Bishop Gray: ‘If Mississippi can do this, why can’t others?’

Closing address to 'Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America'

Posted Nov 22, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] Diocese of Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III made the following remarks to the end of the Nov. 15-16 Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism in America,” held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.

Fifty Years Later: Racism in America – Closing Address
Diocese of Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray III

It has been given to me, at the conclusion of this remarkable gathering, the task of sending us out – in hope. So, with apologies to those it may offend, I’m going to make this very personal.

More than a few folks have wondered, some out loud in my presence, about the appropriateness of a conversation on racism being hosted by the Episcopal Church in Mississippi.

I think I understand. Fifty years ago this summer, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and, among other things, said:

“…I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…”

Well, the wolf has not yet laid down with the lamb; nor have the leopard and goat and calf and lion made lasting peace as Isaiah once imagined; nor has this state been transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

And yet, I am hopeful.

I am hopeful precisely because I am a child and native son of this conflicted, heroic, tragic and often violent state. It is for me, as William Faulkner once wrote, “my little postage stamp of native soil,” and, he added, its stories are inexhaustible.”

And within its stories lies its hope. I have seen so much of its worst and, yet, I am still so very hopeful because I know so many stories.

I am hopeful because three weeks ago we broke ground here in Jackson for the first publicly funded State and Civil Rights museums. Listen to that again – a publicly funded, state sponsored, taxpayer supported Civil Rights Museum located in Jackson, Mississippi.

Speaker after speaker, from the most conservative to the most liberal had the same message: We must tell the whole story of our people, even the parts of the story that we wish had never happened. One said it this way:

“We must tell the story of the brave pioneers who settled this land, but we must also tell the stories of those who came here against their will. And we must tell the stories of those whose land they took.”

I am hopeful that an honest look at our past and a willingness to listen to stories – of individuals and communities – that we had never known or wanted to know, will move us in important ways toward healing, maybe even reconciliation.

If “even Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression,” fifty years ago can do this, why can’t others?

I am hopeful because I see a new light being shown on the tragic and violent stories of Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and so many others. This new light is witness to a willingness to come face to face with the horrors of our past and with the human heart’s capacity for evil – in this or any other state.

But in turning and facing that devil we are robbing him of his power.

We cannot hide from our past in Mississippi, but by telling the story we have found a new way forward. And we are also learning that the human heart also has an infinite capacity for “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” – again Mr. Faulkner’s words.

If Mississippi can do this, why can’t others?

I am hopeful because thirty-eight years after the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress, Mississippi now has the largest number of African-American elected officials of any state in the Union.

If Mississippi can do this, why can’t others?

I am hopeful because the Episcopal Church in this state has dared to look deep within its history and learn how we have benefited, even to this day, from the institution of slavery. I am hopeful because we will remember Freedom Summer 1964 and the courage and idealism of thousands of young people who came to our state with a summer camp next year that will explore their work and ask what their courage and sacrifice means for young people today.

If Mississippi can do this, why can’t others?

I am hopeful because institutions like Mission Mississippi and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation have rooted their transformational work in the telling and listening of stories.

If Mississippi can do this, why can’t others?

I am hopeful, because as I unpack the layers of racism deeply embedded in my own soul (often taking the form of very personal racial profiling), I have thousands of fellow travelers across this state who are doing that same very painful, very scary, but very life-giving work.

“The human heart in conflict with itself,” said Mr. Faulkner, “is the only story worth writing about.”

We need to write and tell stories that speak of the extraordinarily painful truth of the human heart in conflict with itself.

I am hopeful because we are learning – very slowly, but learning nonetheless – that each of us interprets reality through a set of lens that are shaped and formed by our own unique life experiences. Pure objectivity is an illusion.

We are all indelibly shaped by our history – as individuals and as a people.

I need to know what the world looks like to you through your set of lens in order to understand you. And you need to see what my world looks like to understand me. We need to tell our stories.

I am hopeful because I see a willingness to explore those new worlds in the lives of others. It’s just beginning, but it is there.

And I am hopeful because you are here. Some of you have traveled a great distance. You have dared to make this journey to continue this difficult conversation about our common life and our collective soul. Thank you so very much.

You have dared to push aside that temptation to despair that is in the very air that we breathe these days.

And I am hopeful because I see in this gathering and in so many other ways the mysterious, often hidden providential hand of God. In 1963, not an easy time for this state or the Episcopal Church in this state, one of my predecessors in this office (who happened to be my grandfather) spoke to the diocesan convention about God’s presence in that challenging moment:

“These times were made for us,” he said, “and we were made for these times.”

I am hopeful because fifty years later, those words are addressed to us anew: “These times were made for us and we were made for these times.”

For fourteen years, I have sent the people of this church into the world with a blessing I borrowed from another of my predecessors (my father). I send you out now with those same words:
“Go forth into the world in peace.
Be strong and of good courage.
Hold fast to that which is good.
Render to no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted.
Support the weak.
Help the afflicted.
Honor all persons.
Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit,
and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be among you and remain with you now and forever.   Amen.”

ENS coverage of the gathering’s opening session on Nov. 15 is here, and Nov. 16 coverage is here. An ENS series of video reflections from the conference are here.

A webcast of the Nov. 15 session, which included a keynote address by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and two panel discussions, is available for on-demand viewing here. A discussion guide ( developed for the forum is available. The Nov. 16 workshops and plenary sessions from Fifty Years Later: The State of Racism In America will be available online shortly.


Comments (4)

  1. Rodgers T.Wood says:

    God bless you, Bishop. You have always been for me an example of what can be, even in the worst of times. I am glad you were a classmate of mine at VTS, and I am full of joy that you are the bishop of Mississippi. I’d love to have a conversation with you one of these days.

    1. Mr. Krim M. Ballentine says:

      As a Moslem ‘Ulama/Constitution Philosopher and a lover of Pope John XXIII and presently an admirer of Pope Francis and you I welcome your ecumenicity by saying God speaks through our hearts using faith as the language; man and especially scientists speak and hear using ears and logic becomes their language; one day there will be a balance and His Word applied.

  2. The Rev. Daniel Hanna says:

    What an outstanding statement by Bishop Gray, one which courageously admits the past and holds out out the faith, hope and charity of Jesus for the future of all of us. What a blessing!

  3. Harry W Shipps says:

    I heartily agree that Bishop Gray’s statement is courageous and helpful to all.

Comments are closed.