The churches in District 3, the poorest county district, have their hands full. They struggle and strive to be the safety net for thousands who live paycheck-to-paycheck. The Independent News interviewed pastors Lonnie D. Wesley, III and Dr. Tyler Hardeman, Sr. to talk about how they use their influence and resources to feed, clothe and help those in their neighborhoods.
Wesley is the pastor of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church and the moderator of the First West Florida Baptist District Association. Hardeman is the senior pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
“The faith-based community in District 3 feeds a lot of people,” Pastor Wesley said. “I would venture to say thousands know on what day they can go to which church to get bags of food. The homeless population knows on what days to go to each of our ministries for clothing giveaways.”
The churches also provide assistance with utility bills, rent and mortgages.
“That speaks to the heart of the people in this district,” he said. “Unexpected things happen, some kind of emergency, an elderly lady shouldn’t have to choose between her prescription medicines and groceries. We know that life happens, so at least she knows she can go to the church for assistance.”
Both believe that conditions are getting better and trending in a positive direction.
“It’s not going as fast as I would like to see it,” Pastor Hardeman said. “Having Lumon (County Commissioner Lumon May) in at the county has enabled some progress in the district and given us some gleam of hope that it will get much better.”
They would both like to see the liquor and high-priced convenience stores out of their neighborhoods. They see them as vampires that feed on the poor and those living in the public housing projects. The ministers listed the stores that sit on the alphabet streets along Cervantes Street.
“I just wish there was a way we could eradicate these liquor stores in the vicinity of our churches and neighborhoods,” Hardeman said. “It’s a negative stigma, an avenue where you’ve lost all your hope. Without them, Cervantes would be more of a safe haven where we wouldn’t have to worry about our people getting hit by cars, robbed, stabbed or shot.”
“All our neighborhoods could then become places where people could walk freely and where children could play,” Wesley added. “Parents would not have to worry about them being in harm’s way.”
The ministers have begun to organize their neighborhoods so that they will be better heard at county and school board meetings and at Pensacola City Hall.
“During the 2010 city elections, there was a lot of rhetoric about representation for the west side,” Wesley said. “If it happened, I missed it. I’d love to see that being much harder to miss, so that these residents can feel better about having a voice, being represented and being taken seriously.”
Poverty does impact the ability of some to voice their opinions. “They worry about so many basic necessities—food, shelter, clothing—they often don’t have time to go to meetings,” Hardeman said. “They want to be heard but don’t know how to articulate what they want.”
However, the ministers know that there is power in joining together, and they will be ready for the candidates when they come around seeking votes in these year’s elections.
“We know if we can get our neighbors united, they will listen,” Wesley said.