By Anne H Oman
January 12, 2020
Some seventy people – Black, White and blue-uniformed – streamed into Historic Macedonia AME Church on Ash Street Thursday evening for the Fifth Annual Bridging the Gap assembly, a cross between a church service (prayers, hymns, the Gospel) and a town meeting (attendance by City Commissioners Chapman, Lednovich, and Ross and City Manager Martin and talks by Fernandina Police Chief Hurley and Nassau County Sheriff Leeper).
Macedonia’s pastor, Rev. Anthony C. Daniel, asked the assemblage: “Are you a puzzle piece or a piece of the puzzle?”
Some in the congregation seemed mystified by the question, until Rev. Dr. Mark “Pastor Charlie” Charles of Memorial United Methodist Church – one of several local clergy participating – explained the metaphor:
“If you’re a puzzle piece, you’re separate, outside,” he said, in the dulcet tones of his native Northern Ireland. “If you’re a piece of the puzzle, you help make it complete – you’re connected, playing your part.”
To underscore the theme, the church gave attendees lapel pins in the shape of puzzle pieces.
As a beret-topped Minister “Sir” Gene Dawson pounded out jazz, hymns and patriotic tunes on the grand piano, a young woman danced, Old and New Testament scripture was read, and speaker after speaker exhorted the group to eschew racism and work toward better race relations. Jennett Baker, a retired nurse and Executive Director of CREED, the Coalition for Reduction and Elimination of Ethic Disparities in Health, quoted Eldridge Cleaver: “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”
The program, which started five years ago, “came about after a series of events taking place in our country,” Rev. Daniel told the congregation. “I wanted to be pro-active, not antagonistic. I went to Chief Hurley and Sheriff Leeper, and it evolved. Things are not perfect in the world, but we can say in Fernandina Beach and in Nassau County that we are taking a proactive approach in loving each other. We’ve come a long way.”
“We tried to identify what issues we had and what solutions were available,” said Fernandina Beach Police Chief James Hurley, who has been involved with the program since the beginning. “We had many conversations over lunch and during walks through the neighborhoods, discussing ways to do more than just preach to the choir.”
He added that the police force uses best practices in addressing issues of bias and ethics, and makes use of in-car and body-worn cameras to document police contacts, reducing the likelihood of negative contacts.
“We are doing the things we should be doing,” he said. “And if we should be doing something additional, we’re open to that.”
In an interview with the Observer, Rev. Daniel defined the gap as “the conscious and unconscious bias of what we call racism, which prevents people from coming together. We have difficulty talking about race. We have to be bold and courageous and tackle the elephant in the room… At the service, people came together and acknowledged the problem.”
Rev. Daniel added that progress in bridging the gap has been “slow and steady.”
“In my lifetime, it won’t come to closure, but we can begin,” he said.
One useful tool Rev. Daniel cited is “Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity,” a documentary film produced in 2014 by Shakti Butler.
“The Bahá I community here brought it to our attention,” said Rev. Daniel.
Last summer members of the Bahá I community and of the Macedonia church and other interested parties convened a meeting at the Martin Luther King Community Center for a conservation on race relations prompted by the documentary. The film was also shown at Story & Song Bookstore in September. Additional sessions are planned.
According to articles published in The Florida Times Union in 2007, study circles on race were formed in Fernandina Beach in September of that year, based on models that had proved effective in other cities, including Muncie, Indiana, Springfield, Illinois, Syracuse, New York, and Waterloo, Iowa. The circles consisted of diverse groups of 8 to 10 people plus a facilitator. The leaders were Neil Frink, Early McCall, Kristina Smith and Herman Springs, said the Times Union.
The paper quoted Mr. Frink: “We want to get all the ethnic groups together, just so they can get to know each other. Hopefully, we can cut through the stereotypes we all face and stop getting angry at each other. We’re all in this together.”
Anne H. Oman relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications. We thank Anne for her contributions to the Fernandina Observer.