Lived Theology Road Trip: The Speed of Change in Jackson, Mississippi

This is the third in a series of blog posts with reports and reflections by Peter Slade on his two-week lived theology road trip from New Orleans to Memphis in September 2013.

I arrived at Redeemer Presbyterian Church at 9:30 in time for Sunday school. Redeemer is a young, vibrant, interracial church in Jackson, Mississippi. As I waited in a corridor for the first service to let out, I saw an older African American gentleman in a light brown suit sitting patiently. I realized that I was waiting for Sunday school with James Meredith, the man who integrated the University of Mississippi back in 1962. I told him how much I had enjoyed reading his recent book A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America.

“You read all of it?”

“Yes sir.”

After introducing myself as a graduate of Ole Miss I asked him if I could go with him to his Sunday school class. We went into the classroom and sat in rows of folding metal chairs–whites and blacks–and we were lectured on Paul’s letter to the Galatians by an African American student from Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). When Meredith went to his first classes at Ole Miss over 50 years ago, none of the white students would sit next to him, and when RTS opened its doors in Jackson in 1964, to combat the social and theological liberalism of the denomination’s seminaries, there were no black seminarians.

James Meredith on his first day of classes, University of Mississippi, 1962.

James Meredith on his first day of classes, University of Mississippi, 1962.

Sitting next to Meredith in that Sunday school room, I contemplated how much can change in one lifetime.

It turns out that this is my week for meeting Mississippians who have seen unimaginable social change in their lifetimes. On Tuesday I gave a lecture for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) on the Legacy of John Perkins. This started as an invitation on a Facebook comment thread to come to an informal brown bag event at the MDAH building; by the time I got to Jackson, somehow this had become a lecture in the house chamber of the Old Capitol building with former governor of Mississippi, William Winter introducing me. Born in 1923, Winter’s grandfather was a Confederate veteran. The Civil War is only two lifetimes away.

The setting is intimidating: I am speaking in the chamber where Mississippi decided to secede from the Union, and John and Vera Mae Perkins are present to hear what I have to say. In his introduction, William Winter thanks Perkins. Referencing the Damascus road story (Acts 9), he says, “He caused the scales to fall from my eyes on the matter of race.”

(L. to R.) Peter Slade, John Perkins, Vera Mae Perkins, William Winter

(L. to R.) Peter Slade, John Perkins, Vera Mae Perkins, William Winter

My lecture traced Perkins’ life from a cotton plantation in Simpson County in 1930 through his 53 years as an apostle to the white evangelical church. In the lecture I suggested that this lifetime spent preaching reconciliation and economic justice in white pulpits has weakened the bond between a reactionary social conservatism and a inerrantist biblical hermeneutic. This means that in the twenty-first century many self-identifying “Bible believing Christians” can contemplate Perkins’s radical message of Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation without dismissing him as a heretic. This is a remarkable ideological shift from the 1950s and 1960s when evangelicals failed to support the Civil Rights Movement, dismissing its goals as “integration without regeneration.”

Thinking over this lifetime of change witnessed by Meredith, Winter, and Perkins, I realize that if you measure change in decades, the desegregation of hearts and minds is taking a long time. But if I shift my perspective to measuring change in lifetimes, then things look different.

How long does change take, and how long should we wait for change? These are familiar questions to historians of the Civil Rights Movement.

I am writing this blog post sitting on the balcony of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and my mind naturally strays to Oxford’s favorite literary son: William Faulkner. In the March 5, 1956 issue of Life magazine, there was a photo essay on the ongoing Montgomery bus boycott: “A Bold Boycott Goes On.” At the end of the article, readers were promised a commentary on this surprising turn of events. “For one celebrated Southerner’s personal views on how to check this rise [in ‘racial hostility’] turn to pages 51, 52.” The celebrated Southerner was Faulkner who wrote:

“I must go on record as opposing the forces outside the South which would use legal or police compulsion to eradicate that evil [of compulsory segregation] overnight . . . I would say to the NAACP and all organizations who would compel immediate and unconditional integration: ‘Go slow now. Stop now for a time, a moment.’”

