By DR. DOLPHUS WEARY
How Mission Mississippi made me willing to disagree
1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
The Bible talks a lot about encouraging one another. From time to time, we all need someone to come beside us and encourage us in our Christian journey. The work of Mission Mississippi, founded in the early 1990s, has always encouraged Christians to live out their faith across racial lines.
In 1998, I had the privilege of becoming executive director of the group. Lee Paris, a white businessman, was chairman of the board. We had a fairly good relationship, yet we had a lot to learn about encouraging one another to be open and honest.
Lee grew up in a white community, attended First Presbyterian Church and Ole Miss, and became a successful businessman. I grew up in a segregated community, attended a segregated school and church, and learned early in life what my place was. I was to say “Mr.” and “Mrs.” to white people, never look them straight in their eyes, and step off the sidewalk to let them by when I met them. I was taught to stay in my place.
In 1967, God opened a door for me to attend an all-white Christian college in California. During those years of college and seminary, I was able to move a little outside my “black box.” I spent almost 30 years working with a ministry in Mendenhall, which allowed me to travel and speak in churches, white and black, around the country. I had a number of white Christian friends — but all were outside of Mississippi.
Therefore, leading Mission Mississippi, a movement that encouraged Christians to build relationships across racial lines in Mississippi, was challenging. I understood the body of Christ was made up of different races, but when we’d drive through a community, we’d quickly identify a church as black or white.
One of the strategies God put in my spirit was to preach in a black church one Sunday and a white church the next Sunday. I received an invitation to speak at a large white church in Jackson in 1998, and on the Sunday morning I was to speak, I got up early to review my notes. As I did, I began to cry, because I knew I could preach this sermon in New York, Chicago or California, but not in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m so glad God used me that morning to move a little more outside my racial box. That experience opened many doors for me to speak in white churches around Mississippi with greater liberty.
Lee Paris offered a different kind of challenge for me. Preaching from the pulpit was one thing, but looking a white businessperson in the face and learning how to disagree with him was hard. A number of us, black and white, have learned how to say what we think the other person wants to hear; therefore, the relationship remains shallow. Lee taught me how to look him in the face and disagree with him. We maintain a relationship that, over time, has allowed us to go deeper. He encouraged me to be open and honest in our relationship.
As board chairman, Lee was accustomed to making decisions. The first year, that is how we operated. Coming from my mentality of inferiority, I didn’t say anything. Gradually, I saw Lee was serious about building a deeper relationship with me. We began seeing our relationship as brother to brother, not a black brother and a white brother with all the historical baggage. As we worked together, Lee never hindered our relationship. I shared with him that blacks were not accustomed to challenging, questioning or disagreeing with whites, especially white men.
Relationship building is difficult, especially if we want to be authentic. Many of us, Dolphus Weary included, have a lot of shallow relationships based on old “paradigms” of tolerations. We have not arrived yet, but we’re making progress.
Mission Mississippi challenges us to go deeper in our relationships, and I am so glad Lee Paris helped me do so. I encourage you to get one person of a different race, commit to encouraging each other, be open and honest, and learn how to disagree and keep loving each other.
Dr. Dolphus Weary has worked to address racial reconciliation and poverty in Mississippi for over 30 years, including serving Mendenhall Ministries (27 years), Mission Mississippi (10 years) and the REAL Christian Foundation (20 years). Dr. Weary and his wife, Rosie, have three children (their oldest son passed away in 2004), and three grandchildren.