It was a very broad, if very current, question in a community as cleaved by bitter differences as the nation: “So what common grounds do we have today? And what common grounds exists?”
Shelley Ragsdale, President of the Flagler County NAACP, was posing the question on his new radio weekly show on WNZF, which first aired Sunday at 10 a.m. The show is called “Common Ground.”
Ragsdale had posed the question to two men who know something about the answer, from their works: Rabbi Merrill Shapiro and Rev. Bob Goolsby, rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. What do Jewish and Episcopal members of the clergy have in common? “Each week on Tuesday, at one o’clock, we teach a Christian-Jewish or Jewish-Christian Bible study, that Merrill and I mutually teach,” Goolsby said.
“My association with St. Thomas makes me very proud,” Shapiro said, “because it is the most diverse congregation I believe in the entire county. And it always makes me think of–and I believe it was Martin Luther King who pointed out that 11 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated–but in St. Thomas, you look around, you’ll see people of all colors, creeds faiths, of all ethnic backgrounds. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”
But where’s the crossover into the community at large, how to bring it about–or highlight it where it actually thrives, as does the spiritual crossfit Shapiro and Goolsby host? That’s the sort of questions the new radio show will attempt to answer.
David Ayres, the general manager at Flagler Broadcasting, sat down with Ragsdale for months to “come up with something where we can make a difference in our own community here,” Ayres said, “because there’s lots of things we do have in common. There’s really lots of love here between people, and it’s being snuffed out by outside forces.” Ironically, the WNZF line-up is not without the divisive mouthpieces Ayres is referring to.
Ayres knows a few things about common ground: he hosts Free For All Fridays, the weekly community affairs program on WNZF, which highlights events and local trends. It’s been a particularly effective communications tool for the scientific and medical perspective on the covid pandemic, for the past 75-some weeks countering misinformation with life-saving strategies. The show is rarely if ever confrontational, though it also rarely features guests from sharply opposite camps, as it tried to in early years: the conversation would quickly devolve into ideological duels. But society, Flagler County included, has only gotten more divided since.
“With all the polarization of people in the world today and a lot of powerful entities trying to polarize us,” Ayres said, “whether it be national media or different groups and things like that, I thought, you know, what can we do here in Flagler County to make a difference when in fact we have so much in common with each other, yet we’re polarized and not even talking because of outside influences?”
Ragsdale has been a resident of Palm Coast since 2013 and a member of the NAACP–the civil rights organization formed to advance justice for Blacks–for many years. Ragsdale says the show gives him, “an opportunity to discuss things with people that I normally would not have as an audience.” The show, he says, is a “wonderful opportunity” to express himself vocally and to hope to improve the community. “The biggest thing that I’m going to get out of this is sharing information to enlighten people, and for me to be educated also,” he says.
The faith angle of the first show–actually, a two-parter–is no coincidence. “We talk about this all the time in our class, that if we look at the things that separate us, and that are not common between us, they are very small. But the things that we have in common are very large,” Shapiro says. Ragsdale himself was baptized in a Baptist church but went to a Catholic university, and pledged to drop in on the Episcopal service to experience its diversity.
Shapiro, who can be as partisan as anyone–he was a former leader of local Democratic Party organizations and continues to be involved–said on the show that tribalism and fear of strangers is part of human nature since time immemorial, “but our job as people of faith is to overcome that natural tendency, to rise above the animal within us and bring about the divine soul in us that makes us human, and recognize we need to overcome those barriers.”
But Goolsby notes that going to houses of worship is no longer “part of the culture” as it was a few generations ago. There’s been pronounced declines in attendance even over the past 15 years. The pandemic isn’t helping. “How do we become relevant to folks because they are not coming to church as often as they used to, it’s no longer part of the status symbol, it’s no longer part of their, their their weekly culture,” Goolsby said. ” I think conversations like this, where the church needs to have more of an open mind and an open heart and open hands to those who are different from those who lead the church, is paramount and more important now more than ever. Because in the 50s, you could have a white church, and you didn’t have to do anything to change that. Today, if you have a white church, your days may be numbered.”
To Shapiro, “we’re being pulled apart. It’s more apparent perhaps in the political world, but in the faith world as well. We’re being pulled apart by extremism, and we can’t allow that to happen. And so the response by the way to hyper extremism on the part of many people is apathy.” He said it’s “natural to think that the opposite of love is hate. But that’s not the case. The opposite of love is apathy. Just not caring. And I think too many people just don’t care or they care about themselves, and not the community of which they are a part.”
The first show had its fun moments, as when Shapiro quoted Corinthians and St. Paul’s laments about the world’s divisions. It was in the context of Ragsdale reflecting on how he is often seen in public not as a human being but as a Black person–by whites.
“I would like to ask to do a mike drop,” Goolsby said. “I just had a rabbi quote First Corinthians.”
“Yeah, it’s not going to happen often,” Shapiro said. Besides, Shapiro was making a point about St. Paul’s laments: “I read that and saw that in a way as being opposed by Judaism. Judaism celebrates our differences,” Shapiro said. “And in fact, we regard ourselves as highly argumentative because we all disagree with one another. The old story that two Jews arguing on a street corner represent three opinions. And so we can argue and dispute, and that’s okay. And it’s okay, I think, for the guy in bib overalls to look upon you as a Black person, and for you to look upon them as a redneck or hayseed, or whatever. And that’s fine. We’re different. But we concentrate again on those various small differences and we miss the giant things that unite us, and that make us all the same. And so we all should embrace the fact that everybody has different opinions, different feelings, and different biases. They have that natural human tendency, and then learn how to make use of those different biases and say, aha, now I understand the world is a very diverse and wonderful place. How boring it would be if all of us were all the same.”
Besides faith, “Common Ground” will cover a myriad of subjects, varying from politics to race to entertainment. “What else brings us together?” says Ayres, “it’s entertainment, it’s sports, it’s music, it’s fun things because it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white. If we go to a Gators game and we’re both wearing Gators uniforms and the Gators score a touchdown, you know, we’re high fiving each other and there’s love.”
Ragsdale says the show will ideally be non-political–which may limit the ability to explore that common ground where it’s needed most. “The point of the program is to have an open dialogue with guests, in house guests, to discuss various subjects that include race, it includes where you lived, it’s just sort of an open mic dialogue that we’re going to have,” says Ragsdale. “We just want people to be entertained by it, and absorb it and apply it, you know, to themselves and to do a bias check on yourself.”
Disclosure: Merrill Shapiro chairs the FlaglerLive Board of Directors.