(RNS) — C.J. Rhodes, pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was grabbing lunch from one of his regular spots when the restaurant manager made an announcement to all the patrons.
“Guys, we have to shut down. We have no water pressure.”
On Aug. 29, flooding from the nearby Pearl River caused complications at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, resulting in a loss of pressure and running water for the entire city.
At more than 160,000 people, Jackson is Mississippi’s largest city and the state capital. Schools, which had only just commenced classes, had to be shut down, and the city lacked water for even emergency services such as firefighting.
The crisis quickly made national news, and people from around the country turned their attention to Jackson seeking explanations and ways to help.
Within the city, residents quickly organized to help their neighbors and communities. At the center of these efforts stood faith leaders.
“Churches throughout the city of Jackson across denomination, class and race have engaged in water distributions at their churches or by giving water away in other ways,” said Rhodes.
His church became a water distribution site. As provisions flooded into the city from around the country, churches like his became hubs for supplying residents. Sometimes churches filled in where municipal distribution efforts were limited. They could stay open after hours to serve people who couldn’t make it to the city’s distribution sites before closing.
Jennifer Biard, lead pastor of Jackson Revival Center Church, lost water several days before the city-wide announcement. She came home and found the faucets simply didn’t work.
While dealing with her own water troubles, she led her church in providing for others in the southern part of the city where they have a campus. Throughout the crisis many water distribution sites were set up at various locations, but Biard and her volunteers went even further. They loaded up cases of water and hand-delivered them to individuals and businesses.
“One thing people don’t understand is that when you have people who are disabled, people who are without transportation, they may not be able to go out to the distribution sites,” she explained.
Individual churches were not the only bodies that got involved.
Reginald M. Buckley is the pastor of Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. He is also the president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi (GMBSC), an association of churches providing mutual aid to member congregations.
“There’s only so much any local church can do … (the convention) acts as a connector,” Buckley said.
His goal was to mobilize people and supplies from across the state and nation to help people in Jackson. The state convention has its own 18-wheel truck as well as an extensive network of churches and personnel they contacted to help.
“Though this is a trying time, one of the things that I am most grateful for is the unity that people are able to observe, how they are seeing pastors and churches come together regardless of race, regardless of denomination, regardless of anything that would divide. They are seeing the body of Christ come together like never before,” Buckley said.
Despite the efforts of churches and faith communities to provide relief, the water problems in Jackson are much deeper than a breakdown at the water plant.
The city had already been under a boil water notice for a month before the entire water system failed. Even after the city’s water pressure was restored nearly a week later, the boil water notice has remained in effect.
Although the water plant has come back online, the infrastructure issues remain.
“Now that the plant is up and running, water is flowing again, now we have to live with pipes bursting … We still have lead leaching from the pipes into the water. We still have the EPA saying the city has failed to do a number of things and if they don’t remedy those things, there may be federal seizure of the water system,” Rhodes said.
Given the continued failure to bring Jackson’s water infrastructure system up to date, Buckley said he is preparing for the next crisis.
“What we’re absolutely convinced of is that we’re going to be faced with this again, and not in the distant future but in the near future,” he said.
Buckley is working to build a stockpile of supplies to have on hand the next time the city loses water. “We are inundated with water right now. We are partnering with the Church of Christ Holiness to create a reserve and supplies center to house water, buckets and all kinds of supplies,” he said.
The constant lack of clean water and water pressure has worn on Jackson’s residents, 80% of whom are Black.
“We should have water,” Biard, who is white, said. “We should have water whether it’s cold or hot or snowing or raining.”
Jackson exists alongside wealthier suburbs including Madison, a community north of the city that is also the wealthiest in the state.
After years of experiencing a crumbling infrastructure alongside the comparative wealth of nearby towns, a freshman college student who is Black asked Buckley, “What’s wrong with me?”
“We assured her there was nothing wrong with her. There is something wrong with the world,” said Buckley, who tried to help his young parishioner understand that the fault did not rest with who she was but with external factors and decisions made by others.
