Between the roars of the NASCAR engines and the waves sizzling as they crash against the shore of “The World’s Most Famous Beach”, you’ll hear what I call the sound of “the seasoning of the city.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met a person and had them tell me that they had come to Daytona for a family vacation, Daytona 500, or even a summer mission trip, but they all focus on the ever-growing Speedway district or the bustling beachside. You know what rarely gets mentioned? The corridor that you must trek through to reach Daytona’s most visited locations. Where you hear the sounds of older men sitting outside the corner store sharing a laugh, an old school box Chevy driving by with music playing through what sounds like a PA system, the chatter of a group of college students walking down the avenue towards a local eatery.
This is the seasoning of the city. This is what we call Mid-Town.
Midtown doesn’t have a beach with pearly blue waters, but these neighborhoods produced one of the most distinguished black theologians and Christian mystics, Howard Thurman. We don’t have tourist attractions or theme parks, but these neighborhoods produced The Campbell Hotel, where the black elite like Zora Neale Hurston and Gordon Parks stayed when they came to town. We don’t have a major sports complex in our neighborhood, but Mid-Town is where Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune would purchase an old landfill, once called, “Hell’s Hole” and transform it into what we know as Bethune-Cookman University. Mid-Town is one of the most historically rich and integral parts of the city of Daytona Beach and it’s a place that not only should be visited but cherished.
If you look at a photo of the city’s founding, in the corner past the many faces of white men, sit two black men who helped found the city: John Tolliver and Thaddeus S. Gooden. They wouldn’t be the only black persons to populate the city at that time though; black farmers who had once been slaves were already in the surrounding cities, farming the orange groves. But the formation of the center city was brought together when Henry Flagler established the Florida East Coast Railway that would connect Florida to the states to its north and create a path for travel from the top to the bottom of the state. Many of his railway workers were former slaves and would settle in the towns where they labored. Many of them settled in Mid-Town.
Drive through Mid-Town today and some of its families can still track their start to a relative who worked Flagler’s railroad. By the early 1900’s several small black neighborhoods started to form but all of them were restricted to about a 3-mile radius, not reaching the city’s downtown area and most definitely not touching the beach.
Howard Thurman, in his autobiography With Head and Heart, writes that during the first decade of 1900 “black people [were] surrounded by a white world.” On the beachside the new towns named Sea Breeze and Daytona Beach were “exclusive tourist areas,” and African Americans were “not allowed to spend the night there, nor could I be seen there after dark without being threatened.” They could swim on the beaches then, but “these areas were absolutely off limits after dark” (Thurman, 10).
It was during this time that neighborhoods like Waycross, Newtown and Midway were developed by black businessmen, tradesmen, and clergy. Over time there were efforts from black and white residents to combine all these historically black neighborhoods into one city zone, affectionately called Mid-Town. There’s so much rich history to be enjoyed and even greater than that, there are so many beautiful people to meet. People who want to see Mid-Town thrive but are discouraged by its most recent economic troubles and lack of development.
Many days before I walk into my office, I walk across the street to a cornflower blue colored building where Pride’s Tire Services has been for 38 years, and I exchange “good mornings” with Mr. Pride. He almost always follows with a response of worry about the future of the area with a dab of optimism. “We gone be aight” he’ll say as I’m walking back across the street. The same thing happens when I talk to my neighbor, Zo, who owns a t-shirt shop in a parcel that used to be a cobbler shop in the 1920s. Right on Second Avenue, just a block away from Bethune-Cookman. “I’ve been here all my life and this block used to be poppin … we gon’ bring it back though.”
See what makes Mid-Town rich isn’t the t-shirt shop or the tire shop, the college or the new restaurants popping up. It’s the interactions with the people that believe that things will get better.
They have hope. And that’s why we’re there. We planted Identity Church in Mid-Town because of the people. People who have a deep desire to see their community full of life. People that crave something far greater than what they’ve experienced, both in the heyday of Mid-Town and in its current state. There are not future, urban development plans that we’re attaching ourselves to, nor do we look to save the neighborhood. I’ve been in this city for over 15 years and my hope is that we would just be good neighbors that help preserve its history, partner to serve people in a greater way, faithfully preach the gospel, and establish ourselves as neighbors that aspires to be present.
At the beginning of 2021, we began to dream about playing an even greater role in the development of the Mid-Town community by not focusing only on planting a church but being a valued resource on our block. Out of that dream came what we call THE CONNECT, a creative co-working ministry space for our community. It’s designed as a third space, between the church and the home, where we can connect with people. It was important to us that we used this space to do four things well:
The walls of THE CONNECT are draped with photos of Mid-Town from the 20th century to celebrate our rich history in hopes that it inspires and uplifts those who are currently in the community. It’s a joy to sit down with a neighbor and reflect on the jewels that came out of Mt. Bethel Progressive Baptist Church, Bethune-Cookman College, and Mainland High School. On the flag poles that line Daytona’s main expressway hang banners that celebrate local luminaries who mostly resided in Mid-Town and our church had the honor of sponsoring them.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes 4:9 doesn’t just apply to individual relationships but also with organizations and churches. Instead of trying to be the primary source of development in our neighborhood, we have loved partnering with community development groups, schools, colleges, and other churches to feed underserved students, equip schools with resources, and educate the community on opportunities for advancement. We are much better partners than we are soloists.
The temptation comes to many churches in the inner-city and especially in historically black neighborhoods to become a resource for benevolence and downplay the preaching of the gospel in all of life. Facing that temptation head on is what we’ve tried to do by creating space for the gospel to be expressed through words on multiple occasions. No matter what we host in our community space, we have committed ourselves to preaching the gospel with care and courage. We may have “silver and gold” but that should not give us reason to every punt on faithfully sharing the gospel. As I walk down the block daily, there is a constant “you know why I’m here” posture that we must take on if we are to be neighbors that care for the physical, emotional, spiritual, and eternal needs of the people of Mid-Town.
I’ve thought a million times about how to remix P. Diddy’s “Bad Boys for Life” lyrics to emphasize to church family and neighbors that “We aint going nowhere.” I’ll never forget talking to a woman about our church and she sat listening with a sarcastic look because she felt like once we got rolling, we wouldn’t choose Mid-Town, but we’d go on to something bigger and better. That’s not who we are! Identity Church at its core is one that was planted for the people in the Mid-Town community. And this commitment has brought on many challenges but it’s worth it in the end when people in the community begin to open their lives because they trust us.
Our hope and dream is not that Identity Church would become the destination that people want to come to in Mid-Town, but that our commitment to the mission of God, the building of the church and the preaching of the gospel, will at least add some true salt and light to the seasoning of the city.