Historians call this position gradualism. Gradualism was the idea put forward by white moderates in the 1950s and 1960s that change would come to the South if outside agitators would just leave well enough alone and allow southerners to take care of their own business. The leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott were unimpressed with Faulkner’s plea. On April 14,1956, in a speech to the NAACP in Columbus, Ohio, Martin Luther King took William Faulkner to task.

I am on the road and my googling skills are obviously not up to finding the text of that 1956 speech. However, in 1963, in his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail–a response to white moderates–King shot back this blistering statement:

For years now I have heard the words “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” . . . We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

It occurs to me that these white southern gradualists had the wrong prescription but the right prediction. (I checked with a Baptist preacher friend and she said this would preach!) Their prescription was wrong because there clearly needed to be people like James Meredith and John Perkins (both inside agitators) to challenge the system of white supremacy. However, their prediction that it would take southerners (black and white) a long time to overcome the crippling effects of slavery and Jim Crow was correct.

Sitting at the back of the house chamber listening to my lecture was Rev. Ed King. Now in his seventies, King was prominent in the movement in Jackson. Kelly Figueroa-Ray, the assistant director of the Project on Lived Theology, had driven up to Jackson with her daughter for the Old Capitol event, and after the lecture, we headed to the Mayflower on Capitol Street. After our late lunch we crossed the street to the location of the old Woolworth’s store. There is now an historic marker to remind passersby that this was the site of a famous sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter. Rev. Ed King had been present as his students from Tougaloo College were abused and attacked by a white mob. We stand there taking pictures in the heat.


“You’ve lived to see Mississippi change,” I throw out there.

“We just did what we knew was right. We didn’t know if we were going to succeed. We just had to do something.”

Lived Theology Road Trip: Singing in Jackson

This is the second in a series of blog posts with reports and reflections by Peter Slade on his two-week lived theology road trip from New Orleans to Memphis in September 2013. 

Redeemer Sanctuary

To read the first post “New Orleans and CCDA”, click here.

I crossed the Pontchartrain and drove on up to Jackson, Mississippi, in time to go to Redeemer Presbyterian Church for Sunday morning worship. Redeemer is a fascinating and unlikely congregation. A church in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), its existence is the result of a church split nine years ago in a North Jackson congregation called Trinity Pres. In the 1950s, when Trinity had started, Northside Drive had been a white neighborhood. By 2004, it had “transitioned,” as they say, into an African-American neighborhood. The split in the church may not have been directly about race, but race had played a complicating factor — it was over whether the congregation should stay and work in the neighborhood or move four miles down the road (and across the highway and color line) into a bigger facility.

Redeemer’s website diplomatically summarizes the resulting split:

When Trinity had outgrown the facilities on Northside Drive, it elected to move to a new location on Old Canton Road.  This opened a unique opportunity for a portion of the Trinity family to remain at the Northside location in order to continue ministering to the Broadmoor and Broadmeadow neighborhoods.

Over on its site, Trinity Pres’ has a very detailed justification for what happened:

Trinity had reached a point in its demographic niche where future growth and impact in the African American community – the predominant community at its’ Northside Drive location – necessitated African American leadership. The elders became convinced that the location of the church demanded an African American pastor on staff and an integrated body of elders and deacons. The move to Old Canton Road would open the way for a black church on Northside Drive with indigenous leadership.

So to summarize:  those who left (the congregation) stayed (in the building) and those who stayed, left!

Mike Campbell preaching his first sermon at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, October 10, 2004.

Mike Campbell preaching his first sermon at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, October 10, 2004.

I had been in Jackson during the Trinity/Redeemer split back in 2004 and I had gone to see Mike Campbell–the African American minister called to Redeemer–preach his first sermon, and now I was fascinated to see how this new congregation was doing. I was particularly interested to see how they were developing a music program to lead worship in this intentional interracial congregation.

