‘Uncomfortable’ territory: three St. Augustine pastors address racism in the city

By Katie Garwood | gargoyle@flagler.edu

For three St. Augustine pastors, issues of race in the city were too much to ignore.

Since Juana Jordan arrived at First United Methodist Church in July, she’s taken notice of the way she’s been accepted so far and the way the black community is treated in the city.

Grace United Methodist pastor David Williamson “couldn’t stay silent” any longer and opened up his church for members of the community to have weekly conversations on race.

St. Paul AME pastor Ron Rawls isn’t new to speaking up against injustice. He feels it’s his role as a pastor to speak up for those who can’t do so for themselves. His latest fight is against racism in the city.

Here are their stories:

Stepping into uncomfortable shoes

When Juana Jordan found out she was assigned to be First United Methodist Church’s pastor, she was hesitant.

Stepping into the role would mean two things: She would become the church’s first female pastor, as well as the church’s first black pastor.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Jordan heard about St. Augustine’s role in the Civil Rights era, and that the city wasn’t an entirely welcoming place for black people. She wasn’t sure how a predominantly white congregation in a city like St. Augustine would receive a black woman as their new pastor.

“God did we hear you right? Did we hear you right? Because this is a gargantuan task,” Jordan said. “This is a big call. And so I was a little skeptical and I was on guard.”

Since she started at the church in July, she’s gotten mixed reactions from her congregation. Some have welcomed her with open arms.

Others in the church are welcoming, but to a certain point.

“For some people, the idea or the thought of me being the pastor is a wonderful thing and it’s welcoming, as long as I don’t rock the boat,” Jordan said. “People are welcoming as long as you don’t make any changes that go against what we inherently hold as a value system and what we believe. So in some regards, yes, there’ve been those have been welcoming. In other regards, I’ve seen some ugly stuff already.”

It didn’t take much time for Jordan to see for herself what’s “sown in the soil” in terms of the city’s race relations. In July, the city commission met to discuss and hear public comment on the proposal from the contextualization committee, who met to determine what would be written on plaques surrounding a Confederate monument in downtown St. Augustine.

At that meeting, Jordan was shocked at what she witnessed in the city she had, at that point, only lived in for two weeks.

People spoke up in support of keeping the monument, describing what the markers symbolized to them. Oftentimes, that was a memorial to the war dead, and not a symbol of white supremacy or the confederacy, which it often represents to the black community.

She left the meeting feeling “angry,” “sick” and “disgusted.”

“I was appalled,” she said. “It was frightening for me. I thought, where in the world am I? What is going on, where did God send me, is this what I’m up against? Is this where I am? That was disturbing.”

Jordan called race relations in St. Augustine “horrible.”

“Most cities would love to be able to say, ‘Oh no, we all get along,’” she said. “But the truth is we don’t. Anytime that we are afraid of conversations in the public square, they push back against the conversation with such venom, I think that says something about us. Anytime that we are reluctant to come to the table to have these conversations, it says something about our maturity and where we are.”

To learn more about and discuss racial issues in the city, Jordan began attending community conversations at Grace United Methodist Church hosted by the church’s pastor David Williamson.

The conversations, which started in July, invite members of the church and the community, to discuss race, what racism looks like and how it affects people in the community. Inspired in part by St. Paul AME Pastor Ron Rawls’ protests, Williamson said it was important for people to understand where Rawls’ and others’ concerns were coming from. The discussions are a place for those who had heard about Rawls’ protests and wanted to know and do more.

Jordan said the conversations have been difficult, but fruitful. Although there’s just 20 to 25 on average at each meeting, she said they’ve helped her come closer to the community, and vice versa. She wants harmony for the city, and the conversations are a small step toward that.

“I think that if we are able to come together at that level, when you can relate to somebody’s humanness … then we can begin to see one another in a community,” Jordan said. “We can’t help but come together.”

Creating a dialogue through the church

David Williamson preaches at Grace United Methodist Church, on the corner of Cordova and Carrera Streets. The church was originally constructed by Henry Flagler in 1887. Photo: Katie Garwood

Williamson didn’t need to get involved the dialogue on race in the city. No one asked him to either. He could have been a “successful pastor,” as he put it, and stayed out of it. But he felt compelled to act.

“I couldn’t stay silent and uninvolved anymore,” Williamson said. “So I just decided to move closer to the people who were raising the questions disruptively and uncomfortably. It was terribly uncomfortable for me.”

He was inspired by a Methodist pastor in Ferguson, Missouri, who in the midst a tense time in his community, decided his church would become “a source of healing and hope.”

As he saw Rawls leading protests about Confederate monuments and racism in the city, Williamson felt called to help others understand the concerns of the black community and discuss ways to avoid contributing further to those issues.

