Cynthia and Roger Neufeld Smith were the unit leaders at the Jackson, Mississippi, Service Adventure unit from 2018-2020. This blog was originally published through Open Door Mennonite Church, in Jackson, a partner of Mission Network and the host congregation of the Jackson Service Adventure unit and Youth Venture and Civil Rights Learning Tour groups.
When Cynthia and I moved into the Mennonite Mission Network Service Adventure unit house in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2018, I noticed a card posted on our refrigerator door, left behind by the previous Service Adventure participants. It was a quote from Mississippi native William Faulkner: "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi."
In our time at Open Door Mennonite Church, we came to understand not only more about our world through our experience in Mississippi but also more about God and the people God has called to be an Anabaptist witness in Mississippi.
Open Door Mennonite Church is a small but extraordinary group of amazing individuals, whom God has called together to be a witness for peace and racial reconciliation in Jackson. Open Door Mennonite brings together African Americans from Jackson, Mississippi, and Omaha, Nebraska; Choctaw people from the Nanih Waiya area of eastern Mississippi; Conservative Mennonites from Florida, Iowa and Ontario, Canada; and a former Marine from northern Mississippi, via Raleigh, North Carolina, all of whom are seeking to be witnesses to God's peace. The fact that such a diverse group of people can worship together is, in itself, a miracle and a witness to God's reconciling love.
The Open Door community introduced Cynthia and me to the potential and paradoxes of the Deep South. We learned more about the history of the unbelievable cruelties of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, as well as how those wounds continue to fester. We learned that the task of racial reconciliation did not end with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Deep disparities and divisions continued under the radar of the national news. But the Open Door community continued to foster understanding among people of different races and socio-economic conditions by quietly working in the local neighborhoods, through various helping professions in the community, and as advocates for more just social policies. At the same time, Open Door congregants love the positive aspects of Southern history and culture, the natural beauty of Mississippi, and the extraordinary musical, literary, and culinary accomplishments of Mississippians.
Open Door has spent years wrestling with the issues of racial and political divisions that have reemerged at the forefront of our national consciousness in recent years, and offer their wisdom to other Christian communities that too often reflect our national political divisions. Open Door continues to be a church with a vision for multi-cultural worship. Their commitment to service is evident in their taking on the major responsibility of sponsoring a Service Adventure unit. And their vision continues to expand through plans to start the Peace and Justice Center of the Deep South and with them hosting various community groups in their building, once they are able — with the help of friends from near and far — to complete building renovations.
Open Door is inspiring by its very existence and nature. Its members have invested deeply in 'understanding Mississippi' and, as a result, have understanding and wisdom to share with the world.
Mennonite Mission Network is excited to support the Peace and Justice Center of the Deep South. Click here to help Mission Network continue to support local urban initiatives through Anabaptist witness. Contact Ann Jacobs for more information about this and other partnerships.