By Riley Manning
In celebration of black history month, the Rev. Claire Dobbs of Oxford University United Methodist Church and the Rev. Chris Diggs of Burns United Methodist Church, are going to do what they say comes most naturally to Methodists.
On Sunday, the two will swap pulpits to promote harmony and racial reconciliation. But Oxford, they said, is already way ahead of the curve in that department. Back in October, Oxford’s First Baptist Church passed a resolution to retract and nullify a 1968 church vote to ban African-Americans from its pews, and presented this resolution to Oxford’s historically black Second Baptist Church as an official apology.
“Even when compared nationally, Oxford is full of people who are intentional in trying to work together,” he said. “Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘We will either live together as Christians or perish together as fools.’”
Dobbs and Diggs share much more than their profession and denomination.
Both pastors were born and raised in Monroe County: Dobbs in Amory, Diggs in nearby Becker community, and both graduated from Ole Miss.
The environment in which they spent their formative years proved instrumental in the development of their ministries.
“The Amory public school system was so strong and healthy and diverse,” Dobbs said. “I remember when I was a senior, we looked up and said, ‘Why are we not going to prom together?’ So my class voted to integrate it.”
Dobbs has served as associate pastor for OUUMC for the past 10 years, while Diggs was assigned to Burns, the oldest African-American congregation in Lafayette County, in June 2013. Landing in Oxford, Diggs said, was not without a bit of kismet.
“Who would have thought we’d end up here together with so much in common, performing a ministry of this magnitude,” he said. “When I approached her with the idea of swapping pulpits, she was thrilled.”
Dobbs said Burns was like a second home to her, and she was looking forward to the swap with excitement.
“The Bible says we are all one, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God,” she said. “And Methodists have been worshipping together for a long time. The swap isn’t just about black history, it’s also a testament to Methodist diversity.”
The Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church is currently presided over by its first African-American, Bishop James Swanson, who follows the conference’s first female bishop, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward.
Despite the strides the South has made in race relations, Diggs said Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week.
“It’s not because of divisiveness anymore, it’s because they’re comfortable,” he said. “And that’s fine, but we need to get outside of our comfort zones sometimes.”
Dobbs added that busy schedules also cause people to go through their routine with blinders on. We are blessed, she said, by breaking out of these routines, being intentional about cultivating relationships.
“A Greek philosopher once said, ‘That which we understand, we love,’ and the way we understand is by learning each other’s stories,” Dobbs said.
Common ground, Diggs said, isn’t always a place of success, but a place of struggle, of longing. Ultimately, people are looking for the same thing.
“People don’t live in separate worlds. Groceries and gas are the same price for everybody,” he said. “Our problems and stresses are the same, and solutions come from a divine relationship with Jesus Christ.”