Mississippi Leading the Nation

How often have you seen a title like this? As residents of Mississippi, we are all aware of the outside perception of our state. Some choose to perpetuate a singular sound bite of Mississippi with the refrain going something like “they are the last in….” fill in the blank.

It is a perception proliferated by the national media that, as the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie would say, has become Mississippi’s “single story.”

Adichie reminds us that the single story is very dangerous because if you continue to tell this story about a people or a place over and over then that narrative will define public opinion.

Worse, the people from that place will begin to believe the story as well.  Instead of choosing to highlight positive steps forward there seems to be an overwhelming desire to paint a particularly negative picture of Mississippi as the AP is eager to post articles on our continued struggles with regard to K-12 educational achievement, childhood obesity, teenage pregnancy, and ongoing racism.

While there are ongoing struggles in our state (ones I hope that you will graduate from MC to go out and face head on), they are not our full story. In reality, there is work, discussion and very important dialogue going on in our state that is not happening elsewhere. This innovative work makes Mississippi a national leader.

I chose to live in Mississippi and I want to raise my children here for this reason: I believe there is ground-breaking work happening in Mississippi regarding racial healing through dialogue, programs and through intentional and sustained attempts at cultivating multiethnic fellowship unlike any other place in the United States.

Racism is not an issue confined to Mississippi. It is a national problem that the entire country is working through. However, after centuries of racism, Mississippi is leading the discussion on racial reconciliation, multiethnic fellowship and healing.

Mississippians, the first thing we need to do is recognize that our history is one of great pain with regards to race. We need to know it and walk through it together in an open, honest fashion and embrace it.

We need to recognize that the reason we are now leading the discussion is because of our rootedness in a history filled with centuries of racism that still manifests itself in a multitude of ways.

However, we also need to know that there are stories of peace and multiethnic harmony that we can claim, emulate, celebrate, adopt, be proud of and that can serve as touchstones leading us forward.

In 2012, I had the great pleasure of attending the Reconciliation Institute entitled “The Ministry of Reconciliation in a Divided World” at Duke Divinity School. The man who started this institute, Chris Rice, learned about the process of healing and reconciliation from living in Mississippi and working with John Perkins, and his son Spencer, in an intentionally multiethnic religious community in the 1970s called Voice of Calvary.

Indeed, Mississippi was his laboratory for learning about reconciliation and shaped his thinking in founding a center for reconciliation at one of the most prominent divinity schools in the country. At this summer institute, people from all over the world come to pursue a season of healing together.

There was much prayer, collective cries of lament, dialogue of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. There were South Koreans who were reconciling with Japanese peoples; South African peoples, both white and black, entering into a dialogue of reconciliation, and even individuals from north and south Sudan sitting with one another in prayer.

Among the Americans, it was the Mississippians who were leading the dialogue. Men like John Perkins, Neddie Winters and Chris Rice were leading and teaching individuals from California, Michigan, Arizona and New York.

These individuals were dealing with racial strife in their own communities and were learning from Mississippians about how to begin processes of healing. For them, there were no spaces in their communities where sustained attempts at racial reconciliation were ongoing.

The exciting thing is that you just so happen to live at the very crossroads of this conversation. Around you are many efforts to work towards racial healing and I encourage all of you to get involved in the conversation and to listen.

To quote Chris Rice, “there are many prophetic speakers in our culture and too few prophetic listeners.” You, MC student, happen to attend one of the most intentionally multiethnic and international student bodies in the state of Mississippi.  You live in a town with a diverse ethnic makeup. You also live near the national hub of the reconciliation conversation: Jackson, MS.

I have always believed that God has in you a place for a purpose. It might just be that He wants to use you, wherever you go, to be a healer, peacemaker and to lead your communities in this regard.

Some of the men and women around you in Mississippi such as John Perkins, Dolphus Weary, Neddie Winters, William Winter, Susan Glisson, Mike Campbell, Lee Paris, Eric Stringfellow, C.J. Rhodes, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and countless others have lead the nation in this discussion.

We have the benefit of listening to them and learning from them right here in our own back yard. We don’t have to go to a conference at Duke to hear them talk about it, we can watch them live it.

 

Here are a few ways you can get involved: Mississippians are not only on the forefront of this work, but are also the most experienced with it. Mission Mississippi, whose motto “Changing Mississippi….One Relationship at a Time,” is the oldest sustained organization working for racial reconciliation in the country.

It started here in Jackson twenty years ago and is continuing great opportunities for dialogue and multiethnic healing work into the twenty-first century.

You might consider visiting their website at www.missionmississippi.com, participating in one of the many events they have going on throughout the year or reading Peter Slade’s Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship.

