In the forthcoming Fall 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we interviewed Dolphus Weary. His life experience and ministry work offers a unique perspective on the issue of poverty and economic development. His story and witness is powerful. Some of the upcoming interview is previewed below.
Dolphus Weary grew up in segregated Mississippi and then moved to California to attend school in 1967. He is one of the first black graduates of Los Angeles Baptist College. He returned to Mississippi to lead Mendenhall Ministries, a Christ centered community outreach organization to at-risk individuals that takes a holistic approach to solving problems of poverty. Currently Dolphus Weary is president of R.E.A.L. Christian Foundation in Richland, Miss., which strives to empower and develop rural ministries to improve the lives of Mississippians. Among his numerous degrees, Dolphus Weary also received a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. He is a nationally sought out speaker and writer and serves on numerous boards across the state and country. Weary recently spoke with managing editor Ray Nothstine.
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The title of your book is, I Ain’t Coming Back. What story does that title tell?
It tells a story of a young man who grew up in rural Mississippi. I grew up in a family of eight children. My father deserted the family when I was four years old and we lived in a three-room house, not three bedrooms, but a three-room house. All nine of us packed in there. We had holes throughout the house so I understand poverty.
As I grew up, I understood the difference between the white community and the black community. The school bus I rode, you could hear it coming down the road from miles away because it was so dilapidated. The new school bus passed my house. So, being poor and seeing racism and separation between the black community and the while community, I saw that the best thing I could do one day was to leave Mississippi.
I got a basketball scholarship to go to a Christian college in California, and when I got ready to leave Mississippi, I said, ‘Lord, I’m leaving Mississippi and I ain’t never coming back.’
I think that the other part of that is God put me in situations in California where I discovered that racism was not just unique to Mississippi or the South. Racism was found in other places as well, and I had to conclude that racism was not where you came from, but it’s an issue of the heart, and began to deal with that on an all white college campus in California. Then God began to point me back toward Mississippi, so I returned in the summers of 1968, ’69, and in 70. I traveled with a Christian basketball team and toured the Orient. We were playing basketball and sharing our faith at halftime, and there the coach challenged me about full time Christian service as a missionary in Taiwan or the Philippines.
That is when I began to think about am ‘I going into a mission field or am I running away from a mission field?’ And it became clear to me that I was running away from Mississippi as a mission field. After graduating from college and seminary, my wife and I moved back to Mendenhall, Mississippi and we started asking a question. The question we asked ‘is our Christian faith strong enough to impact the needs of a poor community, or is the best thing we can do is tell poor people to give your life to Jesus and one day you’re going to go to heaven and it’s going to be better?’
We began to internalize that to say that Jesus is concerned about you right now. We ended up developing a Christian health clinic and elementary school, a thrift store, a farm, a law office, a housing ministry, to try to take this precious gospel and make it into reality for poor people. Telling them that God loves you, he wants you to go to heaven, but God loves you right now and He wants you to live a decent life on this earth. What the Lord did was bring me back to be a part of the solution and not just to talk about the problem or simply walk away from it.
You also declare that meeting the social needs of people is the duty of the body of Christ. Many now feel that is a concept that is primarily the duty of government. Why is it important that the church lead on poverty issues?
For a long time the evangelical Church in America had this mission of just getting people saved. In Acts, we see the Church caring for people as well as feeding and clothing them. We have gotten away from that. We feel good about going to Africa and Asia. We feel good about flying 50 people across country, paying X number of dollars to fly 50 people to stay a week somewhere. Rather than taking that money and empowering the people in the local community, some want to just take a group and fly somewhere while ignoring their own backyard. We need to rethink mission. Over the last 30 years, we have been preaching a message that says let’s go to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, as we move to the remotest parts of the world. The Church, the body of Christ, needs to have a holistic view of reaching people, not just preparing them to go to heaven, but preparing people to deal with some of the social needs as well. I think that the Church has the greatest opportunity to hold individuals accountable and to move people along towards growth rather than along a line of dependency. We are really empowered to do that best in community at the local level.
What do you like most about Mississippi and why are you proud to call it home?
Mississippi is one of the best-kept secrets. The cost of living is still reasonable here. Mississippi is on its way up. It was just 40 years ago or so where Mississippi said we do not want industry, we do not want businesses. About 30 years ago, there was a major marketing push in business magazines saying, “Rethink Mississippi.”
In other words, Mississippi is a place for tremendous opportunity. I love the fact that we are changing. I love the fact that we are moving in a wonderful and fantastic direction. I have traveled all over the country, all around the world and I still believe that Mississippi is a good place. I am proud to call it home. Mississippi is still a place of courtesy. I believe with all my heart that there are many great people in this state.