Monday, June 17, 2013

Pastorgraphs: “The Mississippi Mafia – Plus 50”

E-Vangel Newsletter
June 17, 2013

Pastorgraphs: “The Mississippi Mafia – Plus 50”

There comes a moment in our lives when we are called upon to make  a decision; to take  a stand. How we respond, even if we do nothing, will place us in the judgment of history and eternity as having been on the side of good and justice, or an accomplice to evil.

The Rev. Ed McRae reminded me of James Lowell’s beautiful 1845 poem set to hymn,

“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.”

In my book on integrity, I wrote justice is the virtue of doing the right thing; prudence is the virtue of doing the right thing at the right time. This is the story of 28 men and their spouses who did the right thing at the right time.

Shortly after James Meredith was admitted to Ole Miss in the Fall of 1962, a flashpoint of the Civil Rights Movement that cost two people their lives in the riots that accompanied his enrollment, a group of 28 young white Mississippi Methodist ministers and their spouses assembled to sign a document that would cost them dearly. That document, now known as the “Born of Conviction Statement”, bravely expressed the young clergy’s opposition to segregation, use of state funds to create private schools as a means of avoiding desegregation, and the White Citizen’s Council’s domination of Mississippi political and social institutions. The document said in part, "Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that all men are brothers. He permits no discrimination because of race, color, or creed." It was the moral equivalent of Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. There was no turning back.

The Rev. Inman Moore, one of the 28 signers, said that when the document was printed on January 1, 1963, the reaction was worse than they had imagined. The anger of many white Mississippians turned against the young maverick Methodists with threats, destruction of the pastors’ property, and the mass exodus of their church members to other or newly formed churches. Moore said signing the document was “a very moving experience. It moved most of us out of Mississippi.”

Within six months, 20 of the 28 ministers packed their belongings into U-Haul trailers, uprooted their families from relatives, friends and schools, and left everything they had to escape the threats and intimidation.

Rev. Moore recalls 13 of them, including him and his wife Nelly, “came knocking on the door of the old California Conference” in June 1963. He recalls how Bishop Kennedy and the Conference graciously received the Southern clergy, locating congregations where they could fulfill their call to ministry. They became known as the “Mississippi Mafia” by their fellow California Methodists.

Last Sunday, June 9, eight of the surviving members, including the Rev. Inman Moore and the Rev. Ed & Martina McRae who came to California in 1963, stood before the Mississippi Annual Conference to receive the long overdue acclaim for their courageous and heroic act. The Conference marked the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Born of Conviction Statement. Presenting the Emma Elzy Award for social justice was Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Civil Rights advocate, Medgar Evers, who was assassinated, also 50 years ago. Mrs. Evers-Williams expressed her appreciation for the courage of the young ministers in 1963, a courage akin to that of her late husband’s. Standing with Mrs. Evers-Williams and the eight clergy was Bishop James E. Swanson, the first African-American Bishop of the Mississippi Conference. How times have changed – for the better.

The Rev. Ed McRae reflected on last Monday’s Jackson, Mississippi newspaper headline: Mississippi Methodists honor heroes. He recalls the same paper’s headline a half century ago: Mississippi Methodist ministers attempt to undermine Southern Culture. McRae said, “You know, both headlines were right. Maybe in some small way we were heroes.”

Not all the signers left Mississippi. The Rev. Keith Tonkel toughed it out in Mississippi, and is now perhaps the most beloved member of the Mississippi Conference. For those who left everything and those who stayed, they had the courage of their conviction to speak the truth to fear.

Of course this story strikes home for me. I too came from the Mississippi Conference to serve the final chapters of my ministry in California, but under much different circumstances. After all these years, I represent the current generation of the Mississippi Mafia.

I could not escape the irony as I invited my dearest friend, the Rev. Donald Owens, and my young colleague, Jonathan Reyes, to accompany me to Redlands for this year’s California-Pacific Annual Conference. Three ministers: Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic, traveling together, eating, boarding, worshiping, laughing and loving in the Lord together. Thanks to men like Ed McRae, Inman Moore and Keith Tonkel, all our lives and the way we live them are forever changed and enriched. They have my deepest appreciation and gratitude for having the virtues of justice for the rights of their fellow man, prudence to know the time to act had come, temperance to do it in the right way, and courage to stand firm in  the face of evil – all hallmarks of integrity.

Bless you all, Bill Jenkins

From the Quote Garden:

“Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”

~ James Lowell, 1845 Hymn: Once to Every Man and Nation, verse 4 ~

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(Photos: California-Pacific Annual Conference)

To read the Born of Conviction document, click here or go to

Christ United Methodist Ministry Center
“Christ in the Heart of San Diego”
3295 Meade Avenue - San Diego, CA 92116 - (619) 284-9205

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