This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of riding down to Jackson with local friends to attend the 30th anniversary of Mission Mississippi.

The organization which started in Jackson all those years ago, aims to bring white people and black people together to discuss racism in a Christlike way. The goal is to gain understanding and empathy toward one another through reconciliation.

The leaders of the group realize that all of us people are never going to absolutely agree. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures and situations; however, we can gain understanding of one another. We can empathize with one another.

But, in order to do so we need to get to know each other first.

While in Jackson I sat down to chat with a young lady who works with the organization. She told me she was born and raised in Jackson. In fact, she said it was the only place she’s ever lived. She’s a single mother of one child. She’s also Black.

She very honestly told me prior to her work with Mission Mississippi, she actively avoided spending any time around or near White people.

“It’s just how I was raised. I was never around White people growing up. I didn’t have a need to talk to White people so I avoided them whenever possible,” she said.

Her honestly was shocking to me. It was shocking because its something we don’t normally address in “polite” conversation.

It was also shocking because I had never considered Black people would be intimidated by me, a White woman with green eyes, blond hair, stands 5’3” and weighs about 120 pounds. Not exactly an intimidating person. Yet, here she was telling me that she never would have spoken to me before she was involved with the program because she would fear me based on the color of my skin.

Now here’s where the organization gets it right. They put fear aside and ask Jesus to help reconcile their hearts through prayer. The goal is to have these open conversations and to develop relationships with each other. Because once a strong foundation is formed, a sense of trust is formed.

Now, the young lady in Jackson told me those confessions because she realized I was approaching her out of love. Sure. We’d only just met, but she knew I was there to talk to her. To hear “her side  of the story”.  

We both understood we weren’t there to be harsh to one another. We were there to learn, and have compassion with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We will never defeat racism by being harsh with one another. It has to be approached with love.

I thanked her for sharing her story and why she believed so strongly in Mission Mississippi.

Can you just imagine the change we’d see in the world if we all slowed down and approached each other like this everyday? The world would be a more compassionate and understanding place with less hatred and fear all based on the pigmentation of one’s skin.

It would also be more Christlike, and what a joyful place that would be. 

Why I Celebrate “Living Reconciled”

There are SO many reasons to love Jesus.  One that always brings a smile is how He enjoyed parties.  We know from Scripture that the first recorded miracle took place at a wedding reception.  He was there as a guest, but as an obedient son, the Son handled a rather unusual request from his mother.  And because of that, the celebration continued without any interruptions.

In October of 1993, I began my journey with Mission Mississippi (MM).  This year we celebrate our 30th year of ministry.  My first introduction was at a 3-day rally held at Memorial Stadium in Jackson.  I watched in awe as over 100 preachers and priests carried a cross over 100 yards down the field.  The voices of an interdenominational, multi-ethnic choir were heard throughout the stadium.  Then, I listened as Pat Morley and Tom Skinner spoke of their friendship and deep love for one another – all because Christ had led them to cross barriers of color and recognize the Holy Spirit living within each of them.  Would anything result from this rally – which asked us to look within and consider how we, too, might begin to cross some of our very own barriers – of denominational and racial differences?

My next chapter began in April of 1997.   A staff member from my home church asked my Sunday School class to choose a Thursday to attend a Prayer Breakfast which was to be hosted by a local church, but led by the MM ministry.  Three of us from the class attended a breakfast at Briarwood Presbyterian Church.  The night before, a dear friend’s son had committed suicide and I was going to see her later that morning.  I SO felt the need for prayer.  When we broke into small groups to pray, a Black brother prayed the most comforting and encouraging prayer for me.  Two months later, I attended a MM Prayer Breakfast my church hosted.   And, after that, I was “all in.”  So, what difference have these 26+ years made in my life?

Well, there was Willie Bell, whom I met at Christ the King Catholic Church, while we were attending a Prayer Breakfast there. When I first heard her pray,  I was moved by her words and how well she and God seemed to know one another.  Early on, MM organized events called “Two and Two Together.”   Area restaurants gave a 22% discount for all patrons who visited with someone different from themselves.  Since Willie Bell and I were “different colors,” we decided we would participate together.  We shared meals and prayers for many years after that.  We became friends.  Later, larger groups shared meals together. We participated in ministry projects, like wrapping presents at Christmastime at the mall. Just like Jesus, we enjoyed our times of fellowship. They were sweet.  When you have prayed together, that lays a wonderful foundation for growing a beautiful friendship.  

There have been numerous friends I’ve made throughout this journey. There was Joel, who often began his prayers by saying, “Thank you, God, for waking me up this morning and touching me with your fingers of love.”  I learned valuable lessons from Joel’s sweet and humble spirit, his dependability, his love for all things “MM.”  He kept “at it,” until he was 91 and moved to Heaven!  Some people I would see yearly when their church hosted a breakfast.  Mary, from St. Richard’s Catholic Church, wasn’t used to praying aloud with others, but the second time we visited her church, she decided to “give it a try.” From then on, she was eager to pray with those in her small group during our prayer time.  Had there not been a MM organization, I would never have met Willie Bell, Joel and Mary. Oh, I will see them again in Heaven (because these three have already “relocated” there), but I would have missed the pleasure of knowing them on “this side.”  I was privileged to know the three previous directors/presidents of MM – first, Jarvis Ward, then Dr. Dolphus Weary and most recently Bro. Neddie Winters.  I celebrate these three leaders and thank the Father for each of them.   Now, we celebrate our newest leader, President  Brian Crawford, who officially joined us in April.