Sociologist Gerardo Marti in Worship Across the Racial Divide (OUP, 2012) observed that “Integrated worship is fundamental to the vision of a truly multiracial church“ (4). He also observes that in an exercise as fraught as nurturing a multi-racial community in which so many factors are outside the church leaders’ control, the pastor and the elders can control  “the construction of participation through worship music” (15). Marti contends that this ability to control the musical content can lead to the mistaken belief that just by playing the right music the right way a church can determine the racial constituency of the congregation — a kind of “play it and they will come” mentality. What he discovered from his research in California was that it is the practice of making the music together, rather than the type of music being made, that actually proved to be most significant.

“Music alone does not integrate people. The force of the music does not come through its professional quality but rather through the relational connections members share. . . The relationship not the music is celebrated. The music gives occasion for building relationships” (Marti, 176).

Over lunch on Monday, Redeemer’s minister Mike Campbell told me of the church’s dramatic numerical success. Starting with around 100 people for the Sunday morning service, they now have 650-700 attending two morning services. The number of African Americans has also increased from less than 10% in 2004 to around 25% today. So many people are attending that Redeemer had to extend the sanctuary and build a wrap-around balcony.

choir practice at Redeemer

Paula Granger and Symeon Robins lead choir practice in Redeemer’s expanded sanctuary.

The sanctuary was not just reconfigured to  accommodate more people — the pulpit and the pipe organ have gone — in their place is a space that accommodates the choir, a band– including a Hammond B3 and drums off to the side isolated in a small plexiglass room–with the preacher and assistant pastor sitting at the front of the platform facing the congregation. Suspended over them all is a large celtic cross.

Redeemer has decided to invest in African American gospel musicians to lead the music and choir–Paula Granger is the director and Symeon Robins is her able assistant on keys. The music itself is drawn from distinct musical traditions present in the congregation and led by different members of the music ministry. This particular Sunday, Ryan Dean –the white youth pastor–leads most of the songs with his acoustic guitar. His vernacular is Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) but you can feel the gears shift as the songs change from CCM (“Blessed Be Your Name”) to Gospel (“Highly Exalted”) to Reformed University Fellowship (“The Sands of Time are Sinking”).

As the genre changes the quality and style of the singing changes. CCM is sung in a breathy style with very little volume — it is the music of a personal relationship with Jesus and the singers don’t need to project the sound much further than the space just in front of their lips (after all, Jesus is closer to you than you are to yourself). The effect, even when a song is well known and loved, is to create a warm melodic murmur that can be heard over the band and the amplified singers if you focus your attention on it. But as soon as the choir switches to singing gospel the volume of singing jumps dramatically — gospel singers project to the back of the room and the African Americans are enjoying singing out. The final hymn is a favorite of the Reformed University Fellowship Hymn Book and all of a sudden the white women are singing like the sirens from O Brother, Where Art Thou. Bluegrass, unlike CCM, is a style of singing that encourages projection. These conservative Southern Presbyterians claim this musical product of its student ministry as a distinctive worship genre. They take old nineteenth century hymns (the more emotionally tortured, the better) and set them to new tunes written in a Nashville Americana folk style — think Buddy Miller and the Civil Wars meets the Avett Brothers with a dash of Emmylou Harris.

I am intrigued by the different voices of the congregation–the way the different church traditions are so identifiable not simply in the songs people sing but in the very way they sing them together. In the book Creator Spirit (Baker, 2011, 80), theologian Steve Guthrie points out that St. Paul calls Gentile Christians to sing God’s praises with the Jews in the church to demonstrate the new reality of their unity in Christ. They are to sing with “one voice”(Rom 15-5-11).

After the service Candace and Symeon Robins take me to The Cock of the Walk restaurant. As we eat fried chicken, catfish, hush puppies and greens, I discover that Redeemer isn’t trying to develop a single voice — a musical expression distinctive to the congregation. “We want to be authentic to each genre,” Symeon explains. I can’t decide how to think about this — I am not sure if I am only hearing people sing their own music and being silent on the rest or if I am hearing the distinctive songs of different traditions meeting together on a Sunday morning.

