, The Clarion-Ledger 6:04 p.m. CT Feb. 4, 2017

This story is part of a year-long USA TODAY NETWORK series called “I Am An American, We Are One Nation,” focusing on exceptional Americans who are making a difference to unite our communities. 

Neddie Winters knows Mission Mississippi can’t change everyone.

“Most racists don’t come up to me and say, ‘I’m a racist. Change me,'” Winters said, sitting in the sunlight beaming into his office in Jackson.

“My goal is to work with people who, given an opportunity to change, they will.”

And Mission Mississippi provides plenty of opportunities: twice weekly prayer breakfasts in Jackson, weekly and monthly gatherings throughout the state, and two big annual events in Jackson.

Each is designed to get people of different races interacting with each other. Talking. Maybe making plans to talk again. Forming friendships.

If it all sounds Pollyanna-esque, well, get to know Winters. He might convince you.

He grew up the grandson of a midwife and the son of sharecroppers in Tunica County. He went to an all-black school during segregation and experienced Jim Crow — back doors, separate entrances and the like — firsthand.

But even as a youth, “I always had this sense that people were better than they were acting. I felt they just misunderstood me, and if they got to know me, they would like me… When people didn’t like me, I liked them anyway and tried to build rapport with them, even though I was warned that they were using me; and I get accused of (letting people use me) today.”

However, Winters knows that not everyone who shakes his hand is genuine. Mission Mississippi has grown over the past 25 years. Important people attend the annual prayer breakfast, the annual racial reconciliation celebration. Some, perhaps, merely go to see and be seen.

“People warn me, ‘They’re using you to get to the governor’ (at the prayer breakfast). But I don’t see it that way. I’m not there to get to the governor. I’m there to pray for the governor,” he said. “They might think they’re taking advantage of me, but I won’t let that keep me from doing what I need to do.”

Winters made a 20-year commitment to Mission Mississippi when it first began in 1992.

When you ask him what he does for the organization on a daily basis, his first reply is, “not enough.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m either coming out of a fight, going into one, or I’m in one. (But) I do whatever I can that day to enhance the grace of the gospel going forward — whether that’s fundraising, office administration, speaking, praying…”

The gospel, in which God reconciles sinners to himself through Jesus, also reconciles sinners to each other — and it even goes beyond that, Winters said.

“Now that I’ve been reconciled to God and (my fellow man), I can no longer see inequality and not be compelled to do something about it. That’s why I do what I do — I believe something compels me, constrains me, to love in spite of, to do good in spite of,” he said.

“I heard this somewhere. I think it was a counselor: ‘Your job is to love them. God’s job is to change them.'”

If you’re wondering whether change really happens through Mission Mississippi, Winters has stories.

“I was in Tupelo once doing a day of dialogue. There were two participants I was noticing: an elderly white gentleman and an African-American woman, somewhat from the same generation. There was an article about a white girl being (homecoming) queen at a predominantly black school. The African-American woman was an activist. And I could see it in her eyes, the ‘I’m going to let (this white man) have it,’ and she … went after it.

“And he said, ‘Oh, and I thought that was so gracious of them (to vote for her).’ And you could see — what is it when you let the air out of a balloon? All the intensity of her arguments dissipated. That’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. And they became good friends, by the way.”

Winters admitted, “It’s hard to love someone who’s done you wrong.” But he has some advice, for people of any ethnicity:

“Stop saying it’s hard, number one. If you say it’s hard, it becomes hard. But also, we keep looking at it from what the other person is doing or not doing. (People say) ‘I can love people who don’t love me.’ But they put these ‘but’s and ‘however’s in there (based on the other person’s actions). I just say, get off the ‘but.’ Get the ‘but’ out of the way. Give it your best shot until you feel like it.”

He also referenced  “four ‘F’s” — feelings, facts, fiction and figuring — and said faith triumphs over all of them.

“Yes, we have facts. Yes, we (African-Americans) have been discriminated against and abused. But my faith says I don’t let it keep me from doing what I need to do. Faith overcomes facts,” he said.

“(And) we have feelings. Yes, you hurt my feelings. I know that I’m making myself vulnerable. (But) we have to push people to operate in faith.”

Follow Mission Mississippi at facebook.com/mission.mississippi for details on the organization’s Tuesday/Thursday prayer breakfasts in Jackson, as well as the Governor’s Leadership Prayer Luncheon and Summit to be held April 6.

Contact Katie Eubanks at 601-961-7050 or keubanks@gannett.com. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

(Photo: Elijah Baylis/The Clarion-Ledger)

 Q&A with Neddie Winters

What does it mean to you to be an American? 

Based on what I know about other countries … being an American means I have rights and privileges to do anything the law will allow. I was going to say anything I’m big enough to do, but that’s not correct. 

The freedom that we have in America is great. And the transfer of power is so peaceful. And I have the right to protest. 

Even with its flaws and blemishes, America is still the greatest country in the world to live in. You have the right to be wrong and to live wrong, as well as to live right and do right. 

What moment touched and motivated you to launch this effort? 

Even when I first heard the concept of Mission Mississippi, I had an affinity for it. I had been part of civil rights (efforts), equal opportunity, affirmative action. For me, it was always missing something. That missing piece was Christ-centered, and making it about a relationship rather than a regulation or a law. 

Legislating somebody to do something, it’s like little Johnny when his teacher makes him sit down: ‘I’m sitting down, but on the inside I’m still standing up.’

In 1992, (at a meeting of about 100 pastors discussing a citywide racial reconciliation crusade), two (evangelical leaders) named Pat Morley and Tom Skinner expressed their commitment to each other as brothers in Christ. One happened to be African American and one happened to be white. And geographically, politically, they couldn’t be further apart. (A minister who was there) looked at them and said, ‘We need to learn to live out what you all just described to us.’ It was a ‘duh’ moment, but it was powerful. In that meeting I think 10 other people along with myself made a commitment to racial reconciliation within the body of Christ. 

What gives you hope? What concerns you? 

What gives me hope is my relationship with Jesus Christ. That all things are possible through him that strengthens me. I believe more people are for racial reconciliation than are against it. That gives me hope. I can share the message and people will change because of it.

The great concern I have is challenging Christians to live out what they confess and profess to be. (A majority) of Mississippi claims to be Christian. We’re told (by Jesus) to love those who hate us. Since we live in such divisive times, this gives us a genuine opportunity to do that.

I (also) think people should be praying as much as they’re protesting, or more. I think people should be mentoring as much as they’re marching. 

What do you hope to accomplish? 

I hope to accomplish a better legacy of race relations for the next generation. We pass on the bad stuff about race relations because we don’t do anything intentionally to not pass it on. So Mission Mississippi is my opportunity to do something intentional to pass on something better. By the way, that gives me hope, too.

Neddie Winters

Location: Jackson

Age: 66

Profession: President of Mission Mississippi

Mission: To foster racial reconciliation among Christians in Mississippi.