It’s hard to imagine Mission Mississippi is 25 years old. It seems like yesterday it was just a dream in the eye of my dear friend Lee Paris.
Sitting in the audience of more than 500 people at the Jackson convention center, listening to black and white men and women pray together about love and racial reconciliation, it’s easy to feel optimistic about the long-range future of Mississippi.
This was the annual Governor’s Leadership Prayer Luncheon. I have been to many of these. Each time I wonder why such an uplifting event gets completely ignored by the media while racial discord, murders and mayhem get front-page coverage and top billing. I guess that’s just the way it is.
Mission Mississippi has made a huge impact on our state, encouraging racial reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ. “Grace is stronger than race” is one of their mottos. It’s a good summary of what Mission Mississippi is all about.
Throughout the state, Mission Mississippi has brought black and white churches together, breaking down racial barriers that have been an embarrassment to the teachings of Christ.
It’s hard to quantify the change in a person’s heart, but I know this: Today at my church, Covenant Presbyterian, in the heart of an affluent area of Jackson, we would not only think nothing of a black stranger walking through our doors and taking a seat in a pew, but we would be eagerly recruiting a potential new member after the conclusion of the service.
Racism is completely antithetical to the Holy Spirit. The message of the Gospel is for all the world, not just the “chosen people.” We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you ever want to witness the power of the Holy Spirit, attend a Mission Mississippi function. You will see it annihilating racism like a bushhog cuts down Johnson grass.
Gov. Phil Bryant made the introductory address. To his credit, Gov. Bryant has not let his secular office impede his faith. In fact, many of his speeches sound like sermons. He is a believer and makes no bones about it. His deep religious convictions have kept racism away from his high office, and he should be commended for that.
“When I go to Washington D.C., I get a chance to talk about racial reconciliation in our state. Those that know Mississippi know we have done remarkable things over the last decade. They begin to see what Mississippi can do.
“I always believe that once we got that problem solved, once we stopped being mad at each other, remarkable things were going to happen in this state. And they have, and they are. Mission Mississippi is bigger than you think. You are more important than I can describe. Lives have been changed. Marriages have been saved. People have been kept out of jail. You have impacted their lives to the extent that they are trying to live Christlike lives.”
Following Bryant’s remarks, there was a panel of four people who were key to the founding of Mission Mississippi: Lee Paris, the founder and chairman of the board for over a decade; Dolphus Weary, its first executive director; and early-on board members Jarvis Ward and Dan Hall. They talked about the early days and gave a historical retrospective of the mission.
Lee Paris spoke first, recalling the many people who laid the groundwork. Starting off, there was a revival in Memorial Stadium where hundreds attended. “We were going to knock out all the problems of racism in one great weekend,” he said. “And we did have a great weekend, but we did not solve all the problems that were 300 years in the making. But we got started. Out of that there were men and women who agreed to give up their next 20 or 25 years. I see so many around the room.
“I remember praying at the police station on West Capital Street with an older lady, Miss Cain. She said she had been praying for an organization to come together to provide leadership to bring together the church in Mississippi for 25 years. Tears came to my eyes when she said that. I thought, ‘This is the beginning of Mission Mississippi.’ Not a great meeting we had or a great weekend at Memorial Stadium. It was the prayers of the saints, not those in the headlines, who started Mission Mississippi.”
Dolphus Weary told a story about his first statewide Mission Mississippi tour of Mississippi. He was going to call it “Race Doesn’t Matter in the Body of Christ Tour.”
“My white friends said, ‘Wow. Great idea. Let’s do it,’” Weary said. “Then I went to my black friends. They looked at me and said, ‘Dolphus, you’re dreaming. Because race does matter in the Body of Christ.’ Then I had to go back into the prayer closet. Because that one was shot down. So God took my spirit and said, ‘You need to do a tour of the state called ‘Grace is Greater than Race.’”
“The thing we are trying to cross over is hard,” Weary added. “It’s hard to cross over history, culture and the way we’ve always done it. It’s going to take some grace. And that’s when we took the message throughout Mississippi,” Weary told the crowd.
Panelist Dan Hall told this story: “I was having lunch with Tom Skinner, and one day he said to me, ‘Dan, if you lived your whole life and never met a black man, how would that affect you?’ I said, ‘If I’m honest, it doesn’t affect me at all.’ He said, ‘Exactly. But every morning I wake up, I have to know how you think in order to make it in this society.’”
“Most of us in this room have a heart for reconciliation,” Hall said. “But we don’t always know where to go or what it looks like.”
Maybe so. But as for me, it looks a lot like Mission Mississippi.
Wyatt Emmerich is president of Emmerich Newspapers, Inc. in Jackson.