Anticipating the need not only for material supplies but spiritual relief, award-winning gospel artist John P. Kee volunteered to perform a benefit concert in Jackson.
A friend of Kee’s in Jackson connected him to Biard, and he immediately knew she was someone who could help him set up the concert but also become an ongoing partner.
“I wanted to come in and partner with such a ministry where we could actually connect, and when I’m gone I’ll stay in touch, and I’ll be family,” Kee said.
Fixing Jackson’s pipes, water plant and other infrastructure needs requires resources that exceed what local churches can provide. Yet the lightning-quick response of faith leaders and their communities when the hour of need emerged provides evidence that help will be there in a crisis.
The show of unity by churches in Jackson may even be a sign of greater changes to come.
According to Biard, “I believe that this may be not just the initiation of a fresh start for Jackson, I believe it’s going to be a comprehensive fresh start … I believe that the Lord is getting ready to do something for Mississippi as a whole.”
To support local efforts to address the water crisis in Jackson, donate below.
(Jemar Tisby, PhD, is a historian, author and speaker. He wrote “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism,” and he frequently writes about race, religion and politics in his newsletter, “Footnotes.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
RIDING THE THIRD RAIL: Rev. Jesse Jackson says politics isn’t enough.
With one day left until the election, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has the presidential candidates “deadlocked.” But no matter who wins, Christians must stay engaged in the political process, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week at Columbia University. Our faith demands it.
Hearkening back to his own historic 1988 presidential run and to his work during the civil rights movement, Jackson said, “Change comes from the third rail. … We must discuss what was not discussed on the agenda, and that means we must not be so co-opted by politics … or so absorbed by it to lose the distinction.” In fact, President Obama was a student at Columbia when Jackson debated Water Mondale and Gary Hart, Jackson said, and Obama concluded from the debate that a black man could become president.
“Part of our movement has been to raise the issues not raised,” he said. “Those are issues of the inconvenient, issues of conscience.” Difficult questions have made past presidents better, Jackson explained, and if this president is reelected, as Jackson hopes, supporters must not “let him down” by failing to raise “the right questions of conscience so as to give him the right options from which to make choices.”
Asked what role spirituality can play in politics, Jackson said,“You can be spiritual but have no moral mandate and substance. … Those of us who are Christians have a leader who is spiritual with a concrete agenda.” That agenda is to love the Lord our God and treat our neighbors as ourselves, he said. ‘The Spirit gives a mandate to do something, … It means feed the hungry. It means care for those whose backs are against the wall. You can be spiritual and not do anything. You cannot be a Christian without doing that.”
Jesus was born under death warrant from a regime that was trying to stop the rise of leadership in an “occupied zone,” Jackson said. His mission was not about the middle class, but about preaching the good news to the poor and challenging religious complicity with Rome and its oppressive tendencies. “Our morality is measured by how we treat not the middle of these, but the least of these,” Jackson said. “I was hungry and you fed me, not I was not hungry and you gave me a vacation.”
Jackson complained that when the moderator of the vice presidential debate asked candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan how their shared Catholic faith informs their positions on abortion, both men gave political answers to a religious question. “They gave an American answer to a Christianity question and the moderator accepted it and didn’t delve deeper,” Jackson said.
Likewise, concern for Obama’s reelection has meant that some questions of conscience that could lead to his greatness are not being raised by his supporters, Jackson said. Questions must be disciplined, not hostile, though, if they are to be heard. “To me, that is the progressive tension,” he said. “How do we raise the right questions to our friends?”
What do you think?
If your candidate wins, will you keep riding the third rail?
RACIAL TARGET: James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing in a parking lot when two carloads of white teenagers allegedly jumped him, yelling racial epithets, before driving over him with a pickup truck.
A little less than a year ago, I pleaded with African Americans to stop using the word “racism” as a kneejerk response to any sort of problematic situation or behavior. As a way of demonstrating how possible it is, I vowed to abstain from using “the r-word” for at least a year, as a way of doing my part to tone down the rhetorical flame wars that have come to dominate contemporary political conversation.
