I just really felt compelled to pray with him, to share the love of Christ with him,” he said. “… I see a lot of stress and a lot of things that go on when it comes to law enforcement and everything like that.”

O’Neal doesn’t remember his exact words, but he recalled saying in the prayer, “Father, bless him and his family and just protect him.”

He didn’t know Justine Tucker had taken the photo until someone tagged him on Facebook that night.

“My phone kept blowing up with friend requests,” he said. “… I was just really shocked such a small thing would like blow up on such a big platform. That wasn’t my intention at all.”

Tucker wrote on her Facebook page along with the photo, “After crying my eyes out, we got to have an amazing conversation with this gentleman. He was on FIRE for God and you could feel His presence in the room.”

O’Neal said he wasn’t trying to make a political statement, but he acknowledged the significance of the circumstances and the demographics.

“Especially with a lot of the attention going on racially,” he said, “with cops and black males and all that, … I see the power in it.”

He is grateful the media attention has given him the opportunity to spread his message even more.

“Jesus said, ‘Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works,’” he said. “… It’s very easy to let that go to my head. I just had to make sure I remain in Christ-like humility.”

The experience reminded him of this life lesson:

“You never know what a small gesture can do for somebody,” he said. “… It really is just mind-blowing how much power is in prayer.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.