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.
I have written quite a bit on the church response to natural disasters here at Acton. “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” was the feature piece in the last issue of Religion & Liberty.
John Tozzi over at businessweek.com has written an excellent article highlighting Louisiana’s outreach to the business community during natural disasters. From the article:
As Hurricane Gustav bore down on Louisiana in 2008, state officials wanted to avoid the food shortages that had followed Katrina three years earlier. So they bought thousands of MREs—“meals ready to eat,” foil-bagged military rations available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—for about $8 each. They also called local caterers and restaurants to see whether those businesses might help feed evacuees. The food vendors, it turned out, were able to serve fresh, hot meals of jambalaya and red beans and rice at half the price of FEMA’s rations. “We probably saved close to half a million dollars during that one event by tapping into the private sector,” says Pat Santos, who oversees disaster relief in Louisiana.
Tozzi points out that FEMA has also stepped up their efforts to partner with businesses, realizing the private sector often provides greater resources and a better response time for disaster relief.
The August issue of Southern Living magazine offers a very good story on the faith of Smithville Baptist pastor Wes White and the community of Smithville, Miss. Smithville was devastated by a tornado that wreaked havoc across the South in late April.
Pastor White is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a hope beyond logic, beyond understanding. I believe our God is going to take our devastation and turn it into something beautiful.” The words from White echo Rev. Kelvin Croom’s message expressed in my article “The Church and Disaster Relief: Shelter from the Stormy Blast” from the Spring Issue of Religion & Liberty. Croom declared:
Even in the days we were living with segregation, we all had a hope for a better day. And right now, that’s what we’re doing in Tuscaloosa: We’re hoping for a better day, hoping we come from the ashes of destruction and into a beautiful, more livable American city.
The devastation is a reminder to pray for our fellow citizens who are in the path of Hurricane Irene, and pray that the hurricane has a dull bite. But as my piece in Religion & Liberty points out, if there is to be any destruction along the East Coast, it will largely be the Church and religious organizations that are the first on the scene. They are the ones who will be making a lasting impact in the recovery and restoration of affected communities.
While insensitive political commentators might be looking at the storm as a great opportunity for job creation, most of the effort will come from volunteers. An August 19 story from CNN on the Joplin tornado points out, what many of us already know, the faith community stays in the recovery effort for the duration. Anybody from the Gulf Coast or anybody who has been involved in Hurricane Katrina relief, is aware of the deep commitment and staying power of many charitable faith groups.
The film Lt. Dan Band for the Common Good kicks off with the Abraham Lincoln quote, “Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” The words are appropriate. In 2003, wanting to do even more for America’s service men and women, Gary Sinise formed the Lt. Dan Jam Band. The band name was easily decided because many soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen did not know Sinise by name and just called him “Lt. Dan.” The moniker is based on his well known portrayal of an Army lieutenant who lost his legs in Vietnam in the Hollywood film Forrest Gump.
Sinise likes to joke that expectations are low because the band leader is an actor, but in truth the band is made up of professional musicians. Director Jonathan Flora followed the band all over the world for two years as it performed for America’s military and charitable organizations that support the military.
The filmmakers focused a lot of the attention on all the band members and their commitment to those sacrificing for the nation. One touching scene comes on a bus when somebody off camera mentions that Sinise is a hero to the military and the moment leaves him visibly emotional. The film also includes interviews from Sinise’s wife and children and they share how much they miss having Sinise at home but are fully supportive and proud of his service.
Sinise, who was awarded a Presidential Citizen Medal by President George W. Bush in 2008, said in the film that after he started hearing casualty reports in the War on Terror, now almost ten years old, he had to do something. A 2008 Washington Times piece traces much of Sinise’s work with the military and the love and affection they have for him. Also quoted in the article is Deb Rickert of Operation Support our Troops. Rickert declared of Sinise:
In an age when the public often lavishes epitaphs of greatness on celebrities merely because they are famous, the military community bestows the simple title of friend on Gary Sinise truly because that is what he is to us.
While Sinise and the band members are visibly central in the film, many of the stories, tributes, and attention are reserved for the men and women in uniform and the first responders at Ground Zero on 9/11. Gripping testimonials are woven throughout the documentary, especially from family members of those who are deployed overseas in a war zone. An example of notable figures who offer words during the film include film actor Robert Duvall and American hero Colonel Bud Day, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Most importantly, Lt. Dan Ban for the Common Good is simply a powerful reminder of what one can do when gifts and talents are put in service of others. Sinise is a natural because his heart and his authenticity shines. The director does a fine job of pointing out what is already widely known among the military and their families, that Sinise is known as somebody who genuinely cares about their service and circumstances and is not hanging around for a photo-op.
St. Ephraem declared, “Blessed is the soul that is adorned with charity.” For those who wear the military uniform Gary Sinise is affectionately known simply as “Lt. Dan.” But many others have rightly noted that he is the Bob Hope of this generation. Hope was the face of USO tours and he entertained service members for half a century. It is a serious comparison and if America’s military has anything to say about it, a deserving one.
Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa has been leading from the front during the tornadoes that decimated parts of Alabama. Their Facebook page is a command center for leading and directing volunteers to areas of greatest need. ESPN highlighted some of the work of Toomer’s on their network.
In a letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa wrote:
In one way or another none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.
During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.
Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.
Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.
Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.
During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).
In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”
Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.