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Florida mayor and pastor sees job as ‘salt and light’ during COVID-19

ST. CLOUD, Fla. (BP) — For St. Cloud Mayor Nathan Blackwell, prayer is an essential tool in leading his city during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prayer is second nature for the mayor, who is also founding pastor of Cornerstone Family Church, the largest of several Southern Baptist congregations in St. Cloud. Blackwell said faith has driven his mayoral leadership, especially during the pandemic. He prays during weekly Zoom meetings with business leaders and frequently prays for front-line workers outside places like hospitals and pharmacies.

“Just because I’m the mayor, you can’t walk away from your faith, because … it’s part of who you are. I’ve never hid that, and I’ve never had to suppress it,” Blackwell said. “But I’ve tried to use wisdom, to show that you’re gracious and understanding. You have so many opportunities to minister because people are struggling all of the time, and especially right now during this crisis.”

Blackwell, who founded Cornerstone in 1988, has been mayor of the town of about 60,000 people, located about 25 miles southeast of Orlando, since 2016.

“We certainly have a mandate to be a witness and to be salt and light in the community,” said Blackwell, who is in his first elected governmental post. “… This corona crisis, with all the stay-at-home orders, defining businesses as essential and nonessential, all the social distancing, wearing masks, has just created so much fear and intimidation.

“But what that does for us as the church and as Christians, it creates incredible opportunities to minister, to pray and to make a difference.”

A mile or so up the road from Cornerstone, Southern Baptist pastor David Perez leads Casa de Bendición Church. In mid-April, Perez joined Blackwell and other members of the St. Cloud Ministerial Alliance in a Heroes Work Here parade and prayer rally to recognize COVID-19 front-line workers.

“We have the blessing that the city mayor … he’s a Southern Baptist pastor as well,” Perez said. “He came with us … when we gathered together to pray outside of the hospital.”

Police officers and firefighters paraded their vehicles through the city to St. Cloud Regional Medical Center, where pastors operated a prayer tent with social distancing outside the hospital’s emergency room.

“It was really neat, because a lot of the first responders were not Christians,” Blackwell said, “but they were very appreciative that we took the time to come out as pastors and to pray.”

In a series of Heroes Work Here prayer rallies during the pandemic, Blackwell and others have prayed outside pharmacies and other essential businesses. In cooperation with the Orlando Utilities Commission, which purchased meals from area restaurants to support the economy, Blackwell helped deliver meals to supermarket employees and prayed for their health and wellbeing.

“That wasn’t sponsored by area pastors, but just because I’m the mayor,” Blackwell said, “I get to participate and tell them we love them and are praying for them.”

In reopening the city, Blackwell has followed the guidance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor exempted religious services in churches, synagogues and houses of worship from a statewide stay-at-home order, but advised them to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety guidelines. Blackwell said most churches voluntarily suspended onsite worship and instituted online options.

“I know the Lord gives you wisdom. And so I’ve been able to pray and ask for wisdom, and ask for God to bless all of our leadership and it’s just enhanced my relationship with our city staff and political leaders and business leaders,” he said. “And it just makes a difference.”

Florida is in the first phase of DeSantis’ reopening strategy, which since May 18 has allowed restaurants to operate with 50 percent capacity, but continues to limit such venues as museums and libraries to 25 percent capacity.

Blackwell plans to resume onsite worship at Cornerstone June 7, limiting seating to 25 percent of the sanctuary’s 700-person capacity. He’ll make other adjustments, including seating family groups together, setting up an overflow seating area and avoiding activities involving physical contact like passing the offering plate or distributing bulletins. Cornerstone will not immediately resume children’s church or reopen the church’s café.

“Most of the churches that have been doing this thus far haven’t been able to even have 25 percent capacity because people are still fearful about getting out,” Blackwell said.