Old racial wounds start to heal through honest conversation




St. Augustine’s Grace United Methodist Church recently took the lead in assembling a wide-ranging leadership workshop to address the city’s race relations, a divisive issue for decades in the largely opulent community.

The four-day event included a tepid beginning, honest confrontation, teamwork, frank discussion, pressure-releasing compromise and a tearful, yet joyful conclusion.
Already, there are tangible results.

With six workshop participants speaking as advocates, St. Augustine City Commissioners voted unanimously to approve gravity sewer service for West Augustine, a predominantly African-American impoverished neighborhood. The $800,000 measure, reliant on a budget combination of grants and state funding, hadn’t budged after being initially proposed nearly eight years ago.

“I think we now have a common language we can use to recognize, understand and appreciate the power differences that had created ongoing inequities and kept people distanced from one another,’’ said David Williamson, co-pastor at Grace UMC. “This was an example of how an area of our community had been excluded from utilities institutionally.

“I think it’s just one example of how our city wants to recognize this historic pain and move in a new, more hopeful direction. I can’t say the workshop (got the measure passed), but I think we were heard in ways we hadn’t been able to hear before.’’

John Regan, St. Augustine city manager, said the workshop made a clear difference.

The servant leadership of Pastor David Williamson and the support of his church have been a profound influence on the start of a good thing in St. Augustine,’’ Regan said. “We had been getting pushback. People had been asking, ‘Why are we (considering) this? Can’t that money go to better use?’

“In order to address these things, you must have people engaged. The workshop gave us a network of friends and leaders who were engaged to step up the level of community engagement for social justice topics.’’

St. Augustine has grappled with racial issues for decades, according to Laverne March, pastor of Living Waters Ministries and a St. Augustine native.

“It’s generational, something passed down through the generations of whites and blacks,’’ said March, 56. “I remember the riots happening in middle schools. I remember people not wanting to integrate the schools. That was a long time ago, but how far have we actually come?

“It’s something that isn’t evident on the surface. It’s almost like people believe, ‘If you’re not saying the N-word, you don’t have a problem.’ It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of prayer for all of us to recognize the behaviors, and it’s not going to change overnight. Only God can change someone’s heart. But we are trying to facilitate that.’’

The workshop’s momentum began through the weekly Community Conversations held at Grace UMC, which sought to tackle community issues. Williamson, and others, quickly learned that effective race relations were at the forefront of St. Augustine’s needs.

“There is racial pain in our city,’’ Williamson said. “Our church name is Grace United Methodist Church. I’m proud that our church has been a means of grace to our community. We are hoping to bring healing to wounds for racial injustice that goes way back.’’

All the way back to 1964, and St. Augustine’s role in the civil rights movement.

On June 11, 1964, amid peaceful protests in the city, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his supporters marched to St. Augustine’s Monson Motor Lodge, seeking service in the hotel’s coffee shop.

King, of course, was denied by Jimmy Brock, the hotel manager. It was a targeted attention-getting approach because Brock was president of the Florida Hotel-Motel Association. When King refused to leave the property, the police were called. King was arrested, placed in the back of a squad car with a police dog, and taken to jail.

One week later, a white King supporter checked into the Monson Motor Lodge and invited some black friends to join him for a swim in the pool. When Brock couldn’t get the group to leave, he tried to drive them out by pouring in a jar of hydrochloric acid. Brock proclaimed, “I’m cleaning the pool,’’ as police and news reporters witnessed nearby.

The chaotic scene was the subject of an iconic news photograph. The incident drew national attention and was addressed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act into law some three weeks later.

Twelve years ago, a Flagler College student-produced a documentary on the Monson Motor Lodge incident. It was then that Williamson learned that Brock’s daughter was an active member of his church.

“The servant leadership of Pastor David Williamson and the support of his church have been a profound influence on the start of a good thing in St. Augustine.” – St. Augustine City Manager John Regan

“The temptation is to tell that story in a way that continues to dehumanize people,’’ Williamson said. “It was a significant moment, and our city was certainly traumatized. But people are more than the sum of their worst moments. God’s grace allows us to acknowledge the painful parts of our lives, alongside the beautiful parts of our lives, so we can move forward together.

“The workshop gave many of us the tools to do just that.’’

Williamson hired VISIONS, Inc. (an acronym for “Vigorous Interventions in Ongoing Natural Settings’’), a national consulting group that taught its techniques to the entire Florida United Methodist Church conference clergy about seven years ago.

The four-day event was called the PACE Workshop — or “Personal Approach for Change and Equity.’’ Through a grant and donations from the Grace UMC congregation, the fee for participants was $150 (about one-tenth the normal cost).

Williamson invited a diverse group, and 19 of them committed to the workshop, including two representatives from the FLUMC — Laurie Hofts (FLUMC Connectional and Justice Ministries) and Rev. Corey Jones (Pasadena UMC).

“This training was in-depth, soul-searching, and very eye-opening,’’ Hofts said. “There were all kinds of leaders in the circle, and that was thrilling. It was heartbreaking, heart-wrenching, but at the same time, joyful. It was a group of people who wanted change.

“To see it put into action thrills me beyond words. With Jesus Christ’s grace, we always have hope. But this was people coming together to take action in some very raw situations and stepping out in faith. It was very real.’’

Williamson said he felt the training crossed into personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels.

“People tend to talk in silos about differences,’’ Williamson said. “In the past, this talk largely took place within their own organizations, usually segregated by race and discipline. This was a way to break it down differently.

(left to right) Meredith Holmes (Grace UMC youth ministry), Ken McClain (St. Paul AME) and John Regan (St Augustine city Manager). 

“The gift of the workshop was everyone’s humanity was recognized. Our behavior perpetuates mono-culture. We learned alliterative behaviors to move toward a multicultural community. It was good for white people and African-Americans. It was good for differently abled people. It was good for the educated and good for the folks who have a high-school diploma. It brought dignity to every person, and it showed how their identities could be recognized across differences.’’

Regan said the workshop could cause a change in the way St. Augustine communicates its city business.

“At the county level, we are 94 percent white, and with such little fundamental diversity, what’s the incentive for the white population to change or embrace these topics?’’ Regan said. “Everyone has to work extra hard. But this workshop has given me a different type of hope.

“As a leader of government, we handle so many issues. Typically, it’s a three or four-hour meeting with some 20 items on the agenda. When we’re working on something significant from a racial or social justice point of view, we have to communicate and message it differently. It can’t just appear on the agenda. It has to be celebrated.’’

March said she hopes the gravity sewer approval of West Augustine represents a new beginning. West Augustine’s median household income is $18,000, while the overall St. Johns County median household income is $73,000.

“There’s no question we are leading our segregated lives,’’ March said. “It’s going to take us raising our voices, building those relationships, and letting people see your humanity. You realize, ‘OK, we actually have similar problems.’ Both races have some work to do.

“I learned so much. Giving people their strokes, their appreciations. Often, we look at the bad. We have to always appreciate. We distance ourselves from each other. We have to take each person as an individual, not as a group. Don’t group people. I am a changed person. On a scale of one to 10, I give the workshop an 11. It was awesome.’’

Equally awesome, according to Hofts, was the e-mail she received from Williamson on the morning of Nov. 13. West Augustine’s gravity sewer system had been approved.

“After so many actually thinking it wasn’t going to pass, just reading that was hope,’’ Hofts said. “It was so incredible, so powerful. Some very good work had been done, and that still brings me joy.’’

--Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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