In the 1990s, President Clinton chose several Mississippians to serve on a Race Commission to examine racial tension and ongoing racism in the United States. Former Mississippi Governor William Winter was on this commission and one of the legacies of his service is the William Winter Center for Racial Reconciliation.

Susan Glisson, the director of the institute was just named a new hero of the ongoing Civil Rights movement, and she and her staff have done incredible work in bringing together people throughout the state of Mississippi to address issues of poverty, education, racial tension and ending discrimination based on difference.

You can visit the William Winter Institute at www.winterinstitute.org

You happen to attend a school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which also possesses a history of reconciliation efforts that you can claim.

Historian Paul Harvey wrote a fabulous book called Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925. In it, Harvey attempts to understand how, in the postwar period, African American and white Baptist traditions separated, but also how they reached out to one another in ecclesiastical fellowship through the tumultuous Jim Crow era.

Further, the work of Charles Marsh, especially The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today and his co-authored book with John Perkins entitled Welcoming Justice chronicles the efforts of Baptist ministers and laymen who reached out in faith to fellow white and African American brothers and sisters in a time when it was very dangerous to do so.

Also, the Southern Baptist Convention recently re-elected Rev. Fred Luter, Jr., the first African American to serve as President of the Convention. Since he has taken office, the SBC has increased commitments to already ongoing funding for African American scholarships at SBC schools and seminaries to promote multiethnic fellowship in the SBC.

Locally, Mt. Helm Baptist Church has hosted conferences continuing dialogue on this issue. Just last spring, nationally renowned theologian and writer Dr. Anthony Bradley spoke at Mt. Helm about multiethnic fellowship work in Jackson.

At this event, local pastors Ligon Duncan (First Presbyterian) and C.J. Rhodes (Mt. Helm Baptist) sat down for a wonderful conversation on the topic of multiethnic fellowship, which displayed unity as well as ongoing healing between predominantly white and African American churches in Jackson. You can visit these websites to learn more:

http://www.sbc.net

http://www.namb.net/nambblog1.aspx?id=8590117418&blogid=8589939695

http://bradleyrhodesconversation.com

There are several churches here in Jackson, which are intentionally committed to the work of building a multiethnic congregation. Redeemer Jackson is one such church. This church has a vision to be an intentionally multiethnic congregation in Mississippi and is rooted in a long history of multiethnic mission churches across the southern landscape.

Incredible work is being done there to highlight how the gospel can bring healing into a place with historic ethnic division. Redeemer also supports the work of the Reformed African American Network and the African American Leadership Institute at RTS Seminary, which are similar efforts among Presbyterians in Mississippi to promote multi-ethnic churches and fellowship. You can visit all of their websites here:

www.redeemerjackson.com

http://www.rts.edu/site/rtsnearyou/jackson/aali.aspx

http://www.raanetwork.org

Although I am less familiar with the Methodist and Episcopalian traditions, both denominations are working to lead discussions toward racial healing. Duke Divinity supports the Methodist denomination and houses the Center for Reconciliation. You can visit their website here:

http://divinity.duke.edu/initiatives-centers/center-reconciliation

On November 15, St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Jackson will be hosting a conference entitled The State of Racism: Fifty Years Later.  Many of the speakers come from organizations I have mentioned earlier and it will be a great time to learn about the history of racial tension in Mississippi and what reconciliation work is doing to address it. Here is a link to information about that conference. Please consider going. http://publicaffairs.createsend1.com/t/ViewEmail/r/D5F56291430E6D042540EF23F30FEDED/088B4B2C3299CBB2FE6194DE962A274B

Finally, my office is completely open to any student interested in this discussion. I also teach a class on the history of southern religion where we address this topic in greater depth. If you are interested then I would love to meet you.

I am in Jennings 201, my email is owpickett@mc.edu and you can follow me on Twitter @OtisWPickett. This is one of the main reasons why I came to Jackson.

Come by, visit and we can talk and listen to each other about these topics and figure out what we can both do to continue this great work. I could also provide you with a great list of books, resources or opportunities are a part of this work.

One day when you graduate, leave MC, and have a job, maybe even in another state, you will probably come face to face with the single story about Mississippi. People you meet will have certain perceptions and you might begin to feel defensive about the place you spent your formative years.

Instead of being defensive, show them what a Mississippian really is. Begin to change the perception, as our friends at Mission Mississippi would say, one conversation and “one relationship at a time.” Work to lead a dialogue of racial reconciliation and fellowship in your own communities now and into the future.

Mississippians are needed around the nation to lead the rest of the country in this unknown terrain. May we work more and more to reflect in our own communities what the apostle John described in Revelation 7:9 where “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.”

– Dr. Otis W. Pickett, Assistant Professor of History

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