Mission Mississippi president: Familiarity breeds harmony, not contempt

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

The Rev. Neddie Winters in 2008 became president of Mission Mississippi, a non-profit, Christian organization that, since 1992 has worked to build unity in the body of Christ across racial and denominational lines.
The organization sponsors monthly gatherings in 19 Mississippi towns, including Tupelo.
Winters took over for his colleague and noted civil rights activist, the Rev. Dolphus Weary, who held the position since the organization’s founding.
Winters worked for years in the financial lending industry and now serves as pastor of Voice of Calvary Fellowship in Jackson, a multiracial church established by civil rights activist the Rev. John Perkins.
On the eve of Black History Month, and the 11th Annual Governor’s Prayer Luncheon that Mission Mississippi will sponsor in Jackson on Feb. 1, Winters spoke with the Daily Journal about race relations and about how his organization hopes to play a role in overcoming the breakdowns in communication that give rise to racism.

Q: You often say that anyone who claims to be colorblind is either lying or is being naive. Colorblindness sounds like a virtue to people, but it seems that what organizations like Mission Mississippi are working toward isn’t colorblindness but rather respectful, authentic relationships between people of different colors. Please explain.
A:You’re going to see differences anywhere in life, that’s a given, whether it’s in gender, color or most anything. Otherwise well-meaning people often say they don’t see a person’s color, but that isn’t really true.
At meetings of Mission Mississippi we ask people to define exactly what they mean by colorblindness. Left to themselves people will tend to stay on the safe side of language, but we challenge them to push past everyday language and to explore the motivations and feelings – perhaps even the prejudices – behind the way they use language.
It boils down to communication. “Help me understand what you mean,” is something we often hear at table discussions.

Q: The recent midterm elections and ongoing, heated debate over issues like health care reform and immigration have fanned the coals of discussion about race in our state. Many left-leaning people hear racist undertones in words like “entitlements” and in some of the other rhetoric that came out of conservative rallies, like those sponsored by the TEA Party. What’s your opinion about the state of public discourse today, and to what extent, if any, do you feel racism factors into it?
A:People often react to a word rather than staying put to listen to the message a person is trying to relate. That works both ways. On one hand, we need to be sensitive enough not to use terms that set people off. On the other hand, we need to realize that people sometimes make verbal mistakes and, in the heat of debate they say things that, when quoted out of context, convey a very different meaning than what was intended.
Essentially it boils down to whether or not I believe you’re sincere about what you’re saying. If I don’t know you well, I’m going to be less inclined to believe what you’re telling me. Certainly if you use phrases or words that trigger alarms in me I’m going to be more inclined to read into them a negative meaning.
Again, communication is the key. Relationships are the key. We – blacks and whites – have to get to know each other better so that we’ll understand each other when we say things that at first blush sound offensive. Mission Mississippi is about getting to know each other.

Q: People hold widely differing views on racial reconciliation. Some believe that public repentance needs to precede reconciliation, that whites don’t often enough acknowledge publicly the evil of slavery and decades of racism, and yet they expect to move forward amicably with blacks.
Others take the position of leaving the past behind and starting anew, the “I’m okay, you’re okay,” approach.
Please talk about the tension between these two positions, as you see it, and how it factors into Mission Mississippi’s philosophy.
A:As a minister and counselor I work with a lot of couples in crisis, and I know that often one spouse simply isn’t aware, or doesn’t want to admit the harm they’ve caused their partner. It can be an ongoing poison that prevents the couple from moving forward.
Sometimes it’s simple unawareness. Other times it’s denial. With racism we’re probably dealing with a little of both.
I hear the argument from certain segments of the white community. They ask, “How long do we have to pay for the injury?” It’s a valid question, but perhaps it doesn’t fully take into consideration the black perspective.
In Mission Mississippi we try to close the distance between that question and the black experience.

Q: Most of us understand that Black History Month, since it was first conceived in the early decades of the 20th century, is a time for honoring the accomplishments of blacks in American history. Some people, however, have questioned the need for an annual observance that recognizes – and, they believe, singles out or favors – a particular race. Your thoughts?
A:If black history had been written as white history blacks wouldn’t know themselves. White Americans have always been highlighted. We’ve had to make a special effort to highlight the accomplishments of black Americans.
I understand that some people feel Black History Month unfairly favors one race over others. That issue is open to discussion. There’s no white history month; I understand that.
Still, it seems to me that Black History Month – and it’s fairly new – is a time when we ought to be celebrating our distinct cultures and identities, celebrating what’s special about ourselves and learning more about people who are different from us.
I can’t tell you how many blacks have told me over the years that they’ve had profound insights into their own culture because of something that happened during Black History Month. It’s an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves better, and I don’t see how that could be a bad thing.

Q: Someone once said that of all the institutions in society the church specifically is given the charge of being a place of reconciliation. So much of society is based on competition, on competing – even inimical – ideas. How is the church different? Why is it different?
A:In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul talks about being a new creation. In Christ we are remade, reinvented, changed. Unity in the body of Christ means finding a new way to see ourselves as brothers and sisters. Old paradigms are gone, old ways of viewing the world – black and white, American and foreigner, male and female. I’m no longer separate from you; I’m one with you. The injuries we’ve suffered are healed.
You can no longer judge me on the basis of who I was. I am something new.
The challenge, then, becomes how to go forward and proclaim this unity.
Statistics tell us that the overwhelming majority of Mississippians are Christians, yet we have this enduring legacy of racism, which is completely antithetical to the Christian gospel. Mission Mississippi, which is unapologetic in its Christian roots, is challenging Mississippians to act like Christians and to eliminate racism from this state’s legacy.
Q: Please enumerate some of Mission Mississippi’s accomplishments and what the organization has planned for the future.
A:We now have regular meetings in 19 cities throughout the state, including Tupelo and Okolona. I can’t begin to tell you the intangible good that’s come out of those meetings, but there are also some very practical things, like the Hope Community Resource Center in Amory. That isn’t officially a function of Mississippi but if I’m not mistaken it grew out of relationships that were forged at our meetings.
I heard a person say once that Mission Mississippi is helping clear out the stumps that get in the way of racial reconciliation. I like that metaphor.
Here in the Jackson area we have plenty of gatherings that merge religion with politics. Prayer breakfasts are becoming popular these days. But I don’t know any organization that says very clearly, as we do, leave your political affiliations at the door and let’s talk about how we can be better brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@journalinc.com