By Gary G. Yerkey
The Diocese of Southwest Florida has been “welcoming the elephants” to Tampa, as the Rt. Rev. Dabney T. Smith has put it, opening its doors enthusiastically to those who have come to the city for the weeklong Republican National Convention.
Bishop Smith told TLC that welcoming visitors represents the “church in action” and reflects “our sense of God’s mission to the world.” He has said half-jokingly that the Episcopal Church, in fact, has welcomed elephants to Florida before, noting that for decades it offered counsel and blessings to clowns, acrobats, lion tamers and sword swallowers from the wintering Ringling Brothers Circus.
As for one of Tampa’s most historic churches — St. Andrew’s, built in 1904 — it has not only extended its opening hours for the benefit of people seeking solace during the convention but has also made its parish hall available to members the Tampa police force to rest while patrolling just blocks from the convention site.
The Rev. John Reese, rector of St. Andrew’s, told TLC that the idea to open the parish hall to the officers on break came from the police department. “And we were more than happy to accommodate them,” he said.
Other Episcopal churches in downtown Tampa, including St. James House of Prayer and St. John’s, have also opened their doors to visiting RNC participants, guests, journalists and protesters, holding noonday prayers and regular Holy Eucharist services throughout the week.
The Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida has urged visitors staying in the greater Tampa region to ask their concierge or use its online Church Finder to locate an Episcopal church nearby.
Not surprisingly, the 76 congregations of the southwest Florida diocese — in beachside and downtown churches from Tampa and St. Petersburg to Fort Myers, Naples and Sarasota — have had a history of welcoming visitors, including “snowbirds” from Canada and transplants to Florida from countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, Jamaica, Nigeria, Belize, the Bahamas, Trinidad and South Africa.
About 1,000 conservative Christians, meanwhile, used the occasion of convention Aug. 27-30 to protest what they consider the Obama administration’s “war on religion.”
Ralph Reed, founder and CEO of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which hosted the two-hour gathering at a Tampa theater Aug. 26, said the church has “allowed this to happen,” noting that 17 million evangelical Christians did not vote in 2008.
“I vowed that after the 2008 elections … that was never going to happen again,” he said. He predicted that the newly energized Christian right would propel Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to victory in November.
Speakers at the rally also included former House speaker and GOP presidential candidate New Gingrich — the only speaker, in fact, to address Romney’s Mormon faith directly. “I’m delighted that he has a faith, and I’m delighted that it matters to him,” Gingrich said. “That’s a big improvement amongst our left-wing secular elites.” He also accused Obama of being “the most extreme, pro-abortion president in U.S. history,” saying that he was a “direct threat to the survival of the country I grew up in.”
Other speakers blamed the president for the country’s high employment rate and moral decay and the rise of radical Islam in the Arab world.
For his part, Bishop Smith has sought to offer a message of hope and reconciliation, writing in a recent blog, for instance, that Christian churches serve as a “common ground where red-state and blue-state people come together, put away differences and literally drink out of the same cup, sacramentally and literally.”
“It’s this non-partisan role where the church needs to continue to assert itself, and remind the national community that the church is needed to do the work of Christ, which includes prayer and protection for our government and people,” he wrote, adding that the Episcopal Church has a long tradition of transcending politics through the Book of Common Prayer.
He said that a joint prayer letter signed by the clergy of St. Andrew’s and St. John’s, among others, which was published in leading newspapers, welcomed those who had come to Tampa for the Republican convention, as well as those who will attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week.
“[The document] encourages prayers for the citizens of Tampa and Charlotte, that they may be hospitable, and not allow cynicism to balloon into bitterness,” Bishop Smith said. “It includes the line: ‘We pray for our country, that we might be a nation where goodness matters, where justice and kindness are our passions, where truth matters, and is told.’”