In the summer of 1963, Medgar Evers, director of the Mississippi NAACP, was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Jackson. It was not until 30 years later that Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens Council, was convicted of Evers’ murder.
In the summer of 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were found 44 days later, but it was 40 years before the state of Mississippi brought charges against anyone in the killings, which were dramatized in the movie Mississippi Burning.
The site of some of the nation’s most deeply entrenched racial segregation, despair and violence, Mississippi today is home to a different legacy of the civil rights era: racial reconciliation.
This summer, nine Duke Divinity School students will journey there for a 10-week field education experience. Male and female, married and single, black, white and Asian, some from Mississippi and some who’ve never set foot there, they will serve with churches and communities committed to the ministry of racial reconciliation.
“Because of the violence associated with Mississippi’s civil rights struggle, the spotlight shines brightly there,” says Connie Shelton D’97, who with her husband Joey Shelton D’97 co-directs the office field education and church relations at Duke Divinity School.
Students and where they will serve.
Emily Sanford working with Revels UMC and Trantham of Trinity UMC to create a third church for those on the fringe of society.
Kent Dunington and Lettye Smith, working with Galloway UMC and “Light on a Hill,” a cooperative ministry of Galloway and Voice of Calvary operating in a blighted, inner-city Jackson.
Uiyeon Kim, working with Epworth UMC and Aldersgate UMC to provide ministries to another blighted area of Jackson.
Janet Deranian, working with the Conference Office headquarters compiling narratives of the pain and triumphs of the Civil Rights era and contin-ued efforts toward reconciliation.
Ronya-Lee Anderson, working with the Bethlehem Center and the UM Shalom Center (both serve children with various needs), and several churches.
Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc, working at Alta Woods UMC to aid a homeless community and the inten-tional reconciliation ministries of Alta Woods.
Joey Sherrad, working with Court St. UMC, a church in which people of various races, economic strata, and backgrounds have come together as an inten-tional community.
“This reality has birthed intentionality among Mississippians to confront the sin of racism,” says Connie Shelton, a native of Picayune, Miss., and former executive director and preacher of The United Methodist Hour in Hattiesburg. “Congregations long for transformation. All over the state people are telling their stories of the despair of the ’50s and ’60s.
“Many of our students were born in the early ’80s, hundreds of miles from talk of the civil rights struggle and issues of race,” she said. “Going to Mississippi will afford them an up-close-and-personal experience, which will hopefully lead to conversations about justice, hope and healing.”
For Uiyeon Kim M.Div.’06, a native of Seoul, South Korea, Mississippi is on his path toward a ministry for reconciliation among divided peoples.
“I am very much aware of the tragic history of North and South Korea since 1950,” he says. “I would like to serve in some way the reconciliation between them.”
Kim’s family immigrated to Lubbock, Texas, when he was 10. There he encountered racism against minority populations, even among the minorities themselves.
“So I understood the depth of division in America from a very early age,” he says. “I’d like to learn more about ways that God’s people can bring about a peaceful kingdom.”
Kim and the other students are headed to churches and communities in Greenville, Hattiesburg and Jackson, the state capital.
“Each setting is a place or pocket where churches or faithful folks have begun work in racial reconciliation,” Connie Shelton says.
Married students Maureen Knudsen Langdoc MTS ’06 and Bryan Langdoc MCM ’06 grew up in the Midwest, where their understanding of diversity came from school textbooks. Maureen hails from Minnesota; Bryan is from Illinois.
“It wasn't until college that we began traveling and spending considerable amounts of time living in cultures unlike our own,” says Maureen. With interests in both international and social justice issues, the Langdocs anticipate involvement in “a ministry of reconciliation that will challenge us to confront our own ignorant involvement in the perpetuation of such sins.”
Lettye Smith M.Div. ’06 will work with Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson. Lettye is from South Carolina, but her mother, Elvenia, is originally from Sidon, a small town near Biloxi. Elvenia, now 68, and her family moved from Mississippi to Chicago when she was 11. She has never returned, but will drive with her daughter this summer and may stay to help. “She can help shed light on how things were,” says Lettye.
