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Rethinking Mission to the Poor: An Interview with Dolphus Weary

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 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 academic degrees, Dolphus Weary has received a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss. He is a nationally sought speaker and writer and serves on numerous boards across the state and country. Weary recently spoke with Religion & Liberty Managing Editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: The title of your book is, I Ain't Comin' Back. What story does that title tell?

Dolphus Weary: 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 white 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 travelled 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 whether I was going into a mission field or was I running away from a mission field? 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. 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.

What was the greatest blessing, in your mind, of your background?

I think the greatest blessing for me is the blessing of understanding and seeing poverty and racism up close. Knowing what it feels like to be poor, knowing what discrimination feels like. In the midst of that, my mother was teaching us, always do the best you can and always go to school and study hard. Now I have a sense of empathy for those who are economically trapped, and I have an empathy for those who may be marginalized because of race. I was taught some things as a black person, even though they might be very different from what my white counterpart was taught. The question is how do we move from the old stuff that we were taught, to move it into a learning curve where we can do something better rather than judging people based on what we were taught?

In your book you say, "Economics alone is not the answer to poverty." Why is that such a critical concept in meeting the needs of people?

I was on the Board of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia, at the time that Koinonia Farms was building houses for low-income families that ultimately became the vision for Millard Fuller in starting Habitat for Humanity. We built a whole community of 40 houses in South Georgia, and we were of course celebrating what we accomplished. However, we did not add a spiritual challenge. We did not add any spiritual hope for folks that moved in, and so within five years, many of those houses were torn up, many of those houses were abused and had just as many kids that were strung out on drugs and all of that. We built a ghetto because we did not add the spiritual component. We did not help people to understand that God is leading you, and God involved with you is much more important for your life. If you just hand out money, the only thing you do is create more greed.

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.

It has been encouraging to see the response after Katrina and the tornadoes in the South last Spring, and in Joplin, Mo. too. Evangelicals have been very, very active. Because of the cultural wars they were somewhat hunkered down, and we have seen them much more active today. That is a good start, at least.

It is a good start. Churches are asking some different questions about how to engage our backyard. Katrina was such a marvelous opportunity, and for me it was exciting to see denominations and Christian organizations working together. Rather than fighting over who got the credit, they were working together because they recognized that the problem was bigger than any single church and any single organization. One church is not going to do it, but we have to work together to make it happen.

Mississippi is the poorest state in the Union. What are the challenges that face the state and what have been the biggest challenges for addressing poverty within the ministries you are involved with?

Mendenhall Ministries, a ministry I am heavily involved with, developed as a holistic Christian community development ministry, reaching out, identifying what some of the needs are, and then coming up with ministry programs that would meet those needs. We set up health clinics and a law office. We began to do those things to address the needs of the disadvantaged in the community who had little help to get on their feet.

Secondly, my work with Mission Mississippi has been a commitment that says the Church is the institution in the state that needs to work on eliminating racism. We have been working with the Christian Church throughout the state to say to Christians that it is now time to not let race separate us. If we could learn how to make decisions for our children, rather than making decisions for black children versus white children, our whole community would be much better off. Some of Mississippi's problems have come from the fact that the state has allowed racism to drive many of the decisions made years ago.

If we could learn how to work together across the barrier of race, I think we can do a lot to move from being number 50th and move up. We are making progress. And I believe that there's a spirit going on right now that more and more Mississippians are first asking the question of how can we work together to create economic opportunity and progrowth solutions.

Often the visual image of poverty in America is one of the homeless or run-down project buildings in urban areas, but most of the poorest counties in America are rural areas. When one goes to see the Mississippi Delta, they will see an entirely different reality. What are the greatest challenges to economic opportunity in a place like that?

The urban community has concentrated poverty, concentrated problems. The rural community has spread out problems. It still does not nearly get the same attention as the urban community. My wife and I have been selling my book, I Ain't Comin' Back, to create a foundation that will come along beside rural Christian ministries in Mississippi. We limit ourselves to Mississippi and we limit ourselves to the rural community. We recognize that there is not much connectedness in the rural community. We are trying to encourage people to begin to start another little Mendenhall Ministries in your community, so that you can begin to address some of the problems in that community. The people and churches there locally know what is best in terms of empowering people.

Secondly, I think that we need to keep educating the Church that poverty is not just an urban phenomenon, but poverty is entrenched in those rural communities. When I served on the board of World Vision, we had to refocus because most of its mission was overseas. Thirty years ago, World Vision started shifting more focus on poverty in this country, and it did have an effort in this country but most of it was concentrated in urban areas. Poverty exists in cities, in urban communities, but poverty also exists in rural Mississippi, in Appalachia, in Kentucky, in Virginia and those places. The Church needs to realize those areas are a part of that Samaria as well and to get involved in those often forgotten places.

You are heavily involved with racial reconciliation work in Mississippi. You have stressed that reconciliation is essential for the long- term economic development. How has that helped to fight poverty?

We know that if we can get the Christian Church to stop seeing itself as a black church over here and a white church over there, we really can begin to address the issues of economic poverty. It is going to be a long-term process, but it can happen. What happens when a black man in a church wants to start a business and he has a business plan, and then he goes to the bank and they say we are not going to loan you the money?

We have seen that happen just 20 years ago. A sharp black guy developed a business plan. He took it to the bank, the bank would not loan him the money. However, at a Mission Mississippi prayer breakfast, this person met a white businessman and they began to talk. The white businessman took him to the bank, he got the loan and he now has a fast growing business.

Historically, black people created black relationships, white people created white relationships, and it just so happened that years ago, black people did not have access to the same opportunity. Now they are getting a little bit more access, but you still need each other in order for us to actualize economic development, sustainability, and prosperity in the community.

How do you encourage African-American small business owners, and what is the greatest challenge to their development and success?

The greatest challenge is the damage of historical racism. If a young African- American wants to do something in the black community, he has to have the mindset of overcoming a perception that he cannot be successful. My daughter is a pediatrician in a small town in Mississippi. She is in partnership with a white pediatrician, and her patients second-guess her all the time by going to the white pediatrician to verify if her diagnosis is accurate. That is a damage of racism. They have not seen a black doctor but they have seen many white doctors. The challenge is that if a black person wants to be successful and develop a business, he has to also deal with the racial damage that is taking place. In other words, it is going to take a lot of education, and a lot of resilience to keep bouncing back. However, do not give up. Do not give up because change does not come overnight. It comes out of persistence.

I tell young entrepreneurs, you still must be creative, and you must begin to ask the questions. What can we do now to reclaim our community? What kind of a business can we now come up with that will be innovative, grow, meet a need, and create jobs? All the time I say to young people, I understand the damage of 50 years ago. I understand the damage of 40 years ago. I understand when a black man wanted to provide for his family, the welfare system said if you are not in the house, the mother and the baby can get more money if you are not in the picture. That is damaging too. Now I still have to say, what are you going to do to move forward? Rather than sitting around as a victim and telling me that you cannot do anything, we are always trying to encourage people to do what they can and really do it with the fact that God wants to see them succeed. It is hard to get that message to people who have been beat down, but I think people really need to hear that message now more than ever.