Choir practice at Redeemer

On Tuesday night I come back to Redeemer for choir practice. I stow myself on the back row with the basses where I can’t do too much damage. There are 26 people in the choir stands this evening and fifteen are African American — a proportion much higher than in the congregation (Marti calls this tendency “conspicuous color”). We work hard for 90 minutes and then join hands as we pray together. As I say good bye to Symeon and Paula and we hug I experience something of what the sociologist Marti observed when he wrote that “music gives occasion for building relationships.” But the same could be said of any social event–sociology can only take us so far. Theology gets us further:

“Music cannot summon up from within itself the power to ‘break down the dividing walls’ and ‘abolish the hostility between us’ (see Eph 2:14). This is the work of God. Nevertheless, as with bread and wine, as with the waters of baptism, or as with sexual intimacy, music is one means by which God may teach us community and make it a lived reality among us” (Guthrie 91).

Lived Theology Road Trip: New Orleans and CCDA

This is the first of a series of blog posts with reports and reflections by Peter Slade on his two-week lived theology road trip from New Orleans to Memphis in September 2013.

Sign reading: Laisez Le Bon Temps Roulez

I flew to new Orleans to attend the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). The CCDA is a network of churches and ministries working in the impoverished, mostly urban, neighborhoods– the so-called “forgotten places of empire.” Its guiding principles are crystallized in John Perkins’s three Rs of Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation. I was one of around nearly 3,000 who arrived in the city for what Charles Marsh has described as “a mix of mass meeting, Billy Graham crusade, and SNCC planning session circa 1963” (The Beloved Community, 2005, 185).

It is certainly an odd event.

John Perkins leading the morning Bible study.

John Perkins leading the morning Bible study.

As I arrived at the Hyatt Regency on the Wednesday evening it had the trappings of many of the conferences I have attended–modern conference hotel, name tags on lanyards, exhibition hall, meeting rooms and workshops–but the motley mass of humanity crowding in through the front doors seemed to confound the hotel staff. It is hard to describe the attendees of CCDA. They are certainly racially diverse–African American, Latino, Asian, and Anglo–but this isn’t the kind of racial diversity usually found in the powerful white world of professional conferences. CCDA is ethnically, economically and culturally diverse: this is not the kind of diversity where all are welcome at the table just as long as they eat from the white menu and observe white etiquette.

Founded in 1989 by John Perkins and Wayne Gordon, this is the twenty-fifth annual conference and there are obvious efforts in place to keep the organization moving forward. I detected a lack of concern to keep within acceptable limits of white evangelical orthodoxy. I also saw the way CCDA is moving beyond the black/white paradigm of racial reconciliation that dominated the 1990s for evangelicals.

At the forefront of these changes is Soong-Chan Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. Rah appeared on the main stage and took part in numerous workshops. He brings insights of post-colonial studies to bear on the domestic urban ministries of CCDA. The plenary session on my second morning in New Orleans was on “indigenous leadership.” Rah chose this moment to critique one of the three pillars of CCDA. He explained that the misunderstanding or misapplication of the R of Relocation has significantly hampered CCDA’s development of local leaders. White suburban Christians misappropriate the Philippian hymn when they understand themselves as emptying themselves of power and moving to the neighborhood to conduct an incarnational ministry to save the poor, Rah explained. They are not Christ, Rah tells the hall, only the Church–the community–can now be the incarnate body of Christ.

Dominating the conference was the issue of mass incarceration in America. On the Friday morning the main hall was full to hear Michelle Alexander–author of the The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It was the modern equivalent of Finney’s abolitionist revival meetings. Before Alexander took the stage, the praise team led the congregation in contemporary Christian praise songs drenched in a realized eschatology. “Spirit break out, heaven come down . . . We want to see your kingdom here.” Alexander called for an end to the “prison industrial complex profiting from black bodies,” in which black men are “shuttled from decrepit schools to hi-tech prison facilities.” This system rests on the core belief that “some are not worthy of care and concern.” She challenged America to move beyond the War on Drugs that has so disastrously crippled whole communities in the United States. “War has failed. It is time to chose another path. . . A great awakening is required!”

