God shed his grace on thee,
And crown they good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.
Three days after the Squirrel Hill massacre in Pittsburgh, over 600 people filled the sanctuary and overflow rooms of St. Mary’s Primitive Baptist Church, in Punta Gorda, Florida. The excited and energetic crowd had come to greet and hear Andrew Gillum, the African American mayor of Tallahassee, now running to be the governor of Florida.
The atmosphere in the packed church was electric, as the youth choir sang gospel songs that brought the clapping throng to their feet. Song, love, and connection filled the room. Men and women of different races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and sexual orientations joined hands and hearts in a beautiful communion of brotherhood of which the song “America the Beautiful” attests.
This room was a metaphor of the America of which songs are sung, poems written and historical documents penned. Americans in this room were united in a common purpose to try to elect a man as governor who would remind them of their connectedness.
It is fitting that this group of Americans met in a church in Punta Gorda, a small town on the southwest coast of Florida. Almost 132 years ago, another integrated service was held. This one was organized and led by Daniel Smith, a seventeen-year-old son of formerly enslaved African Americans. The service was held under a thatched hut like that of the Seminoles. These Americans blacks and whites, gathered to celebrate the coming of the railroad to the small town. The train would be the impetus for the frontier town to grow into a prosperous fishing village. On that day, these Americans joined together to pray and work for the good of all.
Punta Gorda, Florida, has what been called a unique sociology. In the midst of Jim Crow, four African Americans were among the 34 landowners who voted to incorporate the town in 1887. It was also here that an African American man, George Brown, the owner of the Cleveland Steamways was the major employer in this small southern town. While it was southern custom to refuse titles to African Americans, George Brown was known as “Mr. Brown”.
This afternoon was a fitting tribute to those Americans who as best they could within the constraints of state Jim Crow laws, respected each other, developed relationships, and worked together to build a village in once what was frontier. Old timers, especially whites are proud of their unique history.
The oneness, love, and unity that filled the sanctuary today must have been the feeling of those Americans, over 100 years ago. These past years, months, and days have been filled with both the rhetoric and the actions of hate. Today, we felt the grace of God, whatever name we each call our God. God’s healing grace was surely in this place, among this group of Americans today.
What will it take to bring Americans together as we came today? What will it take to erase the divisions, racial, ethnic, religious? What will it take to eliminate the fear that fosters hatred among Americans? What will it take to have God’s grace heal our suffering nation? When will the words of the anthem, “And crown thy good with brotherhood” be true for our nation?
November 7, 2018
The above article was penned in an emotional moment right after the rally, held a week and a day ago. Unfortunately, the feelings of compassion, unity, and desire for inclusion were not shared by all Floridians as they cast their votes. The fear of “the loss of what is mine will be taken away and given to someone undeserving” supersedes all rationality and emotions of many Americans at this moment. If we continue in this vein, our worst fears are yet to be realized.