By Bob Allen
Birthplace of blues legends such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin Wolf, the Mississippi Delta is better known for hardship and despair than a message of hope, but faith and community leaders in one small town are hoping to change the tune.
This year the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi “revisioned” its 2014 fall assembly, meeting Oct. 24-25 at a new ministry site in Shaw, Miss., instead of a church. Rather than the usual fare of breakout sessions for training, after a closing business session participants donned work gloves and spent most of Saturday in hands-on mission projects.
“This is CBF of Mississippi trying to say it’s really us on mission coming together rather than just talking about business,” said moderator Rusty Edwards, pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss.
The new ministry focusing on school-aged children is a spinoff of Together for Hope, a rural-poverty initiative launched by the national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 2001 pledging a long-term commitment to work alongside people in 20 of the nation’s poorest counties to break cycles of poverty handed down from generation to generation.
Poverty is certainly no stranger to the Mississippi Delta, a region that runs from Memphis to Vicksburg connected by a 250-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 61. Also known as the Blues Highway, the route is immortalized in Bob Dylan’s 1965 studio album Highway 61 Revisited.
It also appears in one version of the legend about blues pioneer Robert Johnson meeting the devil at a crossroads on a moonless night to trade his soul in return for learning to play the guitar. Downtown Shaw features a landmark honoring David “Honeyboy” Edwards, born in 1915 and one of the last surviving great Mississippi Delta blues men of the era that helped shape early rock and roll.
Inheriting a legacy of slavery, much of the Delta was developed after the Civil War, when the opening of railroads turned acres of flat and fertile soil created by thousands of years of regular flooding into a land of opportunity for an elite few.
Immigrant laborers, including a large influx of Italians, migrated to the Delta to work as tenant farmers on cotton plantations. Back-breaking labor and low pay, however, only increased the gap between wealthy landowners and the working poor.
Most of the farm jobs disappeared between the 1940s and 1970s, when mechanization of agriculture reduced demand for cheap labor. More recently factories across the region have closed, many as a result of foreign competition. Most of the employable people now are gone, creating an uncertain future for those who are left behind.
“NAFTA devastated the Delta,” said Jason Coker, who grew up in Shaw and now is pastor of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Conn. Cokes serves the national CBF in the office of recorder.
In 2009 and 2010, volunteer mission groups from Wilton Baptist Church traveled to Shaw for downtown beautification projects such as picking up trash, painting and tearing down dilapidated buildings.
In 2011, when Coker was in Shaw to meet with community leaders about forming a partnership to benefit school-aged children, he ran into members of the Presentation Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also interested in helping Shaw because of the community’s long Catholic heritage.
In a community long divided by class and race, faith and community leaders met together to map assets, rather than starting out with a laundry list of needs, and determine where they wanted to focus together. Matching assets and need in the areas of education, recreation and health and spiritual development for children grades K-12 became the pillar of Delta Hands for Hope, which incorporated in Mississippi in 2013.
This year the ministry applied for non-profit status, hired its first program director and most recently bought a building.
The infusion of hope in Shaw appears contagious. Leaders of Mississippi CBF hope it will reinvigorate a network of only a few churches long hamstrung by lack of resources. During a business session, an ad hoc task force was approved to develop a funding strategy after several years of deficit-spending budgets.
“I believe what we are trying to do is good and right, and it’s following in the footsteps of Jesus,” said Christian Byrd, a Beeson Divinity School graduate and former youth minister at First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., who become field coordinator of CBF Mississippi in August 2013. “I believe we are going to get there sooner rather than later.”
Lane Riley, a former member of First Baptist Church in Greenwood, S.C., with an interest in missions and working with children and youth, graduated from Lander University in her hometown in 2012 with degrees in sociology and Spanish.
She moved to Connecticut to work as a nanny and joined Wilton Baptist Church, serving as a youth Sunday school leader, co-chair of the children’s committee and chair of the worship committee.
After two years as a nanny, Riley felt called to do something more meaningful with her life. After much prayer, she felt called to work in Shaw, arriving as program director for Delta Hands for Hope in June 2014.
Her first program was a USDA grant for the Summer Food Service Program sponsored by CBF of Mississippi making it possible to feed kids ages 18 and younger twice a week over the summer. Other programs and projects included pizza and game night for teenagers, a baking day for youth and adults, a literacy program and an end-of-summer carnival.
Groups from Hattiesburg’s University Baptist Church, First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Wilton Baptist all traveled this summer to Shaw, engaging in projects including painting classrooms and hallways and renovating two bathrooms at the local elementary school.
“I have noticed when people come to Shaw for the first time, they initially notice the poverty and all the typical stereotypes of what normally comes with poverty,” Riley said in a recent blog. “After a day or two, they talk about all the wonderful things about Shaw: the amazing kids, the leaders that are working tirelessly to benefit their community, and the great potential.”
“I loved seeing the transformation in their views about Shaw!” she said.