My point in doing so was not to deny that racism exists, but rather, by temporarily banishing it, to allow the term “racism” to be reserved only for situations that truly call for it. The truth is that while racism still exists in various forms today, trying to call it out without subscribing to a commonly held and understood definition becomes problematic as racial dynamics in the United States of America continue to evolve. In other words, what racism is and looks like to me may be different from what it is and how it looks to you … if we can’t get that ironed out, how can we solve the race problem as it currently exists?
* * *
Today, I’ve broken my vow.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t go the whole year. I wanted to. Really, I did.
I probably would’ve been in the clear had I not read about the senseless vehicular homicide of James Craig Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi. According to eyewitness accounts and video footage, Anderson had been beaten severely by at least two young White males (whose names I will not dignify by referencing here), who had set out with the intent of bringing harm to the first Black person they ran across. And after one of them had left the scene, the other one literally ran over the victim with his truck … then bragged about it later at a local McDonald’s.
Let me say this slowly, so as not to be misunderstood.
THAT. WAS. RACIST.
* * *
That’s not all it is, of course. It’s also the work of a sociopath, whose behavior shocked his friends enough to cause one of them to lie when asked if she knew the assailant, and who, according to a local pastor, had a history of bullying other teenagers.
But make no mistake; this crime was mostly about racism.
The most sociologically accepted definition of racism is that it consists of race prejudice plus power.
The reason why the “plus power” part is added in there is because charges of racism are usually too easily dismissed by people who claim immunity because no one can see inside the heart. People in the public eye accused of racism, according to Jay Smooth of ill doctrine, usually try to turn public attention away from what they did and tend to frame the issue around who they are (“I’m not a racist! That’s not who I am!”).
Focusing on what a person did is usually a better way to resolve minor incidents, because the alternative is combing through the racial history of everyone who ever makes a racially insensitive comment or forwards a racist email, and nobody has that kind of time.
But in this particular crime, context matters. And you don’t have to be a regular on CSI to know that these crimes were, well … racist as hell.
If it had taken place in rural Oregon or Montana, I might’ve been willing to view this crime only as a momentary lapse in judgment. But the troubled racial history of Mississippi, too numerous to even attempt to recount here, casts an ominous light on this whole affair. The rest of the details just fill in the blanks.
Fundamentally, the beating and subsequent homicide of James Craig Anderson was the result of two White males, accompanied by friends, using their locus of power to inflict pain and suffering on, quite literallythe first Black person they saw. It was about them feeling entitled to inflict such pain by virtue of their racial identity, and expecting to get away with it for the same reason.
And whether or not it should be considered a hate crime, or whether or not hate crimes are a necessary classification in our criminal justice system… all of that is beside the point.
The point is this:
If THAT isn’t racist, then just forget it … the word no longer exists.
* * *
Now that I’ve spent hundreds of words stating the obvious, it’s worth reiterating my previous stance.
If we as Black people can tamp down on our use of the word “racism” as a catch-all equivalent to “wrongdoing by White people,” it will help to promote more effective communication from people across various ideological and racial boundaries.
But it’s also necessary for an entirely different reason.
The blight of institutional racism is a tragic stain on American history, and it is cheapened every time we apply that word to conflicts and incidents of a vastly inferior magnitude.
Especially when we do it over the Internet.
The repeated rhetorical equivalency of heinous crimes with comical misunderstandings has produced such a climate of jaded skepticism on the internet that the very phrase, “that’s racist” has morphed into a caricatured catchphrase meme, complete with its own alternative spelling (“thassraycess!”).
* * *
If the latest horrific crime in Jackson has taught us anything, it’s that THIS is the real legacy of racism in America.
So like I said, I’m sorry I couldn’t go the full year.
But I’m sorry to say, some of us Black folks couldn’t go a whole month, or even a whole week, without complaining about racism. And if those complaints are about something trivial, like whether or not Chris Brown gets the same kind of media coverage as Charlie Sheen, we ought to keep our mouths shut.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Ailibeen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.