A Week in the South

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Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

Spring break is, sadly, coming to an end. And after a week’s worth of fifteen-hour bus rides, intense reading, workout-equipment painting, and learning, I figured it’d be best to end the week with a blog post summarizing what I learned in the last seven days. I received two lessons overall, both of which were about people, our nation, and God.

But before I get into the morals, I’ll give you a little background. At my college, we have the opportunity to go on service-learning trips, which are like mission’s trips for college students. So I and about forty other students packed our bags and boarded a bus for Mississippi. About thirty of us stayed in Jackson, while the rest—including me—rented a van and drove over to Mendenhall to spend a week with the Mendenhall Ministries, founded by John Perkins. For four days of the week, we walked over to the Genesis One elementary school to start fixing up the school’s gym, painting the walls and the workout equipment to make it look presentable. While we were there, we talked with the locals in the neighborhood and learned more about the town (as well as the rest of America) than we anticipated.

Which brings me to the first thing I learned: America is still culturally segregated. In the part of Mendenhall where we stayed, it sat on a part of a hill. The black neighborhood surrounding us was separated from the downtown area by a railroad track. There was only one white family living in this neighborhood—right next to the volunteer center where we stayed—and the house had two layers of fences surrounding it, cutting it off from the neighborhood. Some of the churches in Mendenhall are still segregated. But what really caught our attention was the attitude of a white local we ran into in the middle of the week.

I mentioned earlier that we spent four days working at the school’s gym. On Wednesday, we met up with the larger group in Jackson and talked more about people in Mississippi who were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, including John Perkins.  A little while later, we went to Mendenhall and talked about Perkins’ work there. The biggest topic of interest in Perkins’ life was his time in the Brandon Jail in the early 70s. He had been arrested when he came to the jail to visit someone, and upon his arrest the police brutally tortured him in ways that still physically affect him even today. While he was there, some of the townspeople boycotted the surrounding shops and marched through downtown Mendenhall until his release. We did a commemorative walk through town in silence…well, mostly. At one point in the walk, a man came out of his shop and asked us what we were doing. When someone told him that we were doing a commemorative march, he rolled his eyes and scoffed at us. I didn’t catch what he said, but when we talked about it later, the meaning was crystal clear.

We talked about it more on Thursday night during reflection time. In that conversation, we thought about cultural segregation being just as prevalent in the Northern States as it was in Mississippi. We’d have groups of Asians hanging out together on campus, and in our minds we’d wonder why they don’t reach out to others without questioning why we wouldn’t reach out to them. We found that the railroad track splitting the town in half was very symbolic of America as a whole. Reality bared its teeth at us that day and taught us that, as far as racial equality goes, we still have a very long way to go.

The second moral that I think we all realized was that, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, God was still at work. Last week, I summarized my struggle with the idea of trusting an invisible deity and I wondered if there was any possibility that Christians could be wrong, despite how sure they are in their faith. During my time in Mendenhall, I saw faith at work—not in our group, but in the people we interacted with. One of the locals mentioned that, growing up, the only time he ever saw white people in the neighborhood was when volunteers came from around the nation. We also met a truly incredible woman who moved her equally incredible family down from Tennessee because she felt that this was the place where she was being called. Despite the struggles she’s faced thus far and despite what this meant for her three kids, she believed with all her heart that this is where she’s meant to be. Hearing her talk about her life, family, and faith inspired all of us in the times where we got to sit down and talk to her.

On the Thursday night after we talked, I mentally compared Mendenhall with the people of the Universalist Unitarian church I visited during the New England Saints trip. The service we attended was one meant to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. At one point in the service, a man stepped up to the podium and talked about his experiences in growing up biracial and how hard that was for him in a racially insensitive time for America. This was something I’d meant to hear about for a very long time, so naturally I was grateful to him for opening up and sharing his life with us. But as I look back on that morning, I remember having the opportunity to speak to him briefly as we left. I thanked him for sharing his story and told him that I really needed to hear it. When he responded, I remember that he seemed…very worn out. Why this was is up for debate, but looking back on it, my guess is that he was (and maybe still is) at a point in his life where he didn’t have any hope left. In contrast, the people in Mendenhall are still hopeful in spite of the circumstances that surrounded them. They always looked positive when we talked to them, even about the racism in their hometown.

While comparing the two experiences, I saw that faith is a very clear indicator of how much hope a person has. The people of Mendenhall Ministries put their hope in God every day, and it allowed them to create a welcoming, cheerful community that cared about everyone involved. On the flipside, the people of the Unitarian Universalist church didn’t know what to hope for, and for that we can’t even say what these people can stay agreed on. I saw that, even if we hope in vain, it’s still hope in something bigger than life. It keeps us moving forward in times of darkness, no matter what.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Photo source: https://sites.google.com/a/psgsd.k12.ak.us/river-horse/home/the-missi/facts-about-the-mississippi-river

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