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The Crayfish Syndrome

What are the chances for upward mobility for a group of poor, black church people–96% on welfare–in rural Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation?

What’s their prospect for economic success if they don’t get a dime from the Rockefellers or the Ford Foundation. What if they get no government set-aside contracts, and no assistance from Housing and Urban Development or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? What if they get nothing from the Fortune 500, and nothing from rich and famous celebrities and athletes?

That was the situation of the Greater Christ Temple in Meridian, Mississippi. The church, started in 1959, initiated its REACH program for economic independence in 1977. It began with peanuts–literally. Church members bought peanuts with their food stamps and resold them in the church basement. Now they own 1,000 head of cattle, a gas station, two motels, three restaurants, two chicken farms, a steel fabricating plant, 4,000 acres of farmland, a housing development, two supermarkets, a hog operation, a construction company, a 55 acre Holyland community, a school, a clinic, a nursery, and two meat processing plants.

“We stopped the ‘Crayfish Syndrome’–when you put all the crayfish into a pail, one starts out, and all the others reach up and pull him down,” says Bishop Luke Edwards, the pastor of the church. “There’s no welfare or food stamps now. We’re saving the federal government $300,000. Still, blacks come out here and look around and say, ‘Some white man must be behind all this.’ ”

Green Acres is the congregation’s new 54 acre housing subdivision in Utaw, Alabama, with 132 homes being built for sale to the public. Heritage Construction, a business owned and operated by congregation members, supplies the heavy equipment–18 wheelers, backhoes, dump trucks. Last year, the church also acquired two motels in Alabama, in Utaw and Livingston, and started chicken farms in Decatur, Mississippi and Gainesville, Alabama.

In addition to math and reading, students at the congregation’s K-12 school learn how to run a hog farm and operate restaurants. These students regularly outscore the state schools, and the local juvenile courts have ordered 26 kids to enroll this term for a straight dose of rehabilitation. The school’s rules aren’t complex: no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no weapons, no TV, and no dating. And it’s lights out at 8:30 p.m.–midnight basketball isn’t needed here.

There have been setbacks along the way. “There’s no easy road to success,” says Edwards. The local government delivers costly mandates and investigations, not subsidies. “The investigations and regulations by the welfare department and the Department of Human Services have forced us spend a tremendous amount of money,” says Eleanor Walker, Office Administrator at REACH. “Things like restroom changes and more fire equipment. Some of it seems like harassment.”

“A big disappointment,” says Walker, “is the tension with some of the leaders in the local NAACP. We’re trying to do something positive here, helping our people, and they make charges of mind control and brainwashing, nothing they could ever prove. There’s no gate at Holyland. It’s an ideological split. Bishop Edwards believes that self-reliance comes from a conservative approach, self-help, and less dependence on government. The NAACP is totally the opposite.”

“We haven’t allowed anything to diminish our efforts,” says Edwards. “Black people can be just as successful as anyone else, but our leaders have entrapped us in government handouts. I lived in those neighborhoods. Welfare broke up the families, put the father out of the home, and let another man lay up there all he wanted. Handouts robbed our people, robbed them of self-respect.”

As Edwards views it, the bottom line is to focus more on opportunities than on obstacles. “Racism is an excuse. It’s a song. No, the playing field isn’t even, but we make it even. We proved we can make it in Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, and Alabama isn’t far behind. Think what we can do in New York or Chicago. Look at the Cubans out in the ocean coming here. It is the land of opportunity.”

What’s working in Meridian, Mississippi and Utaw, Alabama is the basic belief that every person is created in the image of God, a bottom line conviction that values both the Ten Commandments and the “3-R’s”–starting with people’s spiritual values before their skills, and emphasizing less dependence and more plain business sense. Maybe it’s a prescription to reverse the deadly diseases gripping America’s inner cities.

A black bishop who doesn’t look beyond the poor community itself for salvation, who sees potential business success in the faces of his flock, may seem naively out-of-step. To those watching from the ground, any bird that’s out of formation risks being seen as misguided, perhaps even a joke, but maybe it’s the rest of the flock that’s off track.