This fall has been a trying one for my hometown, Gainesville, Florida. In September, we found ourselves in the path of Hurricane Irma—predicted to be the worst hurricane to hit our state since Hurricane Andrew in the ’90s. We scurried to prepare, putting other plans on hold. At the request of local authorities, who predicted storm winds to intensify, all of the churches in town canceled Sunday services.
Although Irma brought unbelievable devastation elsewhere, we were spared. Yet, just as life was getting back to normal, mid-October brought a different kind of storm: Richard Spencer and an unknown number of white supremacists, accompanied by the inevitable counter protestors.
We feared the same violence that Charlottesville had experienced.1 So just as we had prepared a few weeks earlier for Irma, our city made preparations for the political “storm,” and we, too, braced ourselves, prayed and planned for how to respond.
Gratefully, the day’s events were anti-climatic. Only several dozen white supremacists came to town and they were far outnumbered by protesters. Students largely stayed away, as the university had urged them for their safety to not participate and thus give the supremacists more news coverage.
The overwhelming police presence (an additional 500-plus officers) and the careful preparation worked to keep most tempers from overheating; those who did explode were quickly removed. Although one shot was fired, no one was hurt.
In the days preceding these events and now in the days following, Joseph’s words to his brothers keep coming to mind: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20, English Standard Version). Here’s how that Scripture played out here in Gainesville:
An event meant to inflame passions has instead led to conversations. The strategy of the National Policy Institute (of which Spencer is president) has been to go to college campuses to elicit a violent response. In Gainesville, while his supporters were met by some protestors and a shouting match ensued, something else erupted in the community at large: conversations about racial divisions and what can be done to heal some of our community’s wounds. What was a back burner issue in many of our predominantly white churches has now been brought to the forefront.
At Creekside Community Church (EFCA), we spent part of our service the week before both praying and calling the church to action. In particular, we asked members to reach out to students and neighbors who would be targeted by the groups coming to town; and we challenged each other to reflect on how we, as a majority-white church, were caring for our brothers and sisters from different backgrounds in our own church family. That conversation is continuing.
An event meant to divide our community has instead fostered unity. The white supremacists who came were intent on spreading division. But something else is obviously happening.
The president of the University of Florida, Kent Fuchs, used the event as a platform for speaking to the value and worth of every individual. Dr. Fuchs, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduate, has modeled well for all of us what it looks like to be a Christian serving in the public square. At our county-wide pastoral association—which met on the day of the event for prayer and a lunch together—we had the most diverse gathering of pastors I have seen, and we witnessed genuine care and sweet fellowship between the pastors in attendance.
We have a lot of work to do in Gainesville to better care for our most vulnerable neighbors. But I am encouraged, because the city’s churches are increasingly leading in these efforts.
What was meant to leave our city weakened and fractured has not succeeded. In fact, it seems to have backfired and instead strengthened the ties that bind us together.
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
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