By Jeff Brumley
No one expected a vacation Bible school run by a visiting Baptist youth group to be a catalyst for racial healing in Shaw,Miss. Yet, by all accounts that’s just what the June visit by 34 youngsters from Houston’s South Main Baptist Church accomplished.
“I believe this is a turning point for Shaw, a city that’s honestly been down for so many years now,” said Leroy Woods, pastor of United Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church in Shaw and head of the local ministerial association. “Yes sir, things are looking up in Shaw.”
Woods and others who witnessed it say the VBS program, and the community barbecue held at the conclusion, were pivotal only because of the groundwork laid by others, including a Cooperative Baptist minister intent on helping his hometown.
“We got to participate in something great, an act of grace because of what Jason Coker has done in this community,” said Kevin Sinclair, pastor of youth and missions at South Main Baptist.
Coker, a Shaw native and pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Connecticut, returned to the area in 2000 looking for ways to help his hometown. He zeroed in on ways to help the area’s children, focus of the newly created Delta Hands for Hope.
Once at full speed, the organization will work with Shaw’s school-aged children in the areas of education, recreation, health and spirituality. The workforce will include local residents and churches plus some from out of town and state.
“My goal is to take interested churches and funnel them into the Delta to build relationships with people, to work with and for the folks there, and live into this new organization,” Coker said.
Shaw is right up CBF’s alley with its 12-year-old rural-poverty initiative focusing on 20 of the nation’s poorest counties. Coker said he’s used the Fellowship’s Together for Hope approach by seeking guidance from local leaders on the most urgent needs and ways to help.
“Assets-based community development is instrumental,” he said. “It’s not outsiders coming in to save the day in some paternalistic way.”
Improving race relations is not the purpose of Delta Hands of Hope said Coker, who grew up a member of the minority white population in Shaw.
“If the point of this was racial reconciliation, we would never get it off the ground,” he said. “But in the process of doing good together, people are learning about each [other], crossing those boundaries of segregation for the first time in substantive ways.”
Those boundaries were significantly crossed in June when South Main’s kids arrived in Shaw on what Sinclair described as a “rural poverty immersion mission trip.”
In addition to performing work and service, those trips involve learning about local social, cultural and economic issues. In the Delta, that meant visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and touring cotton fields and a farm considered to be the birth place of blues music, Sinclair said.
The youth planned a straightforward vacation Bible school program for black children in a historically white Methodist church. What no one foresaw, Sinclair said, was how that VBS and a festival and barbecue held at the conclusion would break down racial barriers in Shaw.
Youth group member Adriana McDonnald sensed those barriers coming down even before VBS began, when she and her friends went door-to-door distributing fliers inviting children to attend.
At a general store they were told by the owner it was the first time children had been personally invited to a VBS program. “He ended up giving us free Slushies,” McDonnald said.
Just six children attended the first day, but by the end of the week the numbers hit 40-50, and many of the town’s teenagers bonded with their peers from Houston, McDonnald said.
“And now I want to become some type of missionary or youth minister just because of this trip,” she said.
Local adults seemed to be equally inspired, Sinclair reported. The Methodist pastor told him during the festival that their sanctuary hadn’t been so full since the 1950s, and that Woods was the first African-American to speak from their pulpit.
At the beginning “I could sense discomfort on both sides, but as everybody ate together and talked together, you could see that collaborative relationship being formed,” Sinclair said.
Embracing God’s vision
Woods said he felt the energy, too, and that he considers that week in June to possibly have been a watershed moment for Shaw. Even before then, he said, local political and religious leaders began to realize it was really up to them to fix their town. Several beautification projects had been completed as pride in the city grew.
But the VBS and barbecue hosted by South Main at the Methodist church, he said, opened his eyes even wider to the compassion being shown by outsiders and the responsibility he and other locals have to keep working.
“It’s not necessarily about the groups coming in, but us embracing the vision of what God is wanting us to do in Shaw,” Woods said.