First, for the best things Mississippi has to offer. With limited space we will just cover the top three for best, and for worst.
Family – There is something special about Mississippi families. Not taking away from other areas of the country, but there is a loyalty and affection towards blood relatives here that is unique—and not just to the ones under your roof; also to the extended brood. Indeed, this propensity extrapolated to the state as a whole prompts the expression that Mississippi seems like “one big family.” I have lived other places, and the family-feel here is real. It all begins in the home, and expands across ever-growing networks of kinship and connection.
Church – We have more churches per capita than just about anywhere else in the nation. “A church on every corner” is an overstatement but, in quite a few areas, not by much. And it is the local church where we learn biblical truth, the Lord’s Prayer, the great hymns of the faith and see morality worked out in the exemplary lives of many men and women of holy integrity.
Race – I am firmly convinced that race relations are better here than any other state in the Union. That comment raises eyebrows in my hometown of Great Bend, Kansas. They hear of Mississippi and think, like many others in the nation, of the worst instances of the Civil Rights era. But Great Bend is 1.9% black. Honestly – Great Bend might not have a race problem because they don’t have much…racial diversity. In Mississippi, on the other hand, we are 38 percent African-American, and the capital city where I live is 80 percent. Even so, some of the most racist things I have ever seen have happened in Kansas where they have never had the Mississippi advantage – such a strong mixture of races that we have had to work through the pain of bigotry and, well, grow up. For instance, when the last round of race riots broke out in the Midwest I knew no riots were being planned in Jackson or other metro Areas in the South because, in many ways, we have been there, done that and have already substantially worked through it. We are not perfect – not even close – but we have matured significantly through the difficulties of prejudice we have already been through.
The worst things in Mississippi?
Family – Yep, like Stanley Jones once said, your best things also tend to be your worst things. The breakdown of the family is the primary driver, according to many social scientists, of poverty, crime, lack of educational attainment, sexually-transmitted diseases and joblessness. It is said that the three Ws – wedlock, work and worship – when found together in a family unit, virtually wipe out poverty. But the first of these is the most important, and fatherlessness in Mississippi is the most disturbing dynamic of our life together. Over half of our babies in Mississippi will be born this year to mother-only constellations, and over 80 percent of African-American infants will be. A disproportionate number of our state woes eventuate from the fatherless dynamic. It will be exceedingly difficult to make the progress we seek as Mississippians without special attention to this abysmal weakness.
Church – No county in Mississippi has more churches and Christians today than there were a decade ago. While a shrinking proportion is one thing, impact is another. Too many churches and their programs exist primarily for…the church. We are not, on the whole, a poured-out community; we are salt kept in the shaker. The Church of the earliest centuries “ran to the sound of the pain” – like Jesus, they focused on the poor, the needy, the hurting. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned that the “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving.” And when we are “not the Church” in sacrificial service, we are a bit repulsive as we lurch for prosperity and political power in its stead.
Race – Much needs to be done. We are not understanding enough of others, not integrated enough, not loving enough, and we are too blame-oriented instead of solution-finding. Some of us think our duty is to mind our own business. But making this state better than it has ever been at the point of respect for each other IS our business. While we are better on this racial front than we have ever been we can do much better.
Walt Whitman, once caught in a contradiction, said simply, “I contain multitudes.” As does this state. But if we take the contradictions seriously – build on the strengths and progress on the weaknesses, there is hope for a better tomorrow.
Here’s to hope!
Senior Pastor of Dayspring Community Church in Clinton, Miss., Mississippi Matters columnist Dr. Matt Friedeman is also Professor of Evangelism and Discipleship at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss. He holds a B.A. from the University of Kansas, an M.A. from the University of Kansas, an M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. He has been active in the Jackson media as a columnist, podcaster, radio talk show host and television commentator.