Emily Sanford M.Div.’07 will be returning home. “As a native Mississippian, I share with many others a sense of pride for the ways that we are overcoming racial and economic disparities and the firm conviction that as the church we should more fully represent the Body of Christ.”
Sanford wants to serve in her home state after graduation. “This summer is an opportunity to embark on what I hope will be a lifetime of ministry.”
Serving as a resource for the Mississippi-bound group is Chris Rice D’04, who spent 17 years in a ministry of reconciliation before coming to seminary at Duke. Rice is the author of two books based on his experiences in the Deep South: More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel (1993) and Grace Matters: A Memoir of Faith, Friendship, and Hope in the Heart of the South (2002). With Duke Divinity Associate Professor of Theology and World Christianity Emmanuel Katongole, Rice is working to establish a center focused on reconciliation at the divinity school.
He describes theological reconciliation as a challenging process.
“It is a long journey, a difficult journey full of pain and full of hope,” says Rice. “It is about common spaces across racial lines where we learn how to pray together, where we read Scripture together, where we tell our stories, where we join in common mission together, and where we’ve had enough time together that we’ve become companions.”
This theological vision of reconciliation still is being realized, Rice adds. “This journey into common life bears witness to the reconciling message of God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.”
Rice says he hopes the students, who will get a sense of the pain of history and the pain of brokenness, “leave energized by signs of hope.”
Claire Cusick is a freelance writer who lives in Durham, N.C.
New Ministries for Racial Reconciliation
Multiple ties bind efforts by Mississippi and Duke Divinity School to create a promising collaboration for ministries of racial reconciliation.
The program’s roots date from 2003, when Bishop Kenneth Carder—now director of the Duke Center for Excellence in Ministry—convened an Urban Task Group for the Mississippi Annual Conference.
At the time, the Rev. Joey Shelton D’97 was pastor of Court Street UMC, a century-old Hattiesburg church that he had helped transform into a racially, socio-economically and theologically diverse congregation. “Bishop Carder asked me to chair the group because of his familiarity with the diversity and intentional efforts of Court Street,” says Shelton.
A year later, in the summer of 2004, Carder was succeeded as bishop of the Mississippi episcopacy by Hope Morgan Ward, a 1978 divinity school alumna. She and Dean L. Gregory Jones quickly recognized an opportunity for further collaboration between the school and the Mississippi Conference.
“Convergences took place as Bishop Ward and the dean and other divinity leaders connected all of the dots,” says Shelton. He and his wife, Connie, also D’97, moved from Mississippi to Durham at the beginning of 2005 to become co-directors of field education and church relations at Duke. The Sheltons, both natives of Mississippi, arranged the summer placements for the students.
Organizers say the effort will benefit the Mississippi Conference and the divinity school, as well as the individual students, who will be known as Warren Pittman Scholars.
Two Pittman Scholars, Lettye Smith and Kent Dunington, will serve this summer at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson with the Rev. Ross Olivier. The former General Secretary of The Methodist Church of Southern Africa and a prominent leader in the struggle against apartheid, Olivier was appointed to Galloway last June by Bishop Carder.
The students will work with the “Light on a Hill,” Galloway’s cooperative project in a blighted area of inner-city Jackson with Voice of Calvary Ministry. (Two other connections: Olivier worked with divinity professor Peter Storey in South Africa; Voice of Calvary is where Chris Rice D’04 spent 17 years working for racial reconciliation.)
Mississippi, says Carder, is a microcosm of the world in terms of racial polarization and economic disparity. “The divinity school can help the church in Mississippi understand and live the Gospel more deeply, and Mississippi can help form students and faculty with experiences of racial reconciliation.”
Bishop Ward looks forward to the divinity students’ gifts of calling, openness, energy and creativity. In Mississippi, she says, they will find people seeking “to walk in the light of Christ.
“We will gather to hear the stories of those who have been hurt by injustice and those who have offered prophetic leadership, those who are encouraged and those who are discouraged,” says Bishop Ward. “We will create ministries that challenge the darkness of racism and offer the light of reconciliation.”
— Claire Cusick