Keeping with his church’s tradition, Rawls speaks up for community

Rawls inside St. Paul AME Church. Photo: Katie Garwood

By Katie Garwood |

Rev. Ron Rawls isn’t the type of pastor who sees his role as just preaching from a pulpit or teaching Bible school.

To him, speaking up for others and fighting injustices he sees in his community are just as important.

Throughout his 10 years as pastor at St. Paul AME Church in Lincolnville, Rawls has been doing just that, whether it is fighting for diversity in city employees or expanding utilities in West St. Augustine.

Rawls’ latest movement began with a meeting in August at his church. More than 100 people gathered as Rawls called on city officials to remove two confederate monuments in St. Augustine’s downtown plaza. 

Last week, city commissioners voted to leave the monuments in place, instead choosing to “contextualize” them.

“It is what it is,” Rawls said about the city’s decision. “My job is to just make sure I just keep pushing and keep voicing so we can at least stay above water. If you get a victory every now and then, that’s good. If you don’t, at least you tried.”

But even though the commission voted against Rawls’ recommendation, he’s not giving up.

Starting Nov. 18, Rawls kicks off the next phase of his plan to remove the monuments with a protest – a march from his church to the two monuments in and around the Plaza de la Constitución during the opening for Nights of Lights, one of the biggest days for tourism in the city each year.

“I’ve seen [the monuments] for awhile. It just wasn’t the right time,” he said. “Any other time would have just been a waste of energy. But I was able to get momentum going because of what was going on around our country and took advantage of that to get a message out that I’ve been wanting to get out for a while. But it just wasn’t the right time for a place like this.”

Contextualizing the monuments, Rawls said, likely won’t make the situation any better unless the right context is added. To him, that would be to “say that they were traitors of the United States and to say that they fought to maintain slavery.”

“Tell that truth,” he said. “Be real clear, don’t whitewash it. But that won’t happen. If that was told, we’re all on the same page. But I’ve been around long enough to know that won’t be told.”

In Rawls’ decade as pastor, he’s come to understand the temperature of St. Augustine and knows certain things – like confederate monuments – can’t be touched. He said the city may never be ready for a change as significant as removing confederate monuments.

“It’s really the deep south,” Rawls said. “That’s masqueraded by the tourism piece, but it’s the deep south.”

Rawls’ fight to remove the monuments certainly hasn’t come without opposition. Some who want the monuments to stay have personally attacked him; both during remarks at City Commission meetings or even a yard sign that read, “Ron Rawls is the devil.”

Because he doesn’t allow himself “to get too high or too low,” personal attacks don’t phase him, Rawls explained. But some of his parishioners don’t feel the same way.

“I try to tell them that it really does not bother me,” he said. “But it still affects them, they still have to come in and talk sometimes and talk through it because when they’re riding down the road and they see a bumper sticker that says my pastor is the devil, it brings up some feelings in them that are not good.”

Rawls said he’s allowed some of those who have spoken out against him to come talk to him about their views, so long as the discussions stayed calm and reasonable. Throughout the city’s discussion of the monuments, very few have come to speak to him in person.

“Most of the people who talk a lot about that crazy stuff, they’re not going to come confront me,” Rawls said. “They’re Facebook thugs, social media thugs … I’m open as long as they have common sense, because I’m human too. So I don’t let anyone get too ridiculous with me.”

Though fighting for change in the community is something Rawls strongly believes in, he wasn’t the first in his church community to do so. Since St. Paul AME’s founding in the late 1800s, members and leaders of the church have routinely spoken out against injustices in the community. Many of those who spoke up for removing the confederate monuments in town were from St. Paul AME.

The church was also central to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in St. Augustine. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young all spoke at St. Paul AME in that time. While King was arrested in St. Augustine, Rawls said his trip spoke volumes about the racial climate in the city.

“Dr. King lost the battle here, but he won a larger war because he allowed America to see how vicious St. Augustine was,” he said. “And that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to show a whole lot of folk how St. Augustine operates.”

And just because Rawls lost his battle to remove the confederate monuments, he plans to continue his fight in making St. Augustine a better place for all, especially the black population.

“It’s what I do,” he said. “After this one, I’m going to do another one. If it’s not education, it’s infrastructure. If it’s not infrastructure, I’m going to always speak up for people that I think that don’t have a strong enough voice to speak for themselves.”

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