The Black Church Experience in Gainesville A look at the institution's social, economic and political influence

On Sundays, many Americans retreat to a spiritual home outside of the confines of the four walls in which they reside. A sanctified haven where they can cast aside their worldly worries and seek a higher calling. This refuge of religious sorts takes on numerous forms - synagogue, mosque and temple among them. All have helped shape the America that we all know today, but it is the church that is especially richly embedded in the social, economic and political history of the United States, warranting Thomas Jefferson to emphasize the need for a separation between church and state.

Wall of separation aside, one would be remiss to ignore two inseparable social constructs: the church and the American family. For the African-American community, the black church is perceived as being much more than a Sunday morning obligation. It is viewed as an extension of the black family. Few other institutions can claim to have galvanized movements and comforted downtrodden spirits - all done without any grand fiscal visions. In the pursuit of equal civil liberties for all American men, the black church has always been there.

“I think what’s most important is that our spirituality is what grounds us as a community,” said, Vee Byrd, University of Florida (UF)’s Director of Black Affairs. “It’s being able to center yourself around like-minded people who also understand that there are things and forces that work against us that are bigger than us.”

This sentiment rings true when considering the struggles endured by the black community in times past. From slavery to the Jim Crow era, institutionalized racism has burdened African Americans for generations. While America has grown leaps and bounds (just look at the White House for evidence of the country’s broadened horizons), the black community continues to converge in the church in times of strife.

Members of an African-American congregation outside the Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida. Photograph courtesy of University Archives Photograph Collection.

“Historically, when we first came to this country, we had nothing,” Byrd said. “One of the first things we learned was community. We learned how to uplift each other. Those were the first steps in developing our own spirituality.”

The transcendent power and influence of the black church reached nearly every corner of the United States where in which there was a black population. Gainesville is no exception. Byrd said that, without question, the black church community in Gainesville is very tight-knit and the pastors are civically engaged.

“If I can see my pastor, not just behind the pulpit, but in the community,” Byrd said, “if I see where he’ll actually make an impact, I think that speaks more volumes and courage. This leads to more bodies coming into the church. Civic engagement always saves souls.”

Trailing all the way back to the civil rights movement in Gainesville, reverends and pastors inspired congregations to fight the power in peaceful, non-violent ways. Moral resilience has always been a tenet of the black church doctrine. According to an interview with the late Joel Buchanan, a longtime educator and local historian, Buchanan’s reverend when he was a teenager was the city’s NAACP branch president. The church leader invited Buchanan to become involved with the organization.

Conducted as part of the 'Fifth Avenue Blacks' collection of interviews held by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program of the Department of History at UF, Buchanan described his experience being one of the first black students to integrate Gainesville High School in his transcribed interview.

“I remember in my church one Sunday, my uncle said, ‘You know, Marcus [Buchanan’s middle name is Marcus] is integrated now,” Buchanan said in his interview. “He has integrated our school system, so we’ve got to give him support.”

As part of his involvement with Gainesville’s chapter of the NAACP, Buchanan endured exclusion from extracurricular activities and racist verbal assaults at Gainesville High School, according to his interview. In the midst of school integrations and evolving civil rights’ laws, Buchanan noted the constancy of church and faith in his life and the greater black community of Gainesville. Within the black community, Buchanan said that he was offered support from many as he transitioned from all-black Lincoln High School to the newly integrated Gainesville High School.

“Of course, there were a lot that were very proud,” Buchanan said in his transcribed interview. “Or, many said ‘I’m praying for you, be careful, you’re doing good work.”

Prayer is a uniting force for black church congregants. For lifetime churchgoer Venita Coney, 56, prayer has the transformative power to heal and right all wrongs.

“The church has to come together and pray because God will answer our prayers,” Coney said. “More prayer, more power. So, when we come together and pray in unity, we connect together and God moves.”

It is this fervent dedication to beseeching a higher power that reinforces the communal comfort provided by the black church. Pastor Adrian Taylor of Springhill Missionary Baptist Church believes the black church has the power to alleviate feelings of loneliness, self-doubt and despair among congregants. He urges his congregants to support one another in supplication.

“Many people are frustrated and hurt in life, but it’s reassuring and is often therapeutic to know that they have someone that is praying for them and is encouraging them constantly,” Pastor Taylor said. “That’s what they find in houses of faith wherever they may be. They find people like them, people with similar life experiences, people that go through similar struggles and challenges.”

That is why Pastor Taylor tailors his messages to address his congregation’s needs. He said that while a faith-based message is important, preaching to the churchgoers’ everyday lives opens up their hearts and minds to his sermon.

“Here at Springhill Church, we try to do things that also support community. So, if a church is doing the work properly, the church will try and figure out what the needs are in that community and how the church can support the community in the best way possible,” Taylor said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re there to help people.”

This community-driven philosophy underlines the extended-family notion that many have about the church. In “It’s a white thing” religion and suicide in the African-American community, a thesis by UF graduate Kevin Eugene Early, the intertwined nature of the black church and black family is explored in great detail.

“The extended family has been a significant element in both the survival and advancement of black Americans,” Early said in his thesis. “Getting together for religious services was one of the few reasons slaves were allowed to congregate. Hence, the influence of the extended family has provided conditions within which primary socialization and the influence of religion occurred.”

