Parishioners pack the little Pentecostal church in Palatka, Florida. It's Mid-week Bible Study. The usual greetings – hugs, handshakes, backslaps, and laughter mixed with occasional tears welcome members at the door. Never ashamed in embracing brothers and sisters in Christ, Pentecostals are known for emotional expression [unlike their “frigid” mainstream Protestant counterparts].
Rural and small-town Florida Pentecostals are correctly characterized in the movie "THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE." The state’s interior residents stand in stark contrast to their wealthier coastal transplants. The catchy music, expressions, hand-raising praise, liturgy pitched to an emotional high, the strong fundamentalist doctrine, rants against satanic conspiracy, hand-clapping and loud preaching are accurately portrayed in the 1997 flick starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, and Judith Ivey (Keanu’s holy-roller mother).
The pastor begins by introducing a newcomer to the congregation, the former Dean of the Manhattan Theological Seminary in NYC. A doctor of theology, Winthrop Braun, along with his lovely wife, Carla, are now retired to Palm Crest, a retirement community on the Atlantic a few miles east of Palatka. The pastor is proud that a brother with such a distinguished career would choose his church.
After a few weeks in attendance, Dr. Braun is announced as the guest teacher for the Bible lesson that evening. Winthrop takes the podium and gives an interesting lecture on the definition of faith. It's a very moving lesson with supporting Bible references. Yet the congregation remains silent, uncharacteristically so. Given the fact this is a flaming Pentecostal congregation known for emotional outbursts, amens and hallelujahs, the silence is deafening. Something is apparently wrong.
Could it be that church members are rejecting the speaker's skin color? "Oh, no, it couldn't be," reasons the pastor. "These people all love Jesus, so race would never be a factor."
Yet, Dr. Winthrop Braun is Jamaican by birth, American by choice, and Pentecostal Christian by conversion. Unaware of reasons for feeling ostracized, his charming family sits beside others in a sanctuary charged with hate. It’s chilly down in Florida. Not one member shakes their hand at the vestibule or greets them in traditional fashion.
At the close, the chairman of the Deacon Board takes the pastor aside to announce an "emergency board meeting."
The pastor asks, "What would this be concerning?"
Chairman of the Board, Brother Springer, begins the meeting without preliminary niceties, “Pastor, we don't want no niggers in our church."
Shocked, the preacher responds, "What? How much did the church donate to missions to Africa last year? $2,000 – if I recall. You mean you can't accept a brother in Christ because his skin happens to be dark?"
Deacon Langley replies, "Well, that's differnt. Saving sinners over there in Africa is differnt than hauling them into our church. We just can't have anything to do with them here. I won't let my kids sit next to niggers in school and riding the bus, and I sure as hell ain't gonna make them sit next to 'em in my own church."
The pastor rebuts "Well, Brother Braun is a doctor of theology and headed up a seminary...."
Deacon Albright interrupts, "That was way up North in Yankeeland, pastor. That's not the way we do down here. He's Yankee besides bein’ a nigger. We just can't have that here."
The pastor reminds the board of Christ's teachings that there is no race in the Kingdom of God – no Jew, no Gentile, nor any other nationality – all are equal in God's eyes. His little sermon falls on deaf ears. It’s futile. The deacons have already made up their minds.
Finally the preacher gives them an ultimatum: Either they accept Brother Braun and his family into the church or he will resign.
Without a moment's hesitation, the Board accepts the pastor's resignation. The preacher packs up his young family and is gone within two weeks. He is one of the few evangelical pastors willing to commit to principle rather than conform to prejudice.
This true story is a picture of the Republican base, the religious faction that dominates the party while threatening America. Most so-called fundamentalists indeed claim to care for Africans in Africa but have definite issues with Africans in America.
How many times have Republicans focused on Barack Obama’s Kenyan ancestry – and lied about his birth? They claim to be devout Christians while justifying hate for others different by color, belief, or affiliation.
The murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, a few miles from Palatka, is a snapshot of rightwing prejudice. Furthermore, it is a picture of the religious element at the right, the core of the Republican Party. They claim to love Jesus but defend hate for those outside the realm. While holding a cup of tea and box of Skittles, Trayvon was profiled for his skin and shot dead. Rightwingers called it justifiable homicide or “Stand Your Ground.” And now we must endure hearing the right rant against this defenseless child, dead – so he can’t speak for himself.
For this remarkable centennial – the sinking of the Titanic (April 15, 1912), I was going to write about the threat of shipwreck for the U.S. due to its dangerous divisions of race, religion, and politics. But somehow the Trayvon Martin case captured my imagination, so I felt compelled to write about first-hand Florida experiences related to Trayvon.
There is an obvious fault-line in the nation that could rupture – even in the 21st Century – a party that uses the chasm to energize the faithful. They gleefully drive a wedge deep in the heart of America and approve judges only aligned with a subtle racist agenda while blocking all other Obama appointees.
The nation’s weakness was present before Republican machinations; now, thanks to them, it has developed into a metastasized tumor threatening our survival.
For more information about this true story from Florida, email me at LAdams727@aol.com. (The names of individuals and places were changed to protect the innocent. However, the story is true without embellishment.)