In wake of violence and protests, Palmetto church wants to change world with smiles, waves

PALMETTO A Palmetto church is trying to change the world.

One smile at a time.

One wave at a time.

St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal Church members on Sunday announced a response to the recent shootings that have claimed the lives of both police officers and citizens across the United States.

The church’s idea, hatched by church leaders Moody Johnson and Ernest Balkman along with their pastor, the Rev. Edward Green Jr. and announced during a Bible School meeting on Sunday, is that if people forget color or any differences for a moment and show their humanity to strangers by a wave and a smile it can heal fear, hatred and prejudice.

Located at 203 17th St. W., Palmetto, St. Andrews is one of Manatee County’s many historically black churches.

“Fear is what leads to violence,” Green said. “But when people wave and smile at each other, it’s easier to see that they are the same, all just trying to get by in this world, and that alleviates the fear.”

Green said he has noticed that people often will not look at him in the eye on the street just because he is black.

He thinks maybe people don’t know how to greet each other anymore.

Green said many young people have asked him over the years why racism exists. He said he always asks the youth to name something they do not like.

“They say snakes, spiders, even dogs and cats in some cases,” Green said. “Then I ask them why they hate snakes, spiders and dogs. They said, ‘Don’t know why. Just do.’ I tell them that if they took the time to understand those things, they would see they are just trying to get by, just like us. It’s fear that creates hatred. It’s that hatred that creates racism. It’s that fear that has caused women to grab their purses when they see me coming because I am a black man. We have to crush the fear.”

Church members believe two simple gestures, offered to strangers, will spark a return smile and wave, which could dissipate fear and, one day, if their movement catches on, racism itself.

The eight charter members, who call their new grassroots initiative, “The Smile and Wave Club,” include leaders Balkman and Johnson along with Patricia McKinney, Leola McAdams, Takiah Porter, Michael Fowler and the Rev. Green and his wife, Carrie Ann Green.

The eight, who hope others in Manatee County join in, say they have committed to simply show warmth to total strangers they see in their street or while driving.

“The Smile and Wave Club was ordained by God, and it has been a part of our youth Bible study for some time,” Johnson said. “A smile can relieve stress and it can help a person on a day when they may have not gotten a reaction from anybody.”

“It makes a difference because it starts with each one of us,” Johnson added. “It spreads. If we do it at home our children will pick it up and our loved ones.”

Beating this problem of fear between people of color and police officers is important because law and order is needed, Balkman said.

“We need our policemen,” Balkman said. “As a child born in raised in Tampa, the policemen were known to everyone because they walked a beat. We as little kids would run up to them like you would any other adult. So we need law and order in our system to be able to be a God-fearing country. This country was founded on religious belief.”

Porter, 20, says he already smiles at people who smile at him. But now he will be smiling and waving first.

Said Carrie Ann Green of how she thinks being in the club will change her: “I believe I will not see color, just people.”

Balkman said he didn’t know if Christ waved a lot but he did know Christ smiled a lot.

McAdams said she is already smiling and waving.

“When I am out and about I always speak to people whether or not they speak to me,” McAdams said. “If they don’t speak, I just keep going. But maybe now this will make me feel better about other people, and we can help people along the way, which is why we are here.”

Of all the members, Fowler, who lives in Bradenton, may have the toughest time smiling and waving. He calls his membership in the new club a “positive challenge” because he is angry at the shootings.

“It allows me to be part of something I normally wouldn’t be,” Fowler said. “Normally, I wouldn’t walk around smiling because I have a heavy heart. But this will challenge me to smile and wave at people. To know everyone is doing it makes it easier for me to do it. We are shining that light, like Christ told us to do.”

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond