Retired nurse and pastor Willie Bell Coleman-Smith brought down the house Monday night at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner.
The charismatic reverend spoke about King’s legacy and the modern civil rights movement he helped ignite to a packed banquet hall at the Kissimmee Civic Center.
Known to be as kind as she is pious, Coleman-Smith gave the keynote address at the venerable event that’s been hosted by Osceola Visionaries for more than 30 years.
“Things will get better. But we can’t be appeased by praying that someone else will do the work, that someone else will make things better,” Coleman-Smith said. “Why wait for someone else? Why not you? Ask yourself ‘What can I do to make the world better?’”
Systemic failures in criminal justice, healthcare and education can be fixed when we are “engaged and informed,” she said. “When we take pride in our children’s education, not just the paper diploma they bring home.”
The Columbia, Ala., native was attending college when she moved to Winter Garden in the early 1960s to help her terminally ill uncle. That’s when she went into the caring profession, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Florida Southern College while working full-time and raising a family.
Coleman-Smith said she was called to serve God in the early 1980s and began studying theology. She was ordained first as an itinerant elder in 1993 and later as a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, often abbreviated A.M.E. Church.
She retired from pastoral work in 2017 after leading Bethel A.M.E. Church in Kissimmee for 12 years. Coleman-Smith retired from nursing a decade before that.
“There’s trauma all around us that exposes the worst in humanity but we must carry on with hope,” she said. “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.”
Where, when and how to carry out acts of service and kindness don’t have to be complicated, she said.
The audience celebrated and revered her plain-spoken wisdom and humor with echoes of praise and laughter heard around the room throughout her speech.
“Preach Willie-Bell!” one man shouted.
“Use your gifts, whatever they are. Volunteer, connect volunteers with people in need, for God’s sake advocate for the less fortunate. Just because someone is struggling doesn’t mean they’re failing,” she said. “Bottom line: Do something.”
Kissimmee Assistant City Manager Desiree Mathews emceed the event and presented three local residents with achievement awards on behalf of Osceola Visionaries including Jackie Murray, a community organizer and founder/owner of Back on Track Employment Services, Chundra Lanise Evens, principal of the Osceola County School for the Arts and Rev. Barrington E. Brown, a Poinciana pastor, businessman and community organizer.
The MLK holiday was first observed by the federal government in 1986. It falls on the third Monday of January just after King’s Jan. 15 birthday. The American pastor and civil rights activist is known for his non-violent tactics and his moving orations. King inspired a generation who carried on his message after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968. He remains an influential figure in modern American history and politics.
“Your presence has given us the strength, courage and determination to ‘keep the dream alive,’” the Osceola Visionaries board wrote in a thank-you addressed to attendees in the program book.
“We’ve come a long way, yet there is room for more love and understanding. Try giving encouraging words, even when it seems that is not the answer. You will feel better knowing you’ve given your all.”