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Two Florida communities search for common ground

Key Biscayne police led a “March for Peace” in 2016 with children from the Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. Photo/Leo Quintana

By Bob Libby 
Episcopalians are helping — for the seventh year — to set up a “Christmas in July” event to be held July 15 on the village green in Key Biscayne, Fla., an upscale island community east of Miami, for kids from Liberty City, an inner-city Miami neighborhood that was the scene of deadly riots nearly 40 years ago.

In 90-degree heat, Santa Claus will hand out toys and school supplies, but this Santa is usually played by an officer of the Key Biscayne Police Department. The event is a symbol of an unlikely, but growing, relationship between Liberty City and Key Biscayne, spearheaded by Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press, a member of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Key Biscayne.

Key Biscayne Police Officer Gordon Spitler plays Santa at “Christmas in July” for the youngsters of Liberty City. Photo/Foncham, Warley and Marko

“This is not a church program, but a community wide venture, where many members of our congregation are leaders,” said the Rev. Susan Bruttell, rector of St. Christopher’s.

In 1980, Liberty City and other Miami neighborhoods were the scene of racial unrest following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the death of Arthur Mc Duffie after a motorcycle chase. The rioting resulted in 18 deaths, more than 300 injuries, 600 arrests and $100 million in property destruction.

Interviewed about the riots, the Rev. Ken Majors, who at the time was the rector of Liberty City’s Incarnation Episcopal Church, said, “Our community was in shambles. Blacks felt betrayed by the white establishment. We just didn’t trust one another, but thanks be to God things are better now.”

In 2004, Press established the Chief Press Foundation under the umbrella of the Key Biscayne Foundation “to improve the relationship of police to the children of Liberty City.”

The foundation’s website notes that, “building on Chief Press’ charitable work, in 2013 the Village of Key Biscayne partnered with the Miami Children’s Initiative (MCI) to create a sister city partnership with Liberty City.”

The object was two-fold: “1) provide better outcomes for children in underserved communities; and 2) provide opportunities for neighbors of different cultures and socioeconomic levels to learn and care about each other. What is most important here is to understand the dynamic of a very wealthy community partnering with one of South Florida’s most economically deprived areas.”

Another St. Christopher’s member, Pat Molinari, established a fresh vegetable co-op as part of an 18-block community space developed by MCI, where residents can access a food bank, a clothing closet, medical resources, tutoring and parenting classes.

Now retired, Molinari knows food, as she founded Parties-by-Pat, which catered social events on the Key. “I started with a large box of 50 to 60 dollars’ worth of fresh produce and sold them for no more than five dollars. Quite often, cooking lessons followed and in most cases fruit was a new experience,” Molinari said.

Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press has led efforts to link affluent Key Biscayne with inner-city Liberty City. Photo/Leo Quintana

A signature moment occurred five years ago when Press led a “March for Peace” parade of Miami-Dade uniformed police officers around Liberty City with several hundred youngsters holding their hands. A barbecue and games followed.

In another example of the community’s development, Liberty City’s Charles H. Drew K-8 elementary school has moved from an “F” to a triple “B” rating and there are several charter schools being constructed to offer their services to the area’s 2,800 kindergarten to grade 12 students.

John Devaney, a lifelong member of St. Christopher’s and the founder and CEO of United Capital Markets, was instrumental in securing initial funding for Press through the Key Biscayne Foundation, which Devaney helped to establish.

As word of the Liberty City venture got around, support from community groups such as Rotary International grew and in 2013 the relationship received the official endorsement of the Key Biscayne Village Council which declared Liberty City as the “Sister City of Key Biscayne.”

In 2018, Press took eight senior high school students to San Francisco to attend the “My Brother’s Keeper Conference,” designed to encourage young black males to take responsibility for their families and communities.

It was sponsored by the Barack Obama Foundation, and for the Liberty City delegation, it was the first time they had flown on a plane or been out of South Florida. “They came home,” Press said, “with a whole new hopeful vision of their future.”

Also in 2018, a new venture began on the education front when Bill and Toby Rohrer, who were married at St. Christopher’s 25 years ago, committed $200,000 to establish a scholarship program for Liberty City students at Miami Dade Community College.

“There’s still a lot to be done,” reflected Press, “but I do believe we’re beginning to make a difference. In the meantime, Christmas in July is only days away.”

The Rev. Bob Libby, a published author and frequent contributor to Episcopal Journal lives with his wife Lynne on Key Biscayne, Fla.

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