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Putting faith to work for racial justice

Waveney Ann Moore

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Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church

It’s easy to see why some fear the nation is hurtling towards a cataclysmic eruption. Continuous protests, gun-toting opponents and a tumultuous election, complicated by a confounding pandemic, are sending worried Americans into prepper mode.

There are those, though, who won’t be burrowing into bunkers, but girding themselves to stand up for what they believe is right.

Some years ago, I wrote a number of articles that coincided with the relocation and building of a new Holocaust Museum in downtown St. Petersburg. For that assignment, I interviewed a number of survivors of the state-sponsored extermination of European Jews, in which an estimated six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered between 1933 and 1945. The Nazis and their collaborators also killed more than five million others, among them people who were Black, Roma (Gypsies), LGBTQ, Jehovah’s Witnesses and who were mentally and physically disabled.

It was painful to listen to the accounts of Tampa Bay survivors who had escaped genocide and suffered persecution and the loss of parents, siblings and other family members. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. How many of us would have had the same moral courage?

I’ve been struck by people in the Tampa Bay area who’ve felt compelled to speak out and take action for causes of conscience amid the pervading toxicity of hate and anger. They’ve also chosen to combat indignation in some quarters that any assertion that Black lives matter necessarily means a loss to those already enjoying unquestioned privilege.

I particularly wanted to hear what spiritual leaders had to say. I even turned to my own priest. What I discovered is that those I spoke with are fearless in their efforts and committed to self-sacrifice.

“It’s certainly taken a psychological toll,” admitted the Rev. Andy Oliver of Allendale United Methodist Church. Still, he said what he has endured is nothing compared to the psychological trauma Black people experience every day of their lives and the fear of Black mothers whenever their sons leave home.

Oliver, who is white, has been participating in the St. Petersburg marches for justice and equity that began after the police killing of George Floyd and grew tense following news that charges would not be brought in the police shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church

Oliver said the St. Petersburg protesters have gotten support, but also endured racist taunts, threats from a brandished gun and counter protests by pro-Trump and pro-police groups. Religious and community groups recently responded with a peaceful rally. Among the speakers were Rabbi Michael Torop of Temple Beth-El and the Rev. Louis Murphy of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

Rev. J.C. Pritchett, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance

“It was a big risk. If anything went wrong, it was going to be a hit on all the organizations,” noted the Rev. J.C. Pritchett, who is president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an interfaith group. 

Oliver insists that antagonism will not deter his participation in the protests. “Part of it is my faith, in that I follow the teachings and practices of a Jewish rabbi who located himself with people at the margins, Jesus, who resisted a Roman fascist empire through nonviolent resistance, even to the point of an execution,” he said.

“It’s those saints who have given witness to following him, like Oscar Romero (the assassinated Salvadoran archbishop), like Dr. (Martin Luther) King, that inspire me to follow the call. I am willing to give my life to this. By doing this work, I know that I’m making myself a target. Am I willing to die for this? The answer is, yes.”

Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church

Murphy and Bishop Manuel Sykes, both prominent Black pastors, decry the deliberate effort to misconstrue the demands of Black Lives Matter. Murphy said his family has had “the talk” with his 16-year-old grandson, who is just starting to drive, about what to do if he is stopped by police.

“There are some police officers that don’t have the acumen and we need to weed them out. I am not a proponent to defund the police, however there’s a definite need to reform law enforcement. It is so disheartening when we are saying Black Lives Matter and it is countered with Blue Lives Matter,” Murphy said.

“Some white people don’t understand the struggle and they want you to stay within certain boundaries. When you speak up, they look at you as a trouble maker. It’s just time for some real dialogue and changes. If there is one good thing that has come out of this current administration in Washington and particularly this president, is that he has shown us that racism is alive and well. He just woke us up. I thought America was much
further along, but we still have some serious work to do.”

Like Murphy, Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church is not hesitant about speaking out. “I have always been anti-racism, anti-bullying. If you’re in the church and you don’t stand against evil, then what are you doing? I don’t believe that staying silent when people who represent everything wrong about America decide to come to our city and take a stand,” he said, referring to the counter protestors who tailed the peace march.

“I felt that a peaceful participation in the march was the best representation of the church and of those people of goodwill. Not that the Black Lives Matter protest wasn’t important….The hate groups, they want to say that we are not law abiding, that we are against the police. Their narrative is that anybody who says that police are wrong to kill Black people are somehow against police.”

Oliver, known for his fearlessness in fighting United Methodist authorities on the issues of LGBTQ rights and his church’s thought-provoking signs about social issues, said he’s following the lead of St. Petersburg’s young protest leaders. “I’ve been out there in solidarity with them,” he said.

Rev. Canon Paige Hanks of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church

The Rev. Canon Paige Hanks of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church, where I attend, also has felt called to join the marches for social justice through St. Petersburg’s downtown and at its new multimillion-dollar Pier.

“My sign that I used the last time was, “Following Jesus equals protests,” she told me. “I do not know how you can be a disciple of Christ and not see how his ministry was an act of protest. I can’t just follow the parts of Jesus that make me feel warm and fuzzy. I also have to follow a Jesus who calls me to discomfort.”

Hanks, who is white, heads the new anti-racism committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. She said she’s prepared to pay the price for her commitment to social and racial justice.

That’s a pervading sentiment among the religious leaders who spoke with me. “There has never been any fear in me,” Murphy said. “There needs to be change. There needs to be reform and I think that until people feel their demands are met, there are going to be protests.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Rose Smith-Hayes

    October 10, 2020at7:33 am

    This article is so well written and so refreshing. Protesting about more than ‘Defund’ the police, it is about life as it should be, not as it is in America. We are fighting a system designed to keep ‘knees’ on the necks of people of African descent. There are those that want it that way, the way it was in the 1950’s. No, we do not want to go back, we want to go forward to progress, to freedom, real freedom.

  2. Avatar

    Lynda Mifsud

    October 10, 2020at7:04 am

    So proud of our churches and the courage they have shown. Thank you for being my spiritual leaders.

  3. Avatar

    Georgia Earp

    October 9, 2020at4:29 pm

    Thank God for these brave souls and leaders!

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