By Neva Rae Fox
When differences are bridged, similarities can often emerge. That’s what happened when two congregations on opposite sides of a major American city connected, resulting in community-wide activism allowing hidden voices to be finally heard.
In Orlando, Florida, Iglesia Episcopal Jesus de Nazaret and St. John the Baptist were operating and ministering separately, solely on their own. When Jesus de Nazaret vicar the Rev. Jose Rodriguez met with St. John the Baptist rector the Rev. Charles Myers, they discovered common issues and goals, and developed a mutual drive for social activism. Differences in language, culture, and worship styles paved the bridge that connected them, allowing the two houses of worship to mesh for the common good.
“We connected the black and Latino community of Orlando,” Rodriguez said. “Jesus de Nazaret is a Latino community which didn’t have a permanent home.” He called the congregation a gathering of “displaced groups,” including people of color, immigrants, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, multi-cultural. “Jesus de Nazaret had Hispanic ministries that were pushed out of other churches,” he said. The parish now enjoys “a wonderful relationship with the Anglo parish of Christ the King,” which shares its property.
On the other side of the city of 280,000 people, St. John the Baptist boasts a rich 125-year-old history as an African American church that has long been active in civil rights.
Myers, who is white, matched his experience in community organizing to Rodriguez’s zeal. Their combined efforts grew to address social activism, community issues, food sustainability, affordable housing, fair access to COVID-19 services, and language advocacy.
“He prods city commissioners, and I prod the county,” Rodriguez said with a smile.
The priests were quick to say the activism is something their parishes support. “I have a team of abuelas (grandmothers) with me,” Rodriguez said.
The joint results of the two churches are substantial: Universal Orlando Resort, a major regional employer, agreed to “put aside land for affordable housing for their employees,” Rodriguez said.
“We worked for employee rights at Orlando International Airport, where many are minorities,” he added.
Another joint initiative focused on hospitality workers’ rights because Orlando is a major tourist area, and most of these workers are minorities.
Since COVID-19 has affected their respective communities deeply, and the congregations now are focusing on the critical issues of testing and vaccine access. Rodriguez added that their first efforts resulted in COVID-19 information, previously available only in English, is now offered in Spanish and other languages.
They have established relations and coalitions with other community groups.
“Orlando is where the Pulse Massacre was,” Rodriguez said.
The mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in 2016 left 49 people dead and 53 injured.
“The victims were mostly Hispanic and black,” Rodriguez said. The two churches led funerals and prayer vigils and “pushed for justice with the LGBT community.”
A food pantry at St. John’s was in wide demand, as needs exploded amid COVID-related busines closures in March 2020. “I asked the vestry to keep the food pantry open,” Myers said. “We did, and word spread quickly, including through social media. Now, the LGBTQ community is helping us out with delivery.”
In the latest joint initiative, the two churches received a grant through Workforce Florida for a leadership development course for displaced workers because of COVID, to equip minority workers with skills needed in a post-pandemic marketplace.
Their efforts and results have gained the attention of local and regional news media. The two priests are often asked for statements and to participate in community forums on topical issues.
They both stressed, in two languages, that self-promotion is farthest from their minds; it’s the ministry that is important.
“I do this for the advocacy,” Rodriguez said. “I keep it focused for Jesus.”
“Through media, our advocacy is introducing Jesus to people for the first time,” Myers said. “We are investing in people. We are inviting people. In our advocacy, we are doing evangelism and radical hospitality.”