Mission Mississippi is a statewide ecumenical organization working to build relationships between individual Christians and congregations across racial and denominational lines. Activities sponsored by the organization include regular prayer breakfasts, church partnerships, and the Annual Governor’s Prayer Luncheon. In 2016, Mission Mississippi reported twenty-one gatherings that met monthly in cities across the state.
Founded in Jackson in 1992, Mission Mississippi owes its origins to a citywide crusade proposed by white evangelist Patrick Morley and supported by white businessmen Victor Smith and Lee Paris. Morley suggested that the campaign required a demonstration of unity between African American and white Christians and invited nationally known African American evangelist Tom Skinner to join. The effort received support from an informal interracial coalition of Jackson’s ministers led by James Washington of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church and James Baird of First Presbyterian Church.
In October 1993 Mission Mississippi held a series of three rallies in Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium with an attendance of approximately twenty-four thousand. Mission Mississippi’s board, chaired by Paris, considered the rallies a success and made these “Celebration of Reconciliation” rallies an annual event. The board also chose Jarvis Ward, a young African American, to serve as Mission Mississippi’s executive director.
While ecumenical in membership (participants include African American and white Protestants, Catholics, and Pentecostals), Mission Mississippi was and remains broadly evangelical in character. With its slogan, “Changing Mississippi one relationship at a time,” Mission Mississippi is part of a national movement of evangelicals calling for racial reconciliation that includes the men’s movement Promise Keepers. Though white evangelicals had been largely indifferent or even opposed to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, in the 1990s they proposed to address racial divisions in the church and nation by calling on Christians to form intentional interracial relationships.
The energy surrounding the first rallies in Jackson gradually dissipated, and attendance at the annual celebrations dwindled. In 1998 Dolphus Weary replaced Ward as the organization’s director, bringing expertise in community organizing from his years with the Voice of Calvary and Mendenhall Ministries. Weary accepted the position with a mandate to develop Mission Mississippi as a statewide organization.
Under Weary and his team, Mission Mississippi’s emphasis on intentional interracial relationships has survived, while the large-scale rallies have gone by the wayside. Preaching in black and white pulpits the length and breadth of the state, Weary challenges congregation members to seek out interracial friendships. Mission Mississippi hosts a range of events to facilitate such relationships, including twice-weekly prayer breakfasts in different locations in Jackson, monthly businessmen’s prayer breakfasts and women’s prayer luncheons, restaurant discounts for two couples who eat together, and churches partnering for everything from picnics to preaching. Mission Mississippi also offers diversity training programs for schools, churches, businesses, and other organizations.
In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mission Mississippi, with its unique links to African American and white congregations in the affected area, its support network of churches and Christian organizations across the country, and its connections with local community development organizations, played a significant role in coordinating faith-based aid to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Within a month of the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency listed Mission Mississippi as a key organization in the coordination of relief.
Mission Mississippi is perhaps the largest sustained ecumenical racial-reconciliation initiative in the United States.
- Mission Mississippi website, missionmississippi.net
- Peter Slade, Open Friendship in a Closed Society: Mission Mississippi and a Theology of Friendship (2009)