“Hopefully I’m modeling for other people in my congregation and in my community what is a hopeful effort in the face of what is sometimes frightening to people – hollering and disruption and people shouting ‘racism’ and ‘racist,’ and moving closer to that space is very counterintuitive,” he said. “And yet, I think the way we can work for peace in practical ways is simply just moving closer to listen more deeply, to humanize one another.”

Issues they’ve been able to discuss center around defining racism as more than just hating someone of another color, but also ways institutional racism operates in the area. Examples that have come up are the educational disparities between black and white students in St. Johns County, as well as the percentages of people of color in city leadership. They’ve also discussed the Confederate monuments, and the different ways people interpret them.

People from Grace United and from outside the church have attended the conversations, and some city leaders, too. Rawls has attended, and so have Mayor Nancy Shaver, Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline and City Manager John Regan.

Grace United’s parishioners have had mixed reactions to the discussions.

“There’s some who were like, ‘we’ve been waiting for this thank you for raising these questions and creating this space,’” Williamson said, “and others who have just been really turned off by it, to the point where they’ve left the church.”

A large part of the issue with racism in the city is that many don’t see there is something wrong, or don’t understand what racism is to be able to identify it.

“I feel overwhelmed looking at the enormity of the need and the struggle that many people have with even seeing if there’s a problem,” Williamson said. “And so that blindness or difficulty seeing the problem for some would make me characterize it as a really big problem. I mean, it’s one thing to have a problem that you see, and it’s another thing to say you don’t have a problem when you really do.”

Throughout the process, Williamson said he’s learned a lot. And so have those who’ve come to participate in the conversations. As a white man, he didn’t see the “hurt” the black community was experiencing. But he and others are much more aware now, in large part to the conversations.

“It is very complex and long-term work, and it takes patience and sort of long-term commitment to be a part of it,” he said. “But we have seen glimpses where people have begun to see in new ways; ways that they can engage and be a part of the solution for making peace in our city.”

Standing up ‘for people who look like me’

Ron Rawls stands outside St. Paul AME Church in Lincolnville. During the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King Jr. preached there. The church is home to a largely African American congregation. Photo: Katie Garwood

For Rawls, public protest is the only route he feels he’s been given to fight a “normative culture of racism” in St. Augustine.

Over the past year, Rawls has led multiple marches, aimed at disrupting tourism to get the attention of city leaders, in hopes they’ll listen to what he has to say. His protests have taken place throughout downtown St. Augustine on days when tourism peaks in the city, such as July 4 and the kickoff event for Nights of Lights.

The loud, disruptive nature of Rawls’ continual protests in St. Augustine is uncomfortable for many. But Rawls said that’s the point.

“If we have to be uncomfortable with institutional racism and systemic racism, we’re not going to be uncomfortable by ourselves,” Rawls said. “We’re just going to all be uncomfortable together until we learn to listen.”

“Whatever direction you want to look, you see the evidence of the culture,” Rawls said. He cited examples of a lack of black employment in the upper tiers of city government, educational disparities for students attending schools in West Augustine and the significantly lower income for black families in the county compared to white families.

Rawls said if it weren’t for his protests, there wouldn’t have been the step to at least contextualize the Confederate monuments, and racism in St. Augustine wouldn’t be a topic of discussion.

“If we would have just sat by and said nothing, you think people would acknowledge [racism in St. Augustine]? They wouldn’t acknowledge that,” Rawls said. “They would just go on, business as usual. And little black folks would just have to go over by the little store in West Augustine, or in their church, or in their houses and talk about it among themselves … I mean, that’s how you lead. That’s how you get to change when you get people talking about it.”

But in order for real change to occur, Rawls said he needs cooperation and courage from local government leadership.

When he and others from the black community speak at city commission meetings, Rawls said he feels their interests are ignored.

“You would’ve never had the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed or the Voting Rights Act passed, … it took courageous people to do courageous things,” he said. “And there are no courageous people in leadership here.”

Rawls said the protests could continue on for the next few years, or until the city is “tired of being impacted negatively.” But Rawls feels it’s his calling to speak up for others who notice issues of racism, but aren’t willing to speak up about it themselves. Despite the effort and time he puts into fighting racism, Rawls said he’s “well established,” and “highly blessed,” so the issues he protests about don’t often affect him personally.

“There a lot of people whose voice is not as strong as mine that cannot speak up for themselves,” he said. “They want to, but they will negatively impact their lives. And so my responsibility is to speak up for them and sometimes not even call their name, just speak up for them. And so for me, racism doesn’t harm me personally. But it harms a lot of people that look like me, that need for me to take advantage of what I gained in life to speak up for them.”

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