The Great Divide

Recently, 11 of us New Wine interns and students at both the college and seminary at Multnomah made a week long trip down to Jackson, Mississippi to work with the John M. Perkins Foundation and learn from those who have both lived through the Civil Rights movement and who are now key players in community development and reconciliation. The core of racism runs deep, and it wasn’t until I was in Jackson, hearing these people’s stories of discrimination and oppression that I began to understand what they not only wrestle with on a daily basis but also the challenges we all face today in addressing this race and class oppression.

After reading Dr. Perkins’ book Let Justice Roll Down, meeting with him personally in Jackson, and hearing his daughter among others speak about her experiences with racism, I was overwhelmed. It’s amazing how much more powerful a story it is when one hears it firsthand–when one hears their voices fluctuate and their muscles tighten and their body language transform. It was heavy hearing it, and it certainly was heavy for them to share. I felt a mix of guilt for feeling so detached and disconnected from these real issues, helplessness for really not even knowing where to start, and conviction–oppression and poverty in many ways demand redemptive action from us all.

One night it hit me in a personal way. About the 3rd night in Jackson, we had just finished watching Mississippi Burning, the true story about the disappearance of civil rights workers in the ’60s. My heart was heavy and I was overwhelmed as I laid down on my bottom bunk and stared up at the old wooden beams, feeling completely spent. These people here with the faces, the stories, the pains, the memories, the reality, are still affected by and still facing much of the same evil I had just witnessed in that movie. You may be thinking, “They need to get over it.” But how can they get over it, when it is still happening to them?

I should call my parents, I thought. Fill them in, share with them what I’m learning and the heaviness of this deep issue–the segregation and bigotry that is still a challenge to overcome in 2008. So I called. They eagerly put me on speaker phone, and started buzzing me with questions. But their interest seemed to quickly wane. I was so weary from the processing, from the stories of individuals who experienced the Civil Rights movement, and from my own experience with us coming from Portland trying to “help,” that I didn’t even know how to articulate what I wanted to say. “Racism is deep. Black people are still being oppressed. The education here is lacking. Jobs are scant. Opportunities are rare. It is no mystery why the poor areas are also the black areas. This isn’t right. And it’s amazing what the Perkins Foundation has committed to do.” I wanted to say something to that affect. But instead I sounded like a drone, and I felt so disconnected. I could tell they didn’t really want to hear it. At least not right at that moment.

“So, what do you mean by racism?” I am asked. “Are you calling it racism just because there are a lot of black people–and no whites–in the poor community?” Innocent questions–but still frustrating–after I have been speaking with individuals for whom racism is more a part of their lives than anything. This is the painful reality: to the majority of us white folk, we don’t even “get” racism. What does it look like now? Does it even have a face anymore?

Going to Mississippi, racism and the related issues became real to me. Yes, there was desegregation back in the 60’s. But today, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. It’s also about 80% black. There is need for change there. It’s not a quick fix. There is literally a black and white divide across the railroad tracks in Jackson. They are still deeply separated. What struck me most is that reconciliation and development for blacks takes intention and resources. Without the conviction that yes, there is something to be done, nothing will happen. As Bob Lupton, an Atlanta community developer, says in an article by Michael Barkey on Dr. John M. Perkins, “It’s not hard to create a ghetto. Just remove the capable neighbors. To produce a substandard school system, withdraw the students of achieving parents. To create a culture of chronically dependent people, merely extract the upwardly mobile role models from the community. That’s what happened to thousands of communities across the United States.” And this is exactly what I witnessed in Jackson. But the invigorating reality is that change is possible; it just takes awareness and solidarity among various groups. This need is not confined to Jackson; the need can be found even in Portland, OR, the whitest major city in America. Whether it knows it or not, Portland is begging for reconciliation and opportunity for all individuals, not simply for the privileged and white. As followers of a liberating Christ, I believe it is our call to respond to these challenges. I welcome your thoughts.

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