In the summer of 2003, the days following the funeral of slain Pasco County Sheriff's Capt. Charles "Bo" Harrison revealed the vulnerability of the black community: There was a tremendous leadership void and no organization or individuals to speak for people.
That may be changing. Preachers and others representing about a dozen of the 25 black churches in Dade City, Lacoochee, Ridge Manor, San Antonio, Trilby and Zephyrhills came together on May 1 to form the East Pasco Ministerial Alliance.
"The Alliance is a coalition of pastors that aims to promote unity in the faith community, provide opportunities for leadership training and to provide forums to address social, educational, economical and other issues important to the general well being of the black East Pasco community," said Andrew N. Lewis Jr., a lay leader from St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Dade City.
The association represents an opportunity for local churches to demonstrate leadership that many people say has been lacking. One of the biggest knocks against black churches is that they have become somewhat of a hustle for pastors, especially in light of the fact that the church is the largest or the only black industry in east Pasco's black community.
The Rev. Angela Pierre Charles, the pastor of Miracle Tabernacle Church, which is in a poor enclave outside Dade City known as "the country," expects the group to focus on social and economic issues.
"We don't need an organization for fellowship purpose; (they) already exist," she said.
Angela has good reasons to hope for more. In a voice full of pain and hurt, she talked about the need for mentoring and other proactive services. Her son, Luc Pierre-Charles, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison last year for killing two Wesley Chapel High School students. You get a sense the ministerial community, as a whole, did not provide any services to a fellow pastor.
The local churches are facing issues that are not unique to the black church, but they may be more threatening here. Declining membership and finances are at the top of the list. The 18-45 population is absent, leaving an aging membership that is living on fixed income. On any given Sunday, maybe one church's attendance reaches 75, but that is more of the exception than the norm. Many in that younger age group with steady employment are being lured to the housing-rich Wesley Chapel community.
With regard to training, the Alliance can offer pastors workshops - for example, on media relations, an area of frustration. Face-to-face dialogue with representatives of the media could dispel some of the hard feelings and issues of trust the community has toward the media.
The faith community was not organized in 2008 to rally and sustain a commitment when Pasco High School reached out to the community to address black students' performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Monthly workshops were held and well attended at first, but the participation fell off and test scores are still a concern.
The group elected the Rev. Nathaniel Sims, pastor of St. Paul's, as its president; the Rev. Claude Harrison, pastor of Mount Zion African Methodist Church in Dade City, as vice president; Lewis as secretary and Harrison's wife, Aquinette, as treasurer.
For five years, Sims has been calling for unity. The idea gained traction during this year's community Passion Week service -- five evening services that rotated among different churches and culminated with a sunrise service on Easter Sunday.
"I think that if the churches come together, we can do a lot for the community," Sims said.
Sims, by his own admission, has taken the Minister-Layman Alliance of Hernando County as a model - much as he has used the Hernando County chapter of the NAACP to restore an NAACP group in east Pasco County. Sims served as president of the Hernando County alliance prior to coming to Saint Paul's.
The Hernando County concept is good, but the results are questionable, at best.
The Hernando County alliance meets monthly, coordinates the community Passion Week service, the Watch Night service on New Year's Eve, vacation Bible school and produces a weekly 30-minute gospel radio show every Sunday.
In order for Sims' vision of a unified community to work, community buy-in is required, and pastors will have to put aside personal agendas for the good of the community they claim to serve. In other words, everyone cannot be a general; some will have to be lieutenants and captains. Fellow pastors will have to identify their skill sets and match them with Sims' energy and vision to create an organization that will make a difference.
The Alliance does not need to replace or weaken the NAACP or other existing organizations. There is a lot of work ministers can address in the community, such as rites of passage, grief counseling, HIV/AIDS and personal enrichment. I'm shocked, for example, at the number of girls who grew up in the church and had to learn about sex from their friends. The Alliance should provide Christian sex education.
In closing, the pastors deserve credit for overcoming denominational constraints, sexism, politics and theology to come together. They have a chance to make a difference. Now that we have an Alliance we must all join my pastor and make it work.