Editor’s Note: This story begins an occasional series of features on how Florida Conference churches are building the “Beloved Community.”
TALLAHASSEE—As he approached the Wesley Foundation’s meeting room at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee Jan. 15, the Rev. Wayne Wiatt hesitated.
What could a 61-year-old white pastor from the small North Florida town of Madison say that would be of any interest to a group of black college students?
Series begins on Building the Beloved CommunityThis feature about recent pulpit exchanges begins an occasional series of stories on how churches, communities, clergy and laity are building the “Beloved Community” in the Florida Conference. Click here to learn more about the series, why it is important and future content.
“I kind of ignored everything I planned to say and just started talking about my experiences growing up in a community that still had ‘colored-only’ water fountains,” Wiatt said.
Even as a small child, Wiatt said he thought segregation was distasteful.
“My mom had a lot to do with my social conscience,” he said. “She was an English teacher who participated in the 1968 Florida teachers’ strike protesting low wages for teachers and a lack of funding for education.”
The three-month strike angered many in the community, and the teachers felt their venom.
“We even had a brick thrown through our window,” Wiatt said.
A few years later, Wiatt had an opportunity to make his own stand for social justice.
“I was in seventh grade and went to a dental appointment in Valdosta (Georgia),” he said. “I had a friend with me, and when we got there, we realized there was a separate colored waiting room. We decided to sit there instead of the white waiting room, and people just went hysterical.”
His ad-lib stories had a profound impact on the FAMU students who had never been ordered to ride in the bus or refused service because of the color of their skin.
“The students absolutely loved Wayne and the personal narratives he shared,” said the Rev. Latricia Scriven, leader of the Wesley Foundation at FAMU.
Scriven wasn’t on hand for Wiatt’s talk. Instead, she was three blocks away attending Sunday services at Wiatt’s home church, Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Tallahassee.
|Peforming before a predominantly white congregation, FAMU's Praise Chorus rocked the house with music and rhythm.|
Accompanying her were members of FAMU’s dynamic Praise Chorus who performed for Trinity’s predominantly white congregation.
“They gave a phenomenal performance,” Wiatt said. “People are still talking about it.”
Although Trinity is only two miles from FAMU, this was the first time members of the church and the Wesley Foundation students at FAMU had come together.
Both Wiatt and Scriven vow it won’t be the last time.
“After worship, 32 of us from Trinity and FAMU shared lunch and conversation,” Wiatt said. “You could already see friendships developing. I see this as the first step to an ongoing relationship.”
It was just the kind of exchange Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter had in mind when he encouraged churches to organize pulpit exchanges in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. The pulpit exchanges were the first step in a series of initiatives designed to address the race relations issues that have made headlines around the country in recent years.
For Scriven, it was the ideal introduction to her goal of getting her students more involved in social justice issues.
Later that week, she escorted a group of 20 students to Albany, Georgia, to visit the Albany Civil Rights Institute and participate with Albany State University students in a civil rights march in memory of the 1961 Albany Movement, in which thousands of people came together to protest racial segregation.
“It not only gave the students a look at history but reminded them of the legacy left in Albany,” Scriven said. “They’ve all seen the movies about that time in history, but I don’t think the reality of racism has hit home for them. The vision of the travesties has dimmed over the years.
“That’s unfortunate,” Scriven said, “because the battle is not over.
“While there has been progress, we have a long way to go,” said Scriven. “People of color are still being unfairly treated and are the targets of police violence. Right here, Tallahassee was named the most economically segregated city in the United States. And economic segregation most often falls along racial lines.”
|Dr. Latricia Scriven, leader of the Wesley Foundation at FAMU, gave a sermon at Trinity UMC in Tallahassee titled, "When I Knock, Will You Answer?" It was part of a sermon series called "Living our Faith by Embracing our Diversity."|
The Rev. Lorenzo Laws, pastor of the Greater Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Melbourne, shares Scriven’s concerns.
Following the bishop’s directive, Laws’ all-black church participated in a pulpit exchange with the predominantly white First United Methodist Church of Melbourne, led by the Revs. Craig and Dionne Hammond.
“Afterward, we did a We Have a Dream II march together to Merchant Street Park in Melbourne, and then both congregations broke bread together,” said Laws. “Now we’re looking at doing other activities and initiating conversations about the things that are dividing us to ensure we continue Dr. King’s dream and don’t fall back into a nightmare.”
Laws, 62, said he lived through the civil rights movement and has seen a great deal of progress in the effort to achieve racial equality, including the election of the nation’s first black president.
“I stood there in the freezing weather at Obama’s inauguration and wondered if I was dreaming,” he said.
At the same time, he said he’s disturbed to still see evidence of blatant racism in society today including the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and Charlotte, North Carolina, following the shooting deaths of teens by police officers; riots in Baltimore after the death of a black man while in police custody, and rallies protesting President Donald Trump’s comments concerning racial minorities.
“I think if Dr. King were alive today, he’d ask, ‘Am I Dreaming?’” said Laws.
Recent evidence of an upsurge in racism also keeps the Rev. Willie Scott up nights.
Scott’s church, St. Stephens UMC in Hastings, participated in a pulpit exchange with nearby Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church and plans to follow up with another exchange on Ash Wednesday.
“Ours is a poor church. Most of the people in our small rural town earn a living raising crops,” he said.
His all-black congregation is more consumed with issues of survival than those of racism.
|Dr. Wayne Wiatt of Trinity UMC joins in celebration with students from FAMU Wesley. As part of the pulpit exchange, Wiatt talked about his personal experiences growing up in a small North Florida town.|
“But Dr. King’s message was not only to African-Americans dealing with prejudice,” Scott said. “His message was for all people promoting equal opportunities and equal pay for equal work.”
He believes those universal truths about human decency and compassion drove Methodist church founder John Wesley.
“He was an ardent abolitionist, which sometimes got him into trouble,” Scott said. “But he understood what the Scriptures teach us about the value of all human beings.”
Scott said he fears that Trump’s elections by a white minority will undermine the strides made during the past 50 years.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It seems like we’ve taken a step back, and the only way to combat it is to continue to preach justice and love.”
Laws believes the bishop’s initiative will keep the issue in the forefront.
“Having a dialogue, coming together shows a glimmer of hope during all this mess that’s going on,” he said. “You have to keep the conversation going.”
Scriven agrees that the effort must be focused and intentional.
“The more we can understand the perspective of others, the more we can deal with the issues dividing us,” she said. “We have to be intentional about bridging the divide.
Without it, we’ll habitually go to our own corners.”
Wiatt said the congregations have taken the first step by simply reaching out to one another.
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico.