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Thursday, 8 May 2008

Mississippi

One summer holiday while I was a student I spent a month in Mississippi. It was part of a church youth exchange and afterwards we had to write a report about our experience. I thought it would be fun to share it:

The Diocesan Youth Exchange between the Diocese of **** and the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi was organised by T. The reason for the project is that there are very few young adults involved in church life and this is on opportunity to encourage them to stay involved with the church. Some of the aims of the project were: "To develop the ability to reflect systematically upon another cultural context" and "To explore particularly the interplay of understanding, tolerance and respect in a community's sociopolitical development". We also wanted to look at what sort of provision for youth and young people there was within the church in Mississippi.

The first thing that hit us when we got off the plane was the heat. We arrived in Mississippi during a heat wave and throughout most of the trip we experienced temperatures in the nineties/hundreds with the high humidity making it feel hotter. Mississippi is in what is known as the "Deep South" of the United States of America and is one of the poorest states having never fully recovered from the collapse of slavery at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It is a very rural state with the main crops being cotton, rice, soya beans and corn (sweetcorn). Apart from about half a dozen urban areas, most of the major towns are a similar size to **** or smaller. With a population of 2.6 million in an area similar to England, it is a much more sparsely populated area and because of this everything is much larger and more spread out making it virtually impossible to go anywhere without a car.

The month long visit was divided into three parts. The first week was a whirlwind tour of Mississippi which also included an overnight visit to New Orleans in Louisiana. This enabled us to get a good overview of Mississippi and its history and also compare it with a neighbouring state.

The second part consisted of two one week individual placements at different churches throughout the state. My first week was with St Peter's by the Lake, Brandon which was near Jackson and I stayed with a family living in Canton (where "My Dog Skip" was filmed). The second week I was at Epiphany Church, Tunica which is very close to Memphis. (By American standards that is: It was a thirty minute drive away!) Tunica County used to be the poorest county in the United States. Since the introduction of casinos this has changed dramatically (and controversially) with for example an 80% reduction in unemployment from 1992 to 1998.

The final week was spent in Jackson working at a variety of different ministries. Over the weekend three members of the group went on Cursillo whilst the rest of us took part in a Vocare weekend. The Vocare movement is for 18 to 30 year olds and deals with issues such as vocational discernment. It is run by young people who have been on the weekends in the past.

When we arrived in Mississippi the people were very welcoming. We were met by JG, W and J who drove us back to the lodge where we met some more people and were given dinner. They were all really friendly and we thought it was strange that they were giving us hugs when we had only just met them. We soon learnt that in Mississippi they use hugs in a similar way that we would use a handshake.

The next morning we went to Saint Andrew's Cathedral in Jackson where we met the two Bishops. One is the presiding bishop and the other is bishop coadjudicator until the current one dies/retires/resigns when he will become the new presiding bishop. We were given a guided tour of the Cathedral which was originally just a church and has many 'English' characteristics such as stained glass windows depicting many key biblical scenes.

For lunch we had 'soul food' (which is "home cooked style food in the African American tradition") at Peaches on Fair Street. This is 'downtown' which is the 'black' area of town. Not very many whites go down there (we didn't see any other white people while we there) and apparently until very recently if someone said they had been down Fair Street you would say something like, "Glad you made it through" or, "What did you lose?" due to the high crime rate in the area. There were lots of 'shotgun shacks' around there which are wooden houses with three or four rooms where you have to walk through each room to get to the next one. It was a complete contrast with the large houses we had seen earlier and we were told that all the people living in them would be black. In the afternoon we went to two museums which helped to give us an overview of the history of Mississippi.

When we returned to the lodge, we were given a talk on race relations by EW. She said that growing up in Mississippi it is very difficult for a person not to be racist. She said that if she was walking down the street at night, she would be more scared if she saw a black man than if she saw a white man even though she doesn't want to be like that. I think that a lot of white people misinterpret the fact that most criminals are black and consciously or subconsciously draw the conclusion that most blacks must be criminals or that they are criminals because they are black rather than because of other effects (such as poverty, lack of education etc.). E told us that her parents were "liberal" and had sent her to a state school and allowed her to have friends of any colour. Even so, when she was in third grade (equivalent of second year junior) and a black boy cycled round to her house to play, her mother said that he should not come round again. This was not because she didn't want him there but because she feared for his safety: If a black boy was seen riding a bike in a 'white' area, people would assume he had stolen it. This means that although there is no longer legal segregation, there is still very much social segregation. In retrospect, excluding the people we met at the various ministries or whom we met specifically to talk about the issue of race, we met no black people. This is because the Episcopal Church is predominantly white and most white people do not seem to have any black friends.

On Friday morning we set off to Vicksburg where we were given a tour of the civil war battlefield park. Everything was extremely well recorded. There were red/blue markers to mark the lines of the confederate/union troops and there were stone markers for many of the battalions where they had been stationed. In addition to this, each state is allowed to have a large memorial. Most of the memorials were from the North and the civil war seems to be very important to the people in the United States. Later on we went to Christ Church and we also visited an Episcopal Church just down the road which was set up to be an 'African-American' church and still has a predominantly black congregation today.

That night we were divided up to stay at different peoples houses and were well looked after. Some of us returned with plenty of food for the journey. It would have been virtually impossible to starve whilst we were staying in Mississippi. We quickly discovered that Southern Hospitality is not renowned for nothing!

On Saturday we drove up through the Delta to Moon Lake stopping off at TCBY, Walmart, a Mall, the Delta Blues Museum and Coahoma. Walmart was very different to what I had expected. I expected it to be similar to the Hypermarket I had been to in France but it was nothing like it. The aisles were very high and quite narrow. It was difficult to find anything as there were lots of disjoint sections and there were no signs. In the Mall we saw a shop called "The Athlete's Foot" which we found quite amusing.

Coahoma is a very small mainly black town which Habitat for Humanity has helped to transform. Habitat for Humanity works to help people to own their own homes. They only build houses for people who are in inadequate housing for their needs but have a job. The houses are built mainly by volunteers and the homeowners also have to put in around 500 hours of 'sweat equity' into their house or other peoples. They then pay back the cost of the house through an interest free loan. The project is not just about building houses but is also about building communities and getting rid of crime so that people can have pride in their neighbourhood rather than living in fear. Coahoma is particularly interesting because Habitat started there as an experiment to see whether such a project could be sustained by such a small population. It had previously been thought that you needed an area to have a certain population before it could sustain development of Habitat but the project in Coahoma has been an incredible success.

The next morning we went to the Church of the Advent before visiting Mississippi State Penitentiary. From the outside the church looked like a shack and we thought that it would have no air conditioning but when we got inside, we found that it was quite modern and it was just panelling on the outside. The sermon was about open and tight fistedness and the fact that if you do not have your hands open to give then you will not be able to receive either.

Mississippi State Penitentiary is 14 square miles big and houses between five and six thousand prisoners at any one time. We were given a tour by LH who spoke to us about the death penalty. He had witnessed the first execution after it was reintroduced and he said that just before it happened he got this terrible feeling that it was wrong. He said that they had a priest there so that after the gas chamber had been cleared of gas, he could go in and administer the last rites. After witnessing an execution, he said that he could not condone capital punishment and that it was murder by the state.

We then drove all the way back to Jackson and arrived just in time for an Independence Day celebration at St James' Church. The service was quite good but there was one bit where they played the anthems of the different military services and veterans from those services stood up when there anthem was played and everyone clapped. I did not really like it as it was glorifying war and I do not believe that war is right. Apart from that I enjoyed the evening.

On Monday morning we set off to New Orleans. The roads in Louisiana were in much worse condition than the ones in Mississippi and we were told that it is because when the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, federal money for roads was withheld until the states complied and Louisiana did not comply for a long time. Even now it is not very strictly enforced.

We stayed in the French Quarter of New Orleans where the style of the buildings was very different. It did not feel like we were in the United States. There also seemed to be a lot more different coloured people in the streets going about doing ordinary things whereas in Mississippi there seemed to be 'white' and 'black' areas. We did not have any specific organised tours in New Orleans and it was nice to be able to just wander round looking at things at our own speed. We went to the Cathedral and we wandered round the streets and shops. It was like no place I have ever been to. There were loads of voodoo shops and there were people on the streets doing tarot and crystal ball readings and voodoo and weird stuff like that.

On Tuesday we travelled to Trinity Church in Yazoo City where we were picked up by the various people we were staying with and then taken to farm/plantation where they were having a picnic and fireworks display for the fourth of July. The firework display was really good especially considering it was a private one. The next day we were given a short tour of Trinity Church and Yazoo City and then after lunch we were collected by our hosts for the first week.

During my week at St Peter's by the Lake, I took part in/visited a number of different ministries and other activities. These included Stewpot (which provides a day centre for 'senior citizens', the mentally handicapped, and children; a food pantry and clothing closet; meals on wheels; a shelter for women and various other similar things); Ballet Magnificat which is a Christian Ballet Company set up by a lady who gave up a very promising ballet career in order to do it; Habitat for Humanity; Hope House (a house in Jackson for people from out of town who can't afford accommodation to stay in while they are having cancer treatment); visits to Canton town square, Grace Church, Canton and an Antebellum home; Bible studies; visiting someone in hospital; litter picking; going out for dinner with some local high school students; going shopping in an absolutely MASSIVE Christian book store; and of course going to church on Sunday morning. I was very sad to leave my host family and I wished I could have stayed longer.

We all returned to the Gray Center on the Tuesday afternoon and spent the evening catching up with each other and brainstorming next year's return visit with the Mississippians to see what sort of things they wanted to do/we wanted to show them/was viable. The next day we all gave talks on our weeks and it seemed like everyone had had a really good time. After lunch I was the first to leave as my hosts had brought someone back the day before and stayed overnight in Jackson. I was not expecting it to be as good as the first week but it was.