(L. to R.) John Perkins, Ted Ownby, Kelly Figueroa-Ray, Lisa Sharon Harper, Michael Andres, Peter Slade, Soong-Chan Rah, Charles Marsh

(L. to R.) John Perkins, Ted Ownby, Kelly Figueroa-Ray, Lisa Sharon Harper, Michael Andres, Peter Slade, Soong-Chan Rah, Charles Marsh

What brought me to CCDA this year was the launch of Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M Perkins. I was pleased to see a large pile of copies on the book table next to The New Jim Crow. A number of the contributors were present at CCDA and we held a panel presentation on the Friday lunchtime. John Perkins turned up to hear what we had to say about him and we invited him to join us.

I have a second reason for this road trip and that is conducting research into my book project on congregational singing as a practice of reconciling communities. While at CCDA I caught up with David Bailey, a worship leader from Richmond, Virginia. He was leading the worship at the plenary sessions and also conducting workshops (“Melody and Memory: Reconciliation through Worship Music” and “Worship and Mission Contextualization for the Urban Context.” For Bailey, worship music is invaluable in its role of “connecting the heart and the mind.”

I left New Orleans in the middle of a dramatic electrical storm and took I-55 toward Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson is the home of John Perkins as well as Redeemer Church. Redeemer is a multi-ethnic church that I want to get to know better as  I explore the challenges facing congregations trying to find the songs that connect the heart and mind of a congregation bent on reconciliation.

Dr. Marie Griffith to speak on Christians, sex, and politics

Dr. Marie GriffithOn Wednesday, September 18, Dr. Marie Griffith will give a lecture entitled, “Christians, Sex, and Politics: An American History.” Dr. Griffith is a U.Va. alumna, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, and John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.

For more than 50 years, one of the most dramatically unifying themes for rallying conservative Christians to the American voting booth has unmistakably been sex.  This talk will explore crucial episodes in this history and the religious wranglings over such issues as birth control, literary censorship, chastity, marriage, and sex education: the many topics that have set sexuality and gender squarely at the center of political conflict in the U.S.

Dr. Griffith’s lecture will be in Monroe Hall at 5:00 p.m. on September 18. This event is sponsored by The Virginia Center for the Study of Religion.

Project on Lived Theology launches new book on John M. Perkins

Mobilizing for the Common GoodAs mentioned in our last news post, the Project on Lived Theology is celebrating John Perkins through the launch of a new published work Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins, edited by Peter Slade, Charles Marsh, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel.

On July 11 of this year, the essays written for the 2009 Spring Institute for Lived Theology were published in Mobilizing for the Common Good. Peter Slade describes the work as an exploration of “the life and legacy” of John M. Perkins, influential community organizer, minister, speaker, writer, and Civil Rights activist.

The book will be publicly launched on September 13th in a session at the Christian Community Development Association National Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. Then on September 17th, Peter Slade will give a lecture on John Perkins at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson Mississippi as part of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History program History is Lunch.

Check back later this week and next for posts from Peter Slade as he journeys through Louisiana and up to Jackson, Mississippi to celebrate John Perkins and this new work about his life and theology.

The Project on Lived Theology celebrates John M. Perkins

Cultivate CCDA ConferenceOn September 11, the 25th annual Christian Community Development Association National Conference convenes in New Orleans. The conference runs four days, and is packed with workshops, plenary sessions, Bible studies, and exhibits.

John M. Perkins, the founder of CCDA, is an influential community organizer, minister, speaker, writer, and Civil Rights activist. One of the sessions at the conference is a book launch for Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins. This book project based is on the papers presented at the Project on Lived Theology’s 2009 Spring Institute for Lived Theology that focused on the life, ministry and theology of John Perkins.

We’ll be featuring the book in our news on the PLT homepage in the next couple of weeks, but meanwhile, take a look at this video from SILT 2009 of Charles Marsh in conversation with John Perkins. If you’d like your own free DVD copy, email us at to request one.