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The first steps of a long march forward

Published January 26, 2007


Each evening, when the Rev. John D. Williams Sr. leaves Allen Temple AME Church heading home to Sanford, he sees the men and women walking the streets.

Williams, 50, who was assigned to the South Brooksville congregation 13 months ago, knows that with prostitution and other high risk behavior, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are stalking the streets of this close-knit, predominantly black community.

He figured the best defense was education. Friday night, Williams, along with pastors Willie Fagin and David L. Swackard, invited the public to hear health professionals discuss AIDS and to get free tests.

When the talk was over, Swackard took the first steps toward the testing room. It was symbolic, as the 61-year-old Baptist minister wanted to lead the flock. Almost everyone, from grandmothers to grandsons, to husbands and wives, followed to get tested. Even a 12-year-old boy tried to join the parade.

"They were banging on the doors so I could test them," said Joan Felix-Sepulveda, one of the two Hernando County Health Department employees who conducted the session.

"It was amazing. It took a lot of courage to break the chains," she said. "They did so much good for their neighborhood."

In another week or so, Felix-Sepulveda will return with the test results and offer counseling.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other problems to address in this part of Brooksville: drug dealing, gun crime, unemployment, poor housing, blight.

Tuesday night, Deputy Dane Jenkins and Deputy William Power from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office will visit Allen Temple to discuss all this. Jenkins is looking for people to step forward, people who refuse to be intimidated by the criminals. He's looking for leaders.

Enter Rev. Williams. As a relatively new pastor, he views South Brooksville through fresh eyes. He sees a better future.

This is particularly important in a neighborhood established by segregation laws, where powerless people have floundered for generations.

Most people would just as soon this neighborhood disappear. Some officials have even floated the idea of turning it into an industrial park.

But Williams knows it's never that simple. The best change will come from within.

His church stands as a center of hope in the community. Next door is another building that once did the same. It once hosted teen dances and in 1969 residents gathered there to plan the black student boycott.

But that building has gone to ruin. Even the crack addicts abandoned it. They are afraid to use it because the roof has partly collapsed. It symbolizes the problems. The church identifies a better future.

"We need to quit talking about what we can't do and what 'they' won't let us do," Williams said. "We need to take charge of our community."

He sounds like a man with a plan.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is

[Last modified January 26, 2007, 06:03:48]

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