Black slaves assumed a strong allegiance to church before the Emancipation Proclamation gave them their freedom. Rather than severing ties to all reminders of their past slave life (including the church), many African Americans reclaimed their identity and expressed their new freedom by keeping their faith alive. For a group of former slaves from Camden, South Carolina, this meant establishing a church in Gainesville, Florida.

According to Mt. Pleasant United Methodist church’s website, in 1867, the church’s founders bought the land on which Mt. Pleasant sits on for $160. Today, the church is recognized as the oldest black church in Gainesville. Built by black carpenters and artisans, the church remains a symbol of black fortitude and history in Gainesville.

With over 130 years of service to the Gainesville community, Springhill Missionary Baptist Church is another church that takes pride in its longevity. La’Kendra Garrison, head of the communications ministry at Springhill, likens the role of the black church in the black community to home base on a baseball field.

Springhill Missionary Baptist Church is located on 120 SE Williston Rd. Photographs provided courtesy of La'Kendra Garrison, director of the communications ministry at Springhill.

“I think regardless of the age of the individual, there is a history of church or religion, somewhere in [his or her] family,” Garrison said. “When things are going wrong, you think back to what your grandmother did. If the church was good enough for her, then it’s more than good enough for me.”

Garrison said that in times of strife, she finds that people go back to sources of comfort that they are familiar with. She added that the emotional weight of the services strengthen the faith-rooted bonds between members of the church.

“Our pastor believes in teaching the Word of God, and we do not go off-script,” Garrison said. “By that way, we have grown as a family. People here are really close. We love one another. We look out for each other.”

For Garrison, the familiarity that develops between fellow churchgoers is endearing - making her feel at home when she may physically be far from it. On a return trip from Virginia, she recalls hearing a familiar voice in the airport shout for her attention.

“Hey, Springhill,” a fellow churchgoing said from an adjacent terminal. Garrison said that she instantly felt the warmth of her church community, even when she was several states away from Florida.

The church fulfills the human desire for belonging to a group, according to Pastor Keith Smith of Emanuel Baptist Church. Smith said that he strives to cultivate a welcoming environment in his church, so that church veterans can continue to grow in their faith and newcomers can quickly feel at home.

“We try to create an environment that people will feel comfortable in. I don’t ever want folks to feel so comfortable in the House of God that they do any and every thing that they would normally do,” Smith said. “But, I want it so that when you walk through the door, you feel the atmosphere of a place you want to come back to.”

Smith, 46, has been leading the congregation at Emanuel Baptist since 2013. He grew up going to St. Peter Baptist Church in Archer, Florida. Rev. DeWayne McBride, the presiding pastor at St. Peter’s, spoke at Smith’s installation service at Emanuel. Smith said that the church community isn’t bound to one’s home church - the community extends to all churches that preach God’s word from the Bible. The inclusivity of the black church community inspires Smith to carry on the passionately human culture he has experienced in his missionary journey.

“When you get in the presence of God, you can’t help but to love your neighbor,” Smith said. “You can’t help but to be friendly.”

The social cohesion encouraged by the Sunday socials, the Bible studies and the church picnics draws back to the empathetic connection African American churchgoers feel toward Jesus and his story. Smith said that black people have experienced similar hardships to Jesus here in the United States from the first day slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.

“He was in his own country, and they denied him,” Smith said. “They mistreated him.”

Pastor Keith Smith sits as Zandra Clemmons leads the praise and worship portion of the service on Sunday morning. Worship begins promptly at 11 a.m.

Despite systematic exclusion and denial of rights, African Americans drew their strength from Jesus’s story because he prevailed in the end. Smith said that one cannot “wear a crown without any suffering.” This message is knitted into nearly every sermon he delivers in view of the fact that virtually everyone is fighting their own battles, Smith said.

“The black church has always been a staple in the community,” Smith said. “It is where our people had to go to get relief from their masters and relief from political hardships that they felt they couldn’t do anything about. It was the only hope that we had.”

Pastor Taylor echoes this sentiment by saying that the struggles endured by African Americans gave rise to the heartfelt worship style black churches are known for in society. Amid discrimination and targeted violence, blacks would be able to go to church and release their burdens by singing rousing gospel hymns, speaking in tongues and moving their bodies to celebrate God’s love. This particular style of expressive worship is characteristic of southern black churches.

“Whether or not it’s a black church, we are all dealing with similar struggles and that is how we live out our faith in a meaningful way,” Taylor said.

In an increasingly diverse America, the cultural landscapes of churches are evolving, too. Third year UF education student Briaughna Ashley, 20, spent her childhood going to predominantly black churches with her family at least once a month. Though, when she moved to Gainesville to attend UF, she began worshipping at a culturally diverse church. Ashley now worships at North Central Baptist Church, which is located at 8001 NW 23rd Ave. She said that “it’s important to feel like [one’s] culture is being represented and respected in whichever church” one chooses to frequent.

“I think that church has a way of bringing people together - no matter their race or background,” Ashley said. “Even though there is a lot of injustice in the world, people still find hope in going to church and in having faith.”

Ashley is correct. The afterglow of an emotional worship service and the heightened sense of community experienced at black churches nurtures hope for many. Byrd said that when one is at a loss on how to help someone in need, the knee-jerk verbal response involves five simple words: ‘I will pray for you.’ She added that when churchgoers don’t know what else to do, they turn to God and his will.

“We learned to recognize that our strength is in our faith,” Byrd said. “Our strength is in our belief system, and if we carry this with us, then there is nothing that we can’t get through.”

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