WCF students work to fight racism over spring break in Mississippi

For many people, Spring Break is characterized by friends, parties and warm weather on beaches around the world. This year, however, a small group of students decided on a distinctly alternative break. Instead of working on a tan and forgetting about school work, they headed to a place most people would never consider a vacation spot. The challenges they were faced with, though, were unlike any they had ever encountered before and occur infrequently in these times. The trials they tackled during a one-week trip to Jackson, Mississippi were those of racial reconciliation.

The group was composed of members of the Williams Christian Fellowship’s (WCF) First Year Bible Study (of which I am a member). The trip was like other community service trips in the nature of some of the work. The difference from other trips was at the end of the day the work was not over. “During our stay we helped out at the Stewpot Kitchen and primarily at the Spencer Perkins Center,” said Sarah Beach ’06, “tearing down a deck for replacement, landscaping, cleaning and renovating volunteer homes.”

The group worked with John M. Perkins and his foundation to identify the role of Christian churches in the struggle for racial understanding. Perkins, who has led expeditions of this sort frequently, spent the first thirty years of his life in search of the American dream. Born in Mississippi, perpetual racial injustice incited him to move to California and to vow to never to return to the south. There, he was married and he acquired a house and a secure job as an Iron Workers Union organizer. After becoming a Christian in 1960, he struggled with the guilt of having left home and soon moved back to Mendenhall, Miss. and began a career of community rebuilding that has gained him praise around the country. Some of this praise has come in the form of recognition by the NAACP as one of the most influential black leaders in the United States and in an honorary Doctorate degree from Wheaton College.

In Mendenhall, he established a school, a health clinic, an office for legal assistance, a youth center and a senior citizen facility. He continued to work in Mendenhall for twelve years until he found leaders in the developing community that would take over for him. In 1982, he moved to Pasadena, California where engaged in similar tasks and formed a group that would carry on his work. Now 73, Dr. Perkins is in the state capitol working in the Spencer Perkins Center, constructed by and named after his now-deceased son. In Jackson, Perkins hopes to rebuild the community by providing all the services necessary for a poor community, as in Mendenhall, and unite the poor and rich communities; a division that can as easily be described by race.

During the one-week stay in Jackson, the FYBS group was able to interact with Dr. Perkins and learn about the inherent problems of racial reconciliation. “Over the course of the week, we saw the extreme racial and socioeconomic divide,” said Katie Lewkowicz ’06. “This was exemplified by the railroad tracks that divide predominantly white suburbs from black ‘shotgun houses.’”

One of the things Christine Rabe ’06 says to have learned from the trip is how widespread racism still is a part of America. “Even though our honored laws and statues are basically just,” she said, “the United States is still teeming with inequality and racism-both systematic and relational.” After coming to terms with the fact that racism, although no longer blatant, persists in the United States the group focused in finding a way to use the Christian community to resolve the problem.

In the 1960s, Christian churches were a major support to the Civil Rights movement. They were used as gathering locations and informed the public of current events. Recently, though, Christian peoples have done little to deal with racism that is not widely visible. Our president distinguished the situation when he pointed out 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings as the most segregated hour of the week. Changing this feeling of complacency in the Christian population and in the campus at large was an issue the group dealt with throughout the week. “I wondered how I could have grown up hearing ‘love your neighbor,’” Lewkowicz said, “but never been instilled with a sense of responsibility to serve humbly and seek racial reconciliation intentionally.”

The group learned exactly what it meant to appreciate race and love people for who they are and the value of their life. “Service was redefined for me,” Rabe said. “It is no longer helping others out of pity of their situation. That has undertones of heroism and superiority. Rather, service is putting into action the truth that all people are equal and created in God’s image

Dr. Perkins also highlighted the responsibility of Christians to make justice and equality a foremost concern. Lewkowicz points to the reason why Christians have such a large responsibility. “The love Jesus spoke of is not passive,” she said, “like ‘be tolerant’ or ‘be nice.’ It is a call to action, compassion, reconciliation and service. Through Bible study and discussions about issues of racial reconciliation and our Christian responsibilities to the poor and disadvantaged, we grew both individually and more importantly as a family.”

Spring break did not provide warm weather, sleep or rest for the First Year Bible Study group; it did however equip them with life-long lessons.