Chance to engage

Mississippi Episcopalians willing to discuss the tough questions
February 3, 2009

I want to share with you some of the challenges and joys I experienced in a recent visit to the Diocese of Mississippi. Mississippi's Gulf Coast still is recovering from the massive storms of August 2005. Churches are beginning to rebuild, but housing still lags far behind the need. Episcopal Relief and Development has been assisting in the efforts, which have been led by Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi. That joint work stands as a witness to what is possible when we work together with partners.

Mississippi routinely ranks at the bottom of most measures of social well-being in the United States -- poorest, highest child death rates, least formal education, most children living in poverty and so on. The west-central part of the state adjoining the Mississippi River, called the Delta, has even worse statistics. We toured the Delta and saw signs of poverty -- decrepit housing, working age men idle at midday and very little evidence of social services, job possibilities or reasons to move or stay there.

The Delta has some of the richest farmland in the country and a distinguished and complex history of vibrant communities and cultural vitality, as well as segregation and racial violence. There was once significant wealth and employment here, but the mechanization of farm production has meant the continued loss of jobs. We found several hopeful signs as we visited the town of Greenwood. It once had three synagogues, and it still has a vigorous Episcopal church. A good part of the town clearly is decayed, but the central downtown is experiencing a renaissance, in large part due to the efforts of Episcopalians.

It is the home of Viking Range Corp., begun by Fred Carl, an Episcopalian who chose to site his business in his native community. Thanks to Viking, employment is increasing (1,500 people out of an area population of 20,000), some destination tourism has begun, there are increased educational opportunities (a small independent middle and high school, as well as a cooking school), and the community as a whole is reviving as businesses once again open in the downtown. The vision of a small group of people is producing transformation and bringing resurrection.

I was privileged to be part of some provocative conversations about the educational challenges in Mississippi, which has about half a million children of school age. Ninety percent attend public schools with the remainder divided between private schools and home schooling. While Jackson's population is 46 percent African-American, the schools are effectively segregated once again, with public schools there more than 98 percent black.

We met for one discussion at an elementary school in Jackson that is a participant in a powerfully effective reading program. Jim Barksdale, the inventor of Netscape and an Episcopalian, endowed a program at the University of Mississippi to improve reading in the public schools. The program provides coaches for teachers as well as an effective curriculum. We witnessed a demonstration by four kindergartners, who are reading quite competently less than halfway through their first school year. That's an achievement seldom met in wealthier public schools elsewhere.

The discussion that followed had to do with both the racial imbalances and the need for more effective public investment in education. All of the participants in this discussion were Episcopalians, working in various creative and prophetic ways to raise consciousness, challenge politicians and mobilize voters. The most challenging question had to do with the role of the church in education, especially as a provider of "elite" education. How does the great work of Episcopal schools affect poorer public schools, and where does justice call us as a church to work together to reduce the inequities and produce an equitable education for all students?

I came away from this visit with a deepened understanding of the systemic nature of poverty in this part of the world and profoundly encouraged by Mississippi Episcopalians' ability and willingness to have exceedingly challenging conversations about the continuing legacy of racism. The last is a gift they can offer to the whole church.

I was further impressed by the commitment of the respective bishops of the Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Mississippi to call the people of that state to action on issues affecting children. What a powerful witness -- another reminder that when the needs of others are our focus, we can enthusiastically work together with those who differ from us.

Our nation stands at the beginning of a deeply hope-filled season. It is a profound opportunity for us as a church to engage our racist history, to repent of it and to work to amend our common life. Amendment of life means transforming that legacy into a community of hope, equality and justice for all. Our nation's founders called it "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We call it the reign of God.