What has all this meant to me?  It has helped me recognize how big my God is and how all-encompassing His love is for everyone.  I’ve realized the importance of living reconciled NOW, not just waiting for Heaven where everything is perfect and all problems have been resolved.  No, God had it in mind for us to work on relationships on “this side.”  I still have miles to go, but my life has been so much richer and so very blessed by journeying with all these precious brothers and sisters in Christ whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise.  MM made this all possible.  This was not man’s idea, this was God’s idea.  I am beyond grateful that it was HIS idea for me to participate.

To “live reconciled,” we must first be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, then we can work on our relationships with one another.  And, it’s not a cake walk.  It takes intentionality and commitment.  It takes the Holy Spirit working in us to help us see people the way God sees people.   My journey with MM has enlarged my understanding of God in ways I would have never imagined.   And my life has been blessed in ways I would have never dreamed.   I am so thankful to HIM and to MM. 

What now?   Come and join us on this journey.  Come celebrate with us!   “Living Reconciled” truly is the ONLY way to really live!

30 Years Beyond: Serving as an Embassy of the Kingdom of God

Written by: Dr. CJ Rhodes

My first job after graduating from divinity school was with Mission Mississippi. I came to the ministry in 2009, which was a season of transition in this country and for the organization. Frankly, what was happening in national politics pulled back the veneer of racial tensions that still permeated the state then. People who worshipped, worked, and even played together were balkanized in ways that disclosed how much more work needed to be done to reconcile people who claimed to be reconciled to God.

Fourteen years later, I serve as the chair of the board of directors. I can say that as much as things have changed for the better since 2009, there are ways in which racial tensions in this state are actually worse now in metropolitan Jackson and in enclaves throughout Mississippi.

Thirty years ago, this ministry began to meet a need: racism and de facto racial segregation were and still are impediments to evangelism. How can a divided church witness to Christ’s love for lost people if the found folks cannot get along? That was the question then, and it remains a relevant one in 2023. Thirty years later, Mission Mississippi continues to see the need for this reconciling work because increasing numbers of people doubt that the gospel has any power to change lives and the enduring issues that plague our communities. I like to say that Mission Mississippi must serve as an embassy of the kingdom of God. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20 NIV) We must see our ministry much like a diplomatic mission. We must commend the gospel in hostile territory where the conflict is hot.

Younger generations are crying out for this. Millennials (like me) and Gen Zers believe that the gospel speaks holistically to the human condition; it is good news in the midst of bad news and even falsehoods. But our divisions blur this reality for many Mississippians who know how complicit the church has been in what ails us. Diplomats help conflicting parties see better.

A few years ago, I decided it was time to get glasses. I’m nearsighted, which means objects further away are blurry to me. With my glasses, though, I can see clearer and make out important details on the horizon. At its best, Mission Mississippi is like a pair of corrective lenses. The gospel’s themes of love, mercy, justice, and salvation are blurry objects in the distance for people closer to hate, malice, injustice, and hopelessness. Our ministry can help them see clearer and further, so that “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith,” we can have a better vision of Mississippi where Christians live out the grace of the gospel unhindered by racism, racial strife, racial prejudice, racial hatred, and racial division throughout Mississippi and the world.

Dr. CJ Rhodes, serves as the chairman of the Mission Mississippi Board of Directors, is pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, MS, and director of the Hiram Rhodes Revels Institute for Ethical Leadership at Alcorn State University.

Mission Mississippi Moments – The bridge has been built: Will we walk across it?

Written by: Rev. Dr. Austin Hoyle

Paul says in Ephesians 2:14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” This verse highlights the barrier of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles in the early church, and that this barrier had been broken down and replaced by a bridge of grace via the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The problem is that we don’t always choose to walk across that bridge.

Paul points to a physical wall that separated the Jewish and Gentile sections of the temple in Jerusalem, symbolizing animosity. Reliance upon the Mosaic Law served as another barrier of hostility. Many Jewish Christians felt that the Gentiles were not saved unless they also rigorously kept the law. Because they could not keep the entire law, the Gentiles felt that they could not fully participate in the church.

Barriers of hostility exist across racial boundaries in the state of Mississippi. The state was known for its violent resistance to desegregation and equality. Physical barriers such as “whites only” signs and separate entrances for black and white individuals reinforced the idea of white superiority and created a sense of exclusion and alienation for black residents.

These barriers of hostility still exist today. African Americans in Mississippi continue to face discrimination and inequality in education, employment, housing, and the criminal justice system. Additionally, Mississippi has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, with African Americans disproportionately affected.

The most significant barriers, however, are invisible and rooted in hearts that do not strive towards Living Reconciled.

