Spend 40 days pondering 40 years


“What is done is done forever. I know that. I’m saying that the ones who have been here have been the way they were, and the ones of us who are here now are the way we are and to know that is the only chance we’ve got, dead and living, to be here together.” - Wendell Berry, “The Wild Birds”

By Gwen Green

Forty years after the Civil Rights Movement confronted segregation and racism in Mississippi, the 40 days of Lent will be a time of conversation and reflection on race.

“As we speak to one another, we recognize our common life and experience. We say to one another that we hear, we understand, we grieve, we regret and most important of all, we hope for the future,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who has invited United Methodists to lead conversations on race in each of the state’s 82 counties during Lent. Ward asked each district to facilitate conversations in its area.

Talking about race, even 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, may be uncomfortable and difficult but can lead the way to healing and reconciliation. “As the family member of a murdered young man commented, ‘After all these years, we cannot forget and we do not want to remember.’ The courage to engage issues of race will be met with the power and presence of God, who creates in and through us a new tomorrow,” said Ward.

“It is important to speak of memories, to break the silence of our grief and our regret, in order to move forward in health and wholeness. We have been silent to forget, to protect our children from harsh realities and danger, to move onward. Silence accomplishes none of these things. Underneath the silence, there are memories that need to have a voice.”

The Hattiesburg District has scheduled gatherings at seven churches around the district. The first is Thursday at Main Street United Methodist Church in Hattiesburg. “We will share some of our stories from our journey toward racial reconciliation and we will end with Holy Communion,” said the Rev. David Price, superintendent.

Since the gatherings will be unscripted, Price isn’t sure what to expect but believes the conversations will bear fruit. “We do have genuine progress to celebrate. We also have a lot of hurts that haven’t been shared, and this will be a safe place to do that,” he said. “There is intrinsic value in sharing our personal life experiences.

“Redemption doesn’t come when we just focus on successes and pretend we don’t have pain. Redemption comes when we share the whole range of experiences, including our pain, in a redemptive community.”

The Rev. Vicki Tandy, Senatobia District superintendent, said she hopes conversations about race will bring people in her district closer together. “It’s a beginning,” she said. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if we can get past color and our differences, we can do a lot of things.”

A Lenten devotional guide produced by the Mississippi Conference will serve as a starting place for conversations on race.

Between the Ashes and Alleluias is a collection of 47 personal reflections, one for each of Lent’s 40 days plus the Sundays. The writers are United Methodist clergy and laypeople. Most are members of the Mississippi Conference.

“First, we hope people will read them daily and personally commit themselves to an honest exploration of their own feelings and beliefs about racism,” said the Rev. Steve Casteel, director of Connectional Ministries. “Secondly, we hope folks will share the readings in small groups, classes and around their tables at home. Finally, we hope that as an annual conference we will help lead Mississippi and the country into a new day of racial reconciliation.”

Ward encourages clergy and laity to use the stories  in the guide as illustrations for Bible study, Sunday school, youth group and Wesley Foundation discussions and sermons. “Churches might invite children, youth and adults to write their own meditations, to create artistic expressions, to envision new ministries of racial reconciliation,” she said.

Active clergy and church lay leaders were mailed copies of the book. While supplies last, additional copies are available from the conference Connectional Ministries office. 

“As people read these stories, they will think about their own stories and realize they have their own to tell, a witness to make,” said Price.

“I am impressed with the honesty of the witnesses and the courage they demonstrated in offering their own personal experience,” Ward said. “We all find ourselves in these reflections, whether or not we are the author of a printed meditation. We all find in these reflections God who hears and heals and sends us onward.”