ST. PETERSBURG — If there’s a progressive cause to champion, the Rev. Andy Oliver and the thriving congregation he leads will back it.
The advocacy of Allendale United Methodist Church and its pastor is on display on an ever-changing, traffic-stopping sign. Like the one two Christmases ago: “We can’t worship the child in the manger, while turning our backs on the child at the border.”
There’s the parade of flags in the courtyard — representing Pride, Black Lives Matter, interfaith unity and bisexual, transgender and nonbinary persons.
“When people visit, they see the flags even before they get here and they know they will be welcome,” Oliver said last Saturday during an interview at his 38th Avenue N and Haines Road church.
He’d just returned from a flag raising ceremony at St. Petersburg City Hall to mark the start of Black History Month. It was the type of event at which Oliver, 40, often appears.
Two years ago, clad in clerical vestments, he prayed in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Tampa with Luis Blanco, a father of six whose wife was expecting their seventh child, before a hearing. Allendale United Methodist had offered Blanco sanctuary, but he was detained at the hearing and deported to Mexico.
Oliver has addressed a large gathering at his church to protest conditions faced by migrants. He has joined protesters in Tallahassee to support Parkland High School shooting victims and demand gun control laws. More recently, he was summoned before his bishop on a complaint for performing a same-sex marriage. Last week, he flouted Florida State House guidelines when he offered a scolding invocation.
Oliver’s advocacy began years before he was appointed to Allendale, a church in decline when he arrived in 2016. His father, the Rev. Mike Oliver, served at Seminole United Methodist Church and Sylvan Abbey United Methodist Church in Clearwater.
Oliver, who was born in St. Petersburg, said his parents brought him up to love all people. "It was really my grandmother that put the spark of social justice into my conscience.”
June Adams, his maternal grandmother, was a teacher in North Florida during the Jim Crow era when her principal ordered her to stop commuting with another teacher, who was black. The next day, she showed up with a box to pack up her belongings and quit, Oliver said.
He graduated from the University of Florida and went on to Duke University Divinity School. His first ministerial posts were in Fort Lauderdale and Lakeland. But things weren’t going as planned.
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“I kind of had a crisis of my calling. I felt like I was trying to serve both the institution of the church and be in solidarity with marginalized people. And the two things don’t always go well together,” he said, adding that he was averse to playing it safe and having to censor his words. “I felt that I was selling out. That led to two stress-related heart attacks.” He was 30 years old.
He became a bartender. “Being a bartender is a lot like being a pastor,” Oliver said, speaking in Allendale’s sanctuary, where a play mat and a basket of blocks took up space once occupied by two pews, and a couple of rocking chairs in the back awaited nursing mothers.
While bartending he met a community organizer — an undocumented immigrant who identified as queer — and set off on his current course.
“I had started doing some blogging. He said he was going to make an organizer of me. We protested Republican nominee (Mitt) Romney. I accompanied gay couples to Tampa City Hall to request marriage licenses," he said of the efforts predating the legalization of gay marriage. “This was pastoral work that was giving me life.”
In 2012, he took a job in Chicago as communications director for the Reconciling Ministries Network, United Methodists organized for full inclusion of the LGBT community. Four years later, Bishop Ken Carter, head of the Florida United Methodist Conference, appointed him to Allendale.
“My first year and every year since, we’ve experienced growth,” Oliver said of the congregation that had been dwindling since the 1970s. “To turn around almost 50 years of decline is not something mainline churches are experiencing.”
The path to revival was radical. “The church had nothing to lose. We embraced the urgency. I practiced ministry without fear," he said. “The only thing I knew was I was committed to doing what is right.”
About a dozen members left. Suzy Hutto and her husband, Jack, who have been at the church for 40 years, were among those who remained.
“Personally, I think one of the wonderful outcomes of Pastor Andy’s ministry at Allendale is he makes our faith relevant to the younger people. And to older people also," Hutto said. "But particularly, we see a lot of young people joining our church. A lot of younger people are coming because they want to be a part of a peace and justice ministry.”
Oliver told the story of Jeff Ishman, who had been a member of Allendale for decades. “He shared his testimony about what it was like to be in the closet for 40 years. At the time he was 60. ... There was not a dry eye in the church. We listened to Jeff and someone spontaneously got up and embraced him. For everyone in the church, this was about our friend, Jeff.”
The congregation unanimously approved a new welcome statement. It reads in part, “Whatever your race, ethnicity, economic situation, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, background or belief, age or condition of ableness, whether single or partnered, you are God’s beloved and are welcome here.“
Oliver has two sons, Liam, 11, and Evan, 8, with his former wife, the Rev. Emily Hotho, pastor of Skycrest United Methodist Church in Clearwater. He has remarried. His wife, Rachel Oliver, is a lawyer with the Diamond Law firm, founded by Sandra Diamond and her son, Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond.
The two met on a dating site and married less than a year later. They’ve been married for three years. “People talk about finding someone that complements you. He brings out the best in me like the people he serves in the community,” Rachel Oliver says. “I really admired that he’s always willing and wants to do the right thing, even if there are personal consequences to him."
Oliver and his ex-wife, who is also remarried, share custody of their sons. Liam and Evan get to choose their causes. “Both of them have their own voice. Liam cares a lot about refugees,” Oliver said, explaining that one of his son’s classmates was a refugee from Syria. “Evan really, really cares about the environment, especially about frogs.”
“They really are the center of my life. If the only thing I do is help shape and form two incredible humans that care about the world, then I’ve done good work.”