Having pastored predominantly white churches, I’ve witnessed two common invisible barriers that keep people from Living Reconciled. First, the overall church is ill-prepared to have this dialogue. Leaders and members alike don’t have the training and experience. Second, church leaders are often too afraid that this dialogue will antagonize members who don’t wish to adopt racial healing as a part of their Christian walk. They fear that some will become uncomfortable with the gospel call for the races to become one. Such a gospel call may require churches to change by increasing their participation in the ushering in of the Kingdom of God for the transformation of the world.

Living Reconciled says that while these barriers have been broken down already by the work of Christ, Christians participate with the Holy Spirit to realize reconciliation in the present.

In my short time at Mission Mississippi, the staff reads scripture and prays with one another daily. Our conversations regularly explore the depths of these dividing walls of hostility, because we believe that deep and direct dialogue between Christians is the best pathway toward Living Reconciled. These honest and vulnerable conversations have been a beacon of hope for me as I work toward Living Reconciled.

My prayer is that, through the work of Mission Mississippi, invisible barriers are broken down, and churches and leaders across the state become better equipped to courageously Live Reconciled.

Rev. Dr. Austin Hoyle is the Program Coordinator for Mission Mississippi. He worships at Ridgeland First United Methodist Church with his three children: Eowyn 12, Ensley 12, and Loxley 9; his wife, Rev. Bess Perrier, serves as pastor.

Title: “30 Years and Beyond”

Written by: Neddie Winters

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Mission Mississippi and its ongoing work of breaking down barriers and building bridges through living reconciled. I am excited about celebrating God’s work through Mission Mississippi in healing the racial divide. Sadly, the challenges of racism, racial strife, racial hatred, racial prejudice, and racial division still exist. Thus, the work continues. However, I enter 2023 with great confidence, excitement, and anticipation that God will complete the work He started 30 years ago through Mission Mississippi!

2023 is a transitional year for Mission Mississippi, both in terms of leadership change and celebrating 30 years of dedicated service. The number 30 connotes dedication, and I have been a part of Mission Mississippi since its inception in 1993, with 30 years of continued service. I’ve served as a board member, a staff member, executive director, and president. I have experienced and witnessed the transforming power of living reconciled in my life, the life of my family, and in the lives of so many others in this state and nation, as well as internationally. I am pressing on and looking forward to my participation and continued service with Mission Mississippi, however in a different capacity.

On behalf of the board of directors, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Pastor Brian Crawford of City Light Church, Vicksburg, will be the next President of Mission Mississippi beginning April 1. Brian planted and leads an intentionally multiethnic and multicultural church that fully embodies Mission Mississippi’s passion for living reconciled. He has served with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for over 20 years in management and supervision. Brian’s leadership as a pastor and businessman will bring new energy to this important work of living reconciled. The board conducted a thorough search to find this young man and has committed to mentoring, training, and equipping him over the next 90 days via the board, myself, staff, and other leaders. We look forward to introducing him and his vision for Mission Mississippi throughout the state during this time.

Mission Mississippi started as a metro Jackson movement, with racial reconciliation in the body of Christ as the key focus. One of our first taglines was “Changing Mississippi One Relationship at a Time.” Mission Mississippi is now a statewide movement with a network of local groups throughout the state. We are recognized nationally as a leading resource and catalyst for Christian reconciliation and racial healing. We have been able to accomplish this through relationships built on trust, respect, and truth. This is achieved by connecting people, cultivating relationships, and changing lives through listening, learning, and living out the reconciliation we have in Christ. Our network includes churches, organizations, ministries, businesses, schools, colleges, and universities where we get to enlist, engage, equip, and empower communities to live a lifestyle of reconciliation.

Mission Mississippi has paved the way for churches, organizations, ministries, and communities to do reconciliation work. As one board member stated, “Mission Mississippi has prepared new ground and cleared the way by removing the stumps, stones and stumbling blocks.”  In other words, breaking down barriers and building bridges through living reconciled.

You know reconciliation and living reconciled is not always tangible. The work we do is the “HEART” work, and that work is not always exemplified in tangible ways. However, the invisible makes the visible possible. It’s the heart change that’s allowed people to make positive changes in their personal, professional and everyday lives.

We have succeeded in getting people to the table who would otherwise not be sitting at the table, developing relationships where there once hate and adversity. Now people are together working and helping transform communities to make life better for the whole. We are witnessing the intentionality of multiracial, multicultural churches, churches staying in the inner city, and people staying at the table even when it’s difficult. Pastors and churches are working together across racial and denominational lines to better their communities.

In recent years we have challenged the body of Christ to deepen their relationships with God and with one another. This past year we aimed to dig deeper into the racial divide and its manifestation in our relationships. To do this, we started with right relationships – with God, with ourselves, and others.

Now we are challenging ourselves and others to break down barriers and build bridges.

#BeABreaker&Builder                     Ephesians 2:14-22

Neddie Winters is president of Mission Mississippi, an organization dedicated to racial reconciliation within the body of Christ. A proud alumnus of Alcorn State University, Neddie lives in Clinton with his wife, Tommie.