In April 2002 I drove into the Arkansas Delta region for a preview trip to the site where we would take our mission trip that summer. The preview trip changed my life.
Before that trip race relations and poverty were issues that only occasionally intersected my life; they didn't have a regular presence. Sure I had the right views on both issues, but I hadn't been actively involved in the issues nor had the issues changed my mindset.
I arrived in Helena, AR early that morning. Helena is in Phillips County; one of the twenty poorest in the country. My meeting wasn't until 10, but I wanted to get to the town early and drive around some and get some sense of it. Helena sits a little more than an hour south of I-40. So the new education began as I drove down the country roads and through the small towns and cotton fields. I was listening to Mary J. Blige's No More Drama, which really seemed to speak to me a lot during that drive, even more than it had before.
As I came into Helena there were a bunch of things I noticed. It was local election season and all the faces on campaign signs were white. I knew that a supermajority of the population was black. There were lots of empty buildings and dramatically run down buildings. But then there were also lovely, grand homes. There were clearly sections of town of the haves and have nots, though the entire town looked depressed. The main street, Cherry Street, looked like it was still 1960 -- charming, but clearly behind-the-times. I got out and walked along the street, finally going into Bunny's cafe.
I ordered grits and coffee. These were the best grits I'd ever had and one of the best cups of coffee. This was a small business begun by an African-American woman -- a positive sign of entrepeneurism in this community. I was chatting with the people and met Will (I can't for the life of me remember his last name while I'm writing this). He had grown up in Helena and moved away after integration to seek college and a career elsewhere. Later in life he realized that so many had left the native communities that those communities were suffering, so he had returned to Helena and created an organization to work with teenagers. He described all of his work and the culture and needs of the city. He told me something I had never realized before. He said that prior to integration that there had been a thriving black community with a strong middle class that owned and ran businesses that catered to the African-American community. He said that after integration all the black businesses had gone out of business as everyone shopped in the traditionally white stores. He said that though integration was a positive thing, it had had serious negative economic consequences. It had also destroyed a culture and community that in many ways no longer existed. He said that when he was growing up, he had role models and activities and that there had been less of that in recent decades as folk had left the area and the old pre-integration structures of the black community had disappeared. He had come home to try to help get some of that back for the kids and teens of the city. It was an amazing, revelatory conversation to have with a complete stranger.
I then went to Walnut Street Works for my meeting with the Rev. Dr. Mary Olson, Ms. Naomi Cottoms, and a representative from CBF of Arkansas. When CBFA decided to begin working in Phillips County, they found Walnut Street Works, a local agency, to work with. Mary Olson is a white, Methodist minister. Naomi Cottoms is an African-American educator who grew up in Helena and had moved away. Mary and Naomi moved to Helena together to begin Walnut Street Works to address racial and poverty issues, particularly housing, health care, deliberative democracy, and small business economic development. I was meeting with them to discuss our trip and what we would be doing. You could tell that there was some distrust of me. I came from Fayetteville. NW Arkansas is the rich part of the state. It gets lots of public works. It is growing and thriving. And it is predominately white. There is a distrust of NW Arkansas in the Delta.
But quickly I connected with Mary and Naomi, and we became good friends. You know how when you meet someone and you immediately recognize a kindred spirit. We talked not only about our mission trip and the specifics of the plans, but we discussed history and culture and race relations and politics and economics. They drove me around the town and told me about it.
Mark Twain said that Helena was the most beautiful spot on the Mississippi. Mid-twentieth century it had been a thriving town of 40,000. Now its population was less than 8,000. Whole neighborhoods and city blocks were empty and in decline. They showed me a housing area where people lived in something I wouldn't keep animals in. And this neighborhood didn't have running water. The residents had to go get water from a central spigot and carry it back to their homes. IN 2002 IN THE RICHEST COUNTRY IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD?!?! They showed me the worst poverty that I'd ever seen.
That one trip changed me. Within the next few months my ministry changed. I preached a sermon on race relations and how our part of the state needed to work to help the Delta and that we owed because we were white and had an inherited guilt. I brought Naomi and Mary to Fayetteville to talk to the Ministerial Association, out of which they formed relationships with various other churches and ministers. I got the person from the University of Arkansas in charge of working on economic development in touch with them to see what the University could do to help. And everywhere I went I spoke passionately about poverty and race and our forthcoming mission trip.
I ended up taking two mission trips to Helena, one with Royal Lane. This community is deeply embedded in my psyche, though I've only been there three times. I continue to care and keep up through Mary with various needs.
But the important thing is that it changed me. This one trip. It made me more politically active as a minister. It made me realize that my ministerial concerns included economic development, race relations, the role of minorities in politics, etc., etc. And my overall worldview began to change. I began to see things from the side of those left out and to understand their positions better. If I end up a full-blown Leftist, it will be because of that one trip that changed me.