My hosts were DT and MT. DT has been Rector at Epiphany Church for a year and they have both lived all over the United States. As Tunica is so small (The biggest town has a population of 1200!), there is not the variety of ministries that there is in a place like Jackson. One afternoon I was shown round the town and given a little local history by the sheriff and I also spent an afternoon at the literacy council which provides day care for children and education for people who have left high school without a high school diploma. Their main aim is to make sure everyone can read but they also help people to get the GED (the equivalent of the high school diploma).

Over the weekend I stayed with a different family and went out with their daughter (M) who is in high school. On the Saturday we visited Graceland which M had never done before despite living there all her life as she had never been able to convince anyone to go with her. On the Monday morning they took me to the Christian Brothers University in Memphis where I was shown round by a girl who is also doing chemistry. It was really small and they seem to do much less hours per week here (usually 15 or 18).

While I was in Tunica, I had many interesting conversations with people about race. T (M's mum) said that she was happy that M has friends who are all different colours at boarding school in Atlanta but she said that she wouldn't want any of her non-white friends to come home with her to visit as she said it would be dangerous for them. She also said that she hoped M didn't have a 'mixed' marriage as she said that they would probably find that they were not socially accepted by either whites or blacks. It is difficult to know whether that was the real reason.

MT said that she often finds people's attitudes unbelievable. For instance, there was an old lady in town who was ill and she had a black lady who looked after her and she wanted to come to church so another lady came to speak to MT and she said it was fine and the lady said but what about S? And she said,” Well S can sit with me; I don't mind." and they said but what about communion and MT said she could have it just the same as everyone normally does and the lady said that they couldn't do that because it was 'wrong' for black and white people to take communion together but when MT asked why, the lady couldn't give a reason, she said it just was. MT also told me that when she was leaving to come to Mississippi, she told some of her friends that they could come and visit her and was astonished when her black friends said that there was no way they would go to Mississippi. She said they told her to change things and then they would visit her but some of them had had bad experiences when travelling in Southern states in the past and did not want to repeat them.

On the last morning, I got up early to go horse riding before being driven back to the lodge near Jackson. Although I was glad to see the others again I was sad to be leaving people (and dogs) behind. The next day was a day off which included shopping in Jackson and at a mall and taking over someone's back garden and swimming pool!

I spent Thursday and Friday on Habitat sites with B and F and Monday and Tuesday at Shoestring which was a summer school/day camp in Jackson. I was with five, six and seven year olds and they were all desperate for attention and very loving. I found myself instantly surrounded by children and there were almost fights breaking out over who could sit next to me. On one of the days, two children asked me to pray with them and it was amazing listening to a child not asking for things for themselves but asking God "don't let no killers come and don't let no robbers come or no murderers". I wished I could have spent longer there.

At the weekend while T, P, S and L were on Cursillo, the rest of us took part in a mini Vocare weekend. It was about vocation and discerning God's call in your life. Topics covered included Identity, What is a Christian?, Laity, Ordination, Marriage and Spiritual Journey.

On the Monday evening, we met the Rector of a church which had grown dramatically in the space of about ten years. On Tuesday evening we had a special evening on race relations where Dr AG, a lady who had had to fight her way through life to get anywhere spoke to us about her life and what it was like growing up in segregated Vicksburg. It was very telling that JG said this was the only event in the whole month where he had invited loads of Mississippians and not one of them had turned up. AG said that the white people need to give up race and the black people need to give up race which I think is very true. Until I went to Mississippi I had never really noticed race that much (no more than hair colour or eye colour or any other physical characteristics) but now I notice it more and I think that it is probably hard for people who have been brought up in that way to forget everything that they have learnt and done up 'til now.

On our last full day, we visited Camp Bratton-Green before going to the final farewell party and service. It was said to be leaving all the people we had come to know so well over our month in Mississippi.

Mississippi is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt and it would be true to say that most people seem to be Christians. Because of this people are more open about their faith but also have a strong sense of denominational identity. When introduced to people they would often say that they were an Episcopalian/Methodist/Baptist etc. whereas it would be unusual in this country when meeting someone for the first time to say "I am an Anglican" or even "I am a Christian". The greater social acceptability of Christianity means that it is easier for young people to be involved in the church but there is also a lot more available on a Diocesan level. Camp Bratton-Green (the Episcopal Church's summer camp) is probably the only place I will ever see a bishop being thrown into a swimming pool!

2 comments:

Kelly said...

I really enjoyed reading this. It was fun hearing a report about a part of America from a "foreign" point of view!

Mary at Civilla's Cyber Cafe said...

Wow, SS, you really had quite an experience in Mississippi!! I'm amazed such open racism still exists. But, like you said, it must be hard to forget it if that is what you have been taught. I don't blame the "black friends" of that family for not wanting to go there.

Also, most visitors to our country are totally amazed at how far apart everything is, making it virtually impossible to have public transportation, and making it a necessity for everybody to have a car.

As human beings, we all assume that every place is like the place where WE live. Thanks for sharing that wonderful story!

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