Faith Spotlight: Pastor pushes for racial unity

The Rev. Alex Farmer’s persistent pursuit of unity gained momentum on the heels of a national tragedy. The 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in South Carolina was a pivotal moment that shifted a crucial desire to a more deliberate endeavor.

“I was convicted,” Farmer, rector of Servants of Christ Anglican Church, said in an interview. “I didn’t know the [local] AME [African Methodist Episcopal] pastor. I couldn’t pick up the phone and call him or her and say, ‘I’m so sorry . . . As fellow Christians, we’re with you.’”

Farmer later found the local AME pastor, Karl Smith, who led Greater Bethel AME church in Gainesville at the time.

“We like to say the churches in Gainesville have very short walls, very low walls, which is a way of thinking in terms of fellowship and the relationships,” Farmer said.

Farmer and Smith met through the Alachua County Christian Pastors Association (ACCPA), a multi-ethnic organization whose mission is to promote unity among clergy. The ACCPA was created through the merger of the Christian Pastors Association, which was predominantly white, and the Black Ministerial Alliance.

Farmer, who grew up in Jacksonville, left the insurance industry in the late 1990s to become an ordained minister. He’s been at Servants of Christ since January 2006 and last year became president of the ACCPA.

Although Christian unity had long been an important ministry aspiration, committed intentionality was missing from this virtuous ambition. The ruthless murders of those nine African American’s participating in the EAME Bible Study served as his divine wake-up call.

“I just felt like, the Lord was really using that to speak through that tragedy to say to me, Alex, you need to do better, you need to do more,” Farmer said.

The following are excerpts of our recent interview, which has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Did you end up reaching out to the local AME pastor?

A: My initial first step was to get involved in the Alachua County Christian Pastors Association. And then when I did, I learned that the AME pastor [Karl Smith] was actually a member of that association. And then he and I became friends to the extent that we shared pulpits, we did a pulpit exchange, and he spoke at a retreat for our church. He just became somebody that I really value in terms of a friend.

Q: How does intentionality affect change in our contemporary society?

A: In our isolation, even within our own denominations, we can’t affect the change that we want to see—or maybe in our heart of hearts would love to see—unless we find ways to be together intentionally and learn from each other and work together.

Q: Oftentimes, there’s bumps in the road in getting to learn from each other. How has that road been, coming alongside brothers and sisters of a different racial and ethnic background for the sake of unity?

A: Black churches and white churches often have different subcultures. For example, the role of the pastor is different. The predominantly black churches I’m around and know move between politics and faith. But the predominantly white churches I’ve been part of keep politics out of the pulpit, but realizing that’s not always the case, because sometimes there’s a particular type of politics sometimes preached from those pulpits.

One of the things that we joke about is that if a black pastor wants to get to know you, he invites you to preach at his church. If a white pastor wants to get to know you, he invites you out to coffee. That’s just really different. That’s a dramatic difference. If you don’t learn these things, it can be a barrier. So those are some of the things we’ve had to learn, but to love and be grateful toward each other.

Q: What are some examples of where you and communities of color have come together for service projects?

A: In terms of potential social change, we did a night of critical conversations where [the ACCPA] brought local law enforcement, local city government together to talk about issues of police brutality, excessive force, etc. It was not a hostile conversation; it was a cordial conversation. But in my mind, it was we as united Christian pastors saying we are going to stand with our black and brown brothers and sisters.

We did a food drive in the summer of 2020 with Farm Share, and we fed over 100,000 people. That was a united effort of multiple churches. We also did a night at the swamp where we brought in like 140 pastors and we just prayed, and we sang, and we talked about what it meant to be united in Christ and stand for racial justice.

I think anytime you can get multi-ethnic Christian leaders together interfacing with either the community or the local government and demanding righteousness and demanding justice, it’s a powerful thing.

Q: You mentioned that the pursuit of unity is central to your beliefs and also an outpouring of the gospel. But are there any Biblical verses or stories from the Bible that really push this idea and this belief home for you in a way where this is something that’s a life pursuit?

A: I immediately go to John 17. He prays very clearly that they may be one, that the world may know . . . that they may be one as you and I are one. And that the world will know I’m your Son and you will be glorified.

That’s just a couple of really bold statements. I mean, that’s His wish. As we come together that we walk in unity. How do we not think this is important? How do we not prioritize this? This is what Jesus prayed before he went to the cross, that we would be one.

If you go:

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to note Farmer grew up in Jacksonville.

Editor’s note: Alachua County is home to more than 100 houses of worship, according to the Greater Gainesville Chamber. These communities play a large role in peoples’ lives but often do not get the coverage they deserve. Mainstreet wants to change that. This article is the first in a series of interviews with area faith leaders exploring their stories, beliefs, and role in the community.

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