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Episcopal priest and civil rights leader Nelson Pinder dies, leaving profound effect on his church and Orlando

Father Nelson Pinder during an interview several years ago. He has died at age 89. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE News
Reverend Nelson Pinder. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE

Episcopal priest and civil rights leader Nelson Pinder died Sunday at age 89. Father Pinder had a profound effect on his church and the city of Orlando. 

He arrived in Orlando in 1959, an Army vet and Bethune-Cookman grad fresh from a  seminary in Wisconsin.

Pinder asked an airport limo driver for a ride to the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist. But as Pinder said in a 2016 interview with WMFE, the driver turned him away because he was Black.

"So they called a taxi for me," he said. "And I went into the restaurant to get a cup of coffee and they told me, no, I couldn't have a cup of coffee there. And I said I know this was a great opportunity for me for great missionary work, Orlando was."

Over the next six decades, Father Pinder, who was rector at St. John the Baptist and an official -- a canon -- in the Central Florida diocese, fulfilled that mission. He led efforts to end segregation in society and the church, pursue equality and inclusion, and help people on the streets of Orlando.

In the early 1960s, Pinder led high school students in sit-ins at Orlando restaurants and drug stores. He pushed for voting rights, desegregation and equal pay for Black teachers.

"You're going to make change, you've got to make change from the inside, not the outside," he said in the 2016 interview. "So I felt that God has prepared me for this mission. ... So a lot of people looked at me and thought I was crazy. White and Black thought I was crazy. Some of them thought I was going to be run out of town.  Some of them told me you're going to get killed. I said you know I'm not 33 yet. My boss was 33 when he died. I've got a little time yet left. I was 26 when I came here."

He  tried to teach people they could get along without fighting and solve problems once they really listened to each other, Pinder said. "There were many people who were in authority who thought this was not the way to go. The way to go was to beat heads and put this person in their place and that in that place. The only place we have is a place in God's kingdom, and each one of us has to go there without fighting."

Pinder's longtime friend and parishioner Carl MaultsBy says he was a “street priest,” a man of the people.

"The things that Canon Pinder did when I was a teenager he was still doing in the last decade of his life, advocating for the inclusion of Black people in all phases of our society and our church," MaultsBy says.

Bishop Greg Brewer of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida says Pinder was a mentor to many young men -- both Black and white -- who were known as "Pinder's Kids."  Brewer says Pinder's efforts prevented violence in Orlando and that "all he did was build bridges and comfort people."

Pastor Robert Spooney of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Institutional Church says Pinder was an "icon" in the Civil Rights Movement who was always there to help.

"I grew up in Orlando in Washington Shores," Spooney said, "and he would always have his arms around the community helping us get through different situations and circumstances."

Father Charles Myers is the current rector at St. John the Baptist. He says Pinder struck a balance between big-picture issues like equal rights and personal issues like just being present and ministering to people on the street.

Myers adds: "The fact that we as faith leaders who are organizers are able to protest as we are for women's rights and civil rights and gay rights and just rights in general as they are being stripped away is because this man laid the foundation of Orlando so that we can protest and fight for the rights in the 21st century."

Longtime St. John's parishioner Krisita Jackson remembers Pinder as a "loving man."

"Father Pinder had a way of being," she says, "so that all of his congregation felt that he personally cared for them."

"He baptized, married and buried generations of families," Jackson says. "I can hear in my head him saying about people that we lost before him, 'May they rest in peace and rise in glory.' So I know right now he's in glory."

The Rev. Canon Nelson Wardell Pinder is survived by his wife, Marian; son, Nelson; and several grandchildren. A daughter, Gail, died before he did.

Bishop Brewer says funeral services have not been set.

Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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