BEHIND THE HEADLINES
Pastor reaches beyond church walls
Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 13, 2004 at 12:47 a.m.
King Week, which culminates Monday on King Day, inevitably includes programs in churches honoring the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
FYI: MLK festivities
MONDAY, JAN. 19
From the pulpits, stirring remarks will recall the struggle King led for social change. Words may speak of promise cut short by an assassin's bullet, or of work left unfinished.
Then everyone will go home. And the churches, for the most part, will become silent on the topic of social change for another year.
The Rev. Milford Lewis Griner hopes to change that.
As the newly installed president of the Alachua County Ministerial Alliance, the 45-year-old minister and former police officer wants to see the black church return to taking the lead on social issues as it had during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
Where there is need, as in the recent displacement of hundreds of residents of the slum that Kennedy Homes had become, he wants the church to be in the vanguard of assistance. Where there is injustice, he wants the church to be the first voice that speaks out.
"John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) said, `The whole world is my parish,' " said Griner, pastor of Paradise United Methodist Church in Alachua. "Ministers should be involved outside the four walls of the church.
"The last 40 years or so we've gotten away from using the church as a way to organize and draw attention to social issues," he said.
"We've gotten too comfortable and complacent, and we use the church as a last resort instead of a first resort."
After unsafe living conditions surfaced in October at Kennedy Homes, a subsidized housing project in southeast Gainesville, Griner helped organize a rally and workshops designed to assist some 500 residents who lost their homes. Most had been relocated to hotels for weeks until alternative housing could be arranged.
Griner and other clergy and community groups helped arrange daily meals for the Kennedy residents, and they organized food and gift programs for them during the holidays.
"He helped keep attention on the situation at Kennedy Homes," said Gainesville City Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, who worked with Griner on a task force set up to look into problems at Kennedy Homes. "He's very concerned about the living conditions out there, and has been a help in offering moral support for the residents."
Griner said his own experience growing up poor in the mean streets of Philadelphia helped him identify with and want to help the people of Kennedy Homes.
One of four children of a cook and a leathermaker, he grew up in a drug- and crime-infested neighborhood where the refusal to join a gang could be lethal.
Griner today is nearly blind in one eye, the result of a bullet that grazed his forehead and damaged an optic nerve while he sat on the stoop outside his three-story walk-up.
"It was a Sunday, and the day before I was shot I told a gang I wouldn't join them," he said. "I was 11."
Before moving to Florida with his family after high school, he said, he was robbed and beaten more than once. Another time when he was shot at, the lanky, 6-foot-4 Griner said, he injured his knee trying to get out of the way, ending his high school basketball career.
He said the move to Gainesville in 1976 - two years after his mother died - was a welcome relief from the desperation of Philadelphia. His father had inherited a small house on the east side of town from a relative.
While he didn't miss the violence of the inner city, Griner said, it took him a year to get used to Gainesville.
"I was used to the hustle and bustle of the big city," he said. "At first I hated it here. I felt very out of place."
His father's death nine months after their arrival only intensified the feelings.
"After my father died, I said to God, `You took my mother when I was 16, and now my father. What is it you want from me?' " he said.
The answer wasn't immediately forthcoming.
Finding a helpmate
Griner, unsure of a direction in his life, enrolled at Santa Fe Community College. During his two years there he started working for the campus security department. He enjoyed the work and hired on full time, staying for 20 years and joining the school's police force when it was formed in 1993.
One day Griner helped a female student who had trouble with her car. While waiting for her boyfriend to pick her up outside the security office, she and Griner struck up a conversation.
"We just clicked," Griner said. "It was as if we were meant for each other. I feel she was sent from God to me not only to be my wife but my helpmate in my ministry. Every day I thank God for her."
He and Mae, a registered nurse, have four children - two sons from his first marriage, two daughters from hers. Just before Christmas they celebrated their 15th anniversary.
Among her wifely duties, he said, is keeping him from spending too much money on his collection of metal scale-model automobiles. The hobby began with a 1972 Pontiac Bonneville in high school and today numbers about 200 on display in their Gainesville home. One, a gilded model of a 1947 Cadillac, graces a shelf in his church office in Alachua.
Heeding a call
In March 1984, Griner said, he felt the call to ministry. A few months earlier he had been hospitalized for a serious illness, and when he came out, he said, "I felt like God was calling me to do more."
He began training for the ministry at his home church, Bartley Temple United Methodist. Later he took a course at Florida Southern College and earned a license to preach. He has pastored several congregations from Alachua to Citra, and taught the Bible to inmates in the Marion County Jail.
Griner also has presided at the funerals of two of his siblings: a sister who died of AIDS and a brother killed in a car accident.
"Burying my sister was the hardest thing I've ever done," he said.
Bonnie Burgess, mayor of Alachua and lay leader in Griner's church, said the preacher is "able to pass on to others the passion he feels for whatever he is working on."
She said Griner goes about a project with purposeful intensity. He does it for the sole reason that he thinks it needs to be done, she said, and not for self-glorification.
"About two years ago this group in the United Methodist Church, Black Methodists for Church Renewal, had kind of gone dormant," Burgess said.
"Rev. Griner took it upon himself to contact every member of the group and put together a program. Usually you have a committee for these things, but he did it without asking anyone to do anything.
"And he never put his name on the program or sought any other kind of recognition," she said. "Whatever he does, it starts from the heart."
At SFCC, Griner said, the joy of the job wasn't about writing parking tickets or breaking up an occasional fight between students.
"I was able to help people," he said.
Being able to help people also is the chief reason he believes he was called to the ministry, Griner said.
"We are supposed to speak out on social issues," he said. "I'm called by God to do it."
He said he plans to use his two-year term as president of the Alachua County Ministerial Alliance to reach out.
The membership now is made up of about two dozen black clergy, he said, but he wants to recruit from all local clergy to help in the mission of responding to people's needs.
"I'd like to see more diversity in the alliance," he said. "The issues that come up involve everybody, black and white."
He's working on organizing a march to protest the possible closing of Prairie View Elementary, an underenrolled school in southeast Gainesville. He also plans to work on voter registration and getting out the vote this election year.
It's part of his plan, he said, to take ministry beyond the sanctuary doors.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 374-5042 or email@example.com.
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