OneJax

Celeste Krueger, executive director of one of Jacksonville’s most vital interfaith efforts, describes OneJax’s greatest accomplishment as “its durability and longstanding presence in our community.” For more than forty years, OneJax – in its varied forms – has endeavored to serve as an “ethical center” for the Jacksonville community, cultivating a sense of respect and dignity for all.  For Krueger and the OneJax board, this intention is not an abstraction but a call to action.

OneJax began in 1970 as the local office of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ), an organization that later changed its name to the National Conference of Community and Justice to reflect a broader mission and constituency.  In 2005, with a rising sense that the national organization’s focus was amorphous and not specific enough to local needs, Krueger recalls how the board made the difficult decision to disaffiliate and reincorporate under a new name and identity. She remembers key elements of conversations during that transition:

We wanted our organization to be able to draw a circle wide enough for people of all religions, races, cultures and beliefs to have a place at the table. We were committed to affirming and staying connected with the many volunteers who, over the years had helped to bring our mission to life. We wanted to give our funders every reason to ‘stay with us.’ We committed to casting a clear vision for the future; one with focus and vitality – and then, we went for it!

In a town the locals call “JAX”, the name “OneJax” represents the organization’s goal to promote unity.

Jacksonville is home to the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the sprawling city is predominantly — sometimes presumptively — Christian.  The local Times-Union newspaper regularly includes a Biblical quotation on its editorial page, and until recently, every City Council meeting began with Christian prayers.  Yet Krueger emphasizes that religious diversity and interfaith activity have a long and rich lineage here:  an historic, civically engaged Jewish community dates back to the late 1800s. In 1918, Catholic and Jewish leaders celebrated the area’s first Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.  Today, OneJax continues that tradition: in 2011, the event brought together 26 diverse Christian clergy and lay leaders with leaders from Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American traditions. More than 400 people participated in the gathering. While increasing religious diversity energizes local interfaith activity, religious difference has also has been met with hostility in this community. In 2002, Rev. Jerry Vines of Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church infamously referred to the Prophet Muhammad as a pedophile, and another local pastor unapologetically posts messages such as “God Loves You, Allah Hates” on the sign in front of his church.

Such challenges, Krueger explains, are often viewed through the lens of the city’s painful history with difference and race relations.  Once a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan, the city’s clubs and public schools were fiercely segregated into the 1970s.  Krueger notes, “We do this work because many people here have suffered. And they understand what it means. They don’t want it to happen again.” She notes that while there is no going back to change the past, “We can make wise choices about how we conduct ourselves now.”  Today, the organization’s mission, programs, and alliances reflect OneJax’s commitment to promoting respect across lines of race as well as faith, whether addressing structural racism, hosting teen diversity education programs, or forging diverse organizational alliances.  OneJax regularly convenes interfaith and cross cultural forums, and responds to emerging community needs by hosting topical dialogues on critical issues to ensure more constructive engagement in the public square.

In April 2010, a community crisis tested Jacksonville, and called upon OneJax in its role as the community’s “ethical center.”  When Dr. Parvez Ahmed was nominated to a volunteer role on the city’s Human Rights Commission, opposition quickly emerged. Some questioned Ahmed’s ties to the Council on American‐Islamic Relations and made allegations of links to terror, although Ahmed resigned from CAIR years earlier in a bitter public split and frequently disavowed extremism.  Many at OneJax and beyond felt that Ahmed, a board member and tireless interfaith activist, was being subject to “guilt by association.” The public dialogue quickly became enflamed, with local and national anti-Muslim groups including ACT for America (ACT), leading the opposition; some local Christian clergy members echoed this opposition at a city council meeting.  As the controversy intensified, one City Council member was asked by a reporter if Muslims should be able to hold public office, to which he replied, “I don’t know.”[1]

The debate was heated and divisive, and the rhetoric was troubling to many in Jacksonville. Krueger recalls, “[At that time] there was no aggression that was overt, but there was a tension that was palpable.” She explains, “[W]e needed to respond quickly and in ways that were constructive.” With tensions rising, she emphasizes, ” Our hope was that we could help to shape an informed and meaningful conversation … without adding gas to the fire.” Ultimately, OneJax and its allies were able to play a critical role:  whether behind the scenes or in public meetings, through formal organizational statements or individual letters to city council and the media, they constructed an alternate narrative. Krueger notes: “I was really proud of a lot of people in this community for the way that they showed up and responded to a challenging and complex set of circumstances that moved quickly once they started to happen.”  Ahmed felt the support he received from the interfaith community was critical:  “It was not just me trying to refute this.”[2]  In late April, Ahmed was confirmed to serve on the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission.

Yet less than two weeks later, leaders of OneJax would receive a phone call in the early morning hours when a pipe bomb was detonated at Jacksonville’s Islamic Center of Northeast Florida.  No one was injured, but the sense that angry words lead to hateful acts shook the community.  Within hours, OneJax’s clergy council offered a statement:

We know, on a very personal level, of the basic goodness, kindness and tolerance of the people of Jacksonville. It is all the more unfortunate that an irrational and extreme act of an individual or small group should reflect on the values that most of us hold dear in Northeast Florida. We encourage other faith leaders and the citizens of our community to assert that there is no room for this behavior here. We urge all to reach out to our local Muslim community in peace and support and help us to reinforce that we are a city with appreciation, respect and understanding for all religions, cultures and beliefs.

Krueger reflects, “It’s times like these when OneJax has a chance, with a common voice, to stand up and be a presence in a positive way.”  Three days later, at OneJax’s annual Humanitarian Awards dinner, Rabbi Joshua Lief spoke to the community’s sense of collective hurt, and the need for healing. For Krueger, two words were marked indelibly upon her memory: “Rabbi Lief said, ‘Our mosque was bombed.’ ‘Our Mosque.’”

Krueger is proud of OneJax’s ongoing impact in Jacksonville through the relationships it builds and the responsiveness it brings. She explains, “Clearly, the need for an interfaith, human relations organization that works to reflect an ethical center for the community, is apparent. If there were no need for it, the agency would have, through its many encounters with obstacles of all kinds, disappeared. Instead of this result, our agency remains a symbol of the possibility that people really can be ‘Different-Together’.”  Krueger adds, “… even in matters of faith, around sometimes explosive issues, we have a civic and a moral responsibility to respect one another and find meaningful ways to engage in civil discourse — and when it is possible, to go beyond discourse and toward shared service, for the benefit of our entire community’s well being.”


[1] Mark Woods, “Jacksonville councilman takes turn at answering questions,” The Florida Times Union, April 17, 2010 http://jacksonville.com/opinion/blog/400564/mark‐woods/2010‐04‐17/councilman‐takes‐turn‐answeringquestions, accessed January 2012.

[2] Parvez Ahmed, from Pluralism Project case study “A Nomination to Controversy.”