I’m from the American South. The place where racial tensions have often been at their height. The place where slavery, Jim Crow, and ‘separate but equal’ had their heyday. But also the place where I saw the gospel of Jesus Christ, in stunningly beautiful ways, quietly transcend the ethnic divide which is so much on the forefront of current cultural dialogue.
The place was Tunica County, Mississippi – in the northern tip of that beautifully unique region known as the Mississippi Delta. This is a region where cotton was once king; where huge-scale agriculture is still the order of the day; where magnificent yellow crop-dusters buzz like giant dragonflies overhead; and where, in many localities, the majority population is African-American. It’s also the place where, eager to get my feet wet in pastoral ministry, I was called as a mission pastor (in the little crossroads of Robinsonville, in the northern part of Tunica County) during the summer before my second year of seminary.
Robinsonville, once a sleepy collection of mammoth cotton, rice, and soybean fields, was in a state of flux in the early 2000's. Nine large casinos had recently been built along the Mississippi River, and both African-Americans from elsewhere in the county, as well as out-of-the-area transplants of various backgrounds and ethnicities, were moving into the area to work at the casinos (and at the hotels, restaurants, and so on that follow, like hungry seagulls, in the casinos' wake). And the idea behind my coming was that this burgeoning population in northern Tunica County to be reached with the gospel. And, indeed, it did (and still does!).
In the two years we were there, we were able to touch a few of the out-of-the-area transplants with the message of Christ. But it turned out that most of those we touched with the good news were from among the African-American folks who had lived most of their lives in Tunica County. And it was glorious! Gathered together around Jesus Christ, the congregation there became, truly, a family! And within the church family, if my assessment is correct, there was little to-do made over the oddity of a white, suburban preacher-boy and his wife serving, and immensely loved and welcomed by, a congregation of mostly rural-background African-Americans. For, in the midst of studying the Bible together, and considering the gospel of Christ together, and singing hymns together, and caring for each other, and just doing life together, I don’t think any of us thought too much about whether we were white, or black, or rural, or suburban. And we certainly didn’t experience any racial tension within the congregation. Were we different in some ways? Absolutely! Did we realize that fact? Of course (sometimes comically!). But it never became a point of contention, or even really much of a point of discussion. We had other, more pressing, things to be doing and discussing! Jesus was bringing us together around Himself!
This was not a part of any strategy or master plan for racial harmony. I was too wet-behind-the-ears to have had any ideas for tackling something like that (and, honestly, too naïve to know that it could even have been an issue). But Christ and His gospel really do make a difference when it comes to questions of ethnicity, heritage, culture, and so on! Writing about gospel unity among Jews and Gentiles, Paul said something that, I think, also applies to all sorts of other differences and potential divisions in the church: “He Himself [Jesus] is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). “He Himself is our peace” (emphasis added)! And how true we found that to be! Where people truly gather around Christ, and know Christ, and worship Christ … no matter how different from one another they may be in many respects, they will, by a new spiritual instinct, genuinely love each other! And their differences will seem fairly small in light of what they have in common in Jesus.
So, brothers and sisters, in this day of ethnic tension and dialogue, let us lift up Christ above all else. “He Himself is our peace.”