Sunday, July 15, 2018

Black, white churches in St. Augustine come together for children to celebrate commonality. (The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville)

Great inspiration. Black and white churches uniting for regular activities, promote healing in St. Augustine. Kudos to St. Paul and Memorial Presbyterian Churches and wonderful bluegrass musician Tommy Bledsoe. Joint activities by black and white churches in St. Augustine, a 1963-64 civil rights battleground, was suggested years ago by Roger Jolley (allegedly to the great chagrin of the Grand Dragon of the KooKooKlan and a local business leader who vowed he would never let it happen).

By Beth Reese Cravey
Posted Jul 14, 2018 at 4:51 PM
Updated Jul 14, 2018 at 4:51 PM
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

ST. AUGUSTINE — Four days into their week-long camp, the youngsters had nailed their unofficial theme song.

“All God’s critters,” they sang in unison, “got a place in the choir.”

“Some sing low and some sing higher, some sing out loud on a telephone wire. Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got now, all God’s critters got a place in the choir.”

They sang and danced and cheered, side by side. They were 24 elementary school-age kids having fun.

Unbeknownst to them, they were also 12 black kids and 12 white kids singing a song that promoted race relations at a children’s arts camp designed by a black church and a white church. St. Paul AME and Memorial Presbyterian Church staged the first “All God’s Children” camp to bring their historically segregated congregations together by focusing on their respective children.

“Young kids know no differences,” said camp co-coordinator Les Lamon of Memorial, a former professor and author with decades of experience in the American civil rights movement.

For them, all God’s critters got a place, said Tommy Bledsoe, a local musician and retired educator who taught the campers the anthem composed by New Hampshire musician Bill Staines.

“There are not barriers,” Bledsoe said, “unless we make them.”

All God’s Children’s Arts Camp
To support future camps or get more information, contact coordinators Les Lamon at or Joann Johnson at


St. Paul, predominantly black, and Memorial, predominantly white, are Christian congregations that are less than a mile apart in downtown St. Augustine, but they have had little collaboration over the years. Lamon wanted to change that, to build relationships that would personify the “body of Christ,” so he initiated a series of discussions between the two churches’ leadership.

“Sunday is the most segregated day of the week,” said St. Paul AME member Joann Johnson, Lamon’s co-coordinator. “We wanted to create a partnership to address that reality. Historic divisions based on race should not be part of the Christian experience.”

Church leaders visited each other’s services and came to a realization.

“The delivery of the message was so different. But the message itself was similar,” Lamon said.

In addition to their shared Christianity, both churches had a history of investing in the education of children. So last year they decided to sponsor a summer camp for children with an arts theme.

“That was the vehicle for bringing people together,” Lamon said.

The camp took place at St. Paul because it has a playground and was staffed by adults and teen volunteers from both churches. There were paid art and music instructors and lesson plans. The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida provided the first-year funding.

“It was a new experience for both churches. The kids got along well,” said St. Paul member Barbara McClain. “It was all good. We’re teaching people how to love one another.”

So they did it again. This year Community Foundation funds were matched by the St. Johns Cultural Council and the two host churches.

Last week the campers were together from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. On Thursday alone they worked on a variety of art projects, including paintings of historic St. Augustine churches and ornate crosses. They listened to a musical performance version of Peter and the Wolf — and learned about the musical instruments that were used — and played hand bells. They heard a spiritual message, had lunch and spent time at play outside.

For some activities they were separated by age, the younger campers in one group, the older ones in another. But that was their only division.

The children gave the camp high marks, but their reasons had nothing to do with church segregation or the Christian experience. It was the fun.

“Absolutely love it,” proclaimed Jesse Meyer, 9, who was there with his brother, Aaron, 8, and cousin Quinn, 9.

The Meyers boys said art was the best part. Zerian Wilson, 10, said his favorite time was on the playground.

Annabelle Breaux, 8, said, “I really like the art. And I get to have fun with my friends.”


The adults saw what was happening and rejoiced.

“In the world that we’re in, with so much divisiveness, to have done this together, in unison, it’s humbling,” Johnson said. “These kids are our future.”

Anne Reid, Memorial’s staffer for children and young families, agreed.

“It’s important for local churches to participate together, especially during these times,” she said. “We’re celebrating what we have in common.”

But the camp is just the beginning, Lamon said.

“When I see where we should be — as Christians and as Americans — there are things I wish I could change overnight. But I know that’s not how it works,” he said. “This collaboration is a start, bringing so many folks together with a common purpose to develop lasting relationships.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109

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