By DR. CJ RHODES
Like many millennial peers, when I moved out of Mississippi in 2006 to attend divinity school, I wasn’t coming back. For years, I dreamed of life far away from home, and I instantly fell in love with Duke University and the Raleigh-Durham community. Barring that pitiful pulled pork and vinegar they call barbecue, Durham was the best of both worlds: a Southern city with the charm and hospitality associated with Mississippi, but with the cosmopolitan progress synonymous with the East Coast. Had it not been for a word from God, I might still be in North Carolina today.
That word rushed into my heart following a several-hours-silent retreat during my first semester at Duke Divinity School. I sensed the Lord clearly instructing me to return to Jackson, my Jerusalem. There was work for me to do back home, a place I’d just left and wasn’t interested in returning to except to visit family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then, too, was the anxiety about vocational life — what would there be for me to do in a state with shrinking opportunities for young professionals, especially African American ones?
That was 2006. As months and years passed, I became more convinced that North Carolina was home, and that God would have to perform a miracle to get me back to Mississippi. In summer 2008, while on a pilgrimage in Brazil, I experienced just that. In one of those brief moments of Internet access, I checked my email and discovered a message from Dolphus Weary asking to meet with me about possibilities with Mission Mississippi. He’d read an op-ed I’d recently written challenging Mission Mississippi to broaden its approach to racial reconciliation. I thought the proposed meeting was going to be a rebuke. It turned out to be an affirmation and an open door.
Approximately a year later, just a day after graduating from Duke, I was headed home to start working with Mission Mississippi. This was an answered prayer for divine provision and more. Through this ministry, I met wonderful pastors and leaders across racial and denominational lines throughout the state, and I ultimately got connected to the church I now pastor. I still remember attending Days of Dialogue, prayer breakfasts and pastors’ luncheons and being able to grow deep friendships with fellow Jesus followers from Grenada to Gulfport. God used Mission Mississippi to align my passions and purposes in a state God ordained me to serve. God used Dolphus, who’d also said, “I ain’t comin’ back,” and others to confirm the word of the Lord. I am better for it.
Galatians 5:13 states, “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” We often think of sin in terms of “big ticket” moral failures, the kind that breaks up marriages and ends careers. But as the African bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo noted, sin in a deeper way is about being curved inward, about self-gratification and self-aggrandizement. It takes the Spirit of God to compel us to serve others rather than ourselves. Emulating Christ, the Suffering Servant, requires nothing short of grace. I experienced this grace to return home and to learn and serve beside believers of different races, ages and denominations because of Mission Mississippi. I have sacrificed much as a millennial by remaining in Mississippi, and I know this ministry of reconciliation has helped me see my freedom as a resource to help others in churches and communities needing to experience the amazing grace and unlimited love of God beyond the cultural Christianity that dominates this fertile land.
As the song says,
If I can help somebody, as I travel along
If I can help somebody, with a word or song
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong
No, my living shall not be in vain
I like to think relationships forged in Mission Mississippi have helped me serve others in love, thereby affirming that my living here in a state I desperately wanted to leave and never return to years ago will not be in vain. #ServingOneAnother
Dr. CJ Rhodes, a Mission Mississippi board member, is pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson and director of the Hiram Rhodes Revels Institute for Ethical Leadership at Alcorn State University. He and his wife, Allison, are parents of twin sons.