Ecumenical agreement another historic step

3/17/2009

By Mac Gordon
Guest Columnist

When the congregations of Jackson’s Galloway United Methodist Church and St. Andrew’s Cathedral Episcopal church met recently to cement their ministries in the capital’s downtown area, some might have viewed the coming-together as a first-time event for the two religious groups.

Not true. I grew up in McComb and was a witness to the racially-divisive dark days of the 1960s in a place that called itself the “Camellia City of America,” but became labeled nationally and globally as the “Dynamite Capital of the World.”

The firebombings in McComb and Pike County of more than a dozen African-American churches and homes by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 constituted one of the most frightful chapters of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s. But one of the prettiest pictures to emerge was the cooperation of McComb’s religious community in setting things right again, led by the Episcopalians and Methodists.

Today, they are at it again through an initiative spearheaded by Bishops Hope Morgan Ward of the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church and The Right Rev. Duncan Gray III of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. The Rev. Joey Shelton, who shares the pulpit at Galloway United Methodist Church with his wife Connie, pointed to working with the homeless in Jackson’s Smith Park as one major focus of this effort. Galloway UMC and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral are only about two blocks apart, separated by Smith Park and the Governor’s Mansion.

“With (Galloway‘s) Grace Place ministry to the homeless, our primary strength is the ability to offer respite,” Shelton told the Mississippi United Methodist Advocate newspaper. “But we can’t do everything that the people of Smith Park need. So, let’s be in dialogue with St. Andrew’s about what is their passion for the homeless in Smith Park. We have the opportunity to see how we can all engage this common problem.”

The first covenant meeting of Galloway and St. Andrew’s folk was held the evening of March 3. About 300 people from the two churches broke bread at Galloway and then marched in unity past Smith Park and the Mansion to worship and communion at St. Andrew’s. With clergy in their ceremonial vestments and banners of both faiths aloft, it was a sight to see, filling the brisk night air with a healthy dose of hope for those destined to sleep on a park bench or street.

I will admit that members of the Episcopal Church of the Mediator first entered the McComb fray in 1964 – one family in particular. But when it came time to helping our African-American brethren rise from the ashes, the folk of my church, Centenary United Methodist, raised the first dollar, or one of the first, led by the fiery newspaper editor John Oliver Emmerich Sr.

That Episcopal family would be the Albert W. “Red” Heffners, who rose with courage against the McComb terrorists. Inarguably one of the town’s most popular families before 1964 (one daughter, Jan Nave, was the reigning Miss Mississippi), the Heffners were driven from McComb and the entire state later that year because mom and pop had the gall to inject themselves into the torrid civil rights strife that engulfed the place.

The Church of the Mediator’s rector, Colton M. Smith, was full-throttle into trying to solve the city’s and state’s racial troubles, with Red and Malva Heffner strongly at his side. The Heffners took the word “mediator” to mean just that; they tried to broker the struggles between the city’s whites, African-Americans and dozens of summer volunteers who had come south to lead voter registration drives.

More Episcopalians became involved, and then hosts of Methodists and others. By fall 1964, a semblance of law and order had been restored. I could not have been more proud then of the Methodists and Episcopalians, but this latest initiative ranks mighty close.

Gordon is a McComb native. He is public information officer for the Mississippi House of Representatives. He is a member Galloway Memorial UMC and lives in Flowood.