Lunch was served every weekday at the Missionary Baptist Church. It’s been this way almost a year now, ever since they replaced their damaged building with a fellowship hall that will eventually be joined to a new sanctuary. This is where any volunteer working in Pearlington is invited for a free lunch. It is Southern cooking at it’s absolute best. The ladies of this mostly black congregation spend all morning at the church cooking a huge variety of food. Other ladies bring dishes they’ve cooked at home. Some of the food is donated and some paid for through cash donations. We had cornbread every day. Catfish every Friday and when they cook on special Saturdays, it’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Most days they have slaw, red beans and rice and greens. There is always a dessert; a cobbler perhaps or bread pudding.
At one end of the room sits a couple of stoves and a long table where the food is set out. There is a door to enter and another to exit. Traffic control is vital because the room is always packed. The first people to eat usually hurry to finish and free up a chair for the people standing in line. This is a no-nonsense crowd. There are no egos here and most people are tired when they break to eat. But there is a sense of honesty; that what you see is what you get, and the only room for pride is in a job well done. There was no fashion display. Most of us wore old clothes, sometimes ones that we would throw away as soon as we got home, knowing when we packed that the paint and joint compound would never be washed away.
When you enter the building the first thing in line is the hand sanitizer. While this might kill germs, it doesn’t do much for any paint or joint compound on your hands. But by putting on a whole gob of the stuff and rubbing for the few minutes it takes for the line to get to the food, you can end up with fairly clean hands. Along the left hand wall are boxes of canned food stacked waist high with napkins and boxes of plastic eating utensils. After you go through the food and dessert lines there’s a refrigerator with sodas and water. Then you sit at one of the six or seven long tables to eat.
If you get there right at 11:30 you are in time to have Rev Rawls bless the food and welcome everyone. He usually asks for a representative of each group to stand and say what state they are from. I figure he uses this to help us connect with each other and show how many people from so many different places are coming to help. By the time Rev Rawls had welcomed you, you felt seriously welcomed. I seldom saw him without a smile. He has a booming voice and would tell you right off the bat that he wanted you to come visit them that Sunday and to be there at 9:30 in the morning.
This is my third trip to Pearlington and I notice more and more people are on their second and third trip, also. And there’s something else that’s not only startling but true. Some people have basically moved here to help with the recovery. Yes, packed up clothes and came to Pearlington for an undetermined time. Some are retirees or folks who don’t need to work because there’s no paying work here, to speak of. Most of them eventually find a used FEMA trailer to stay in but there are several work camps they can stay at for a short period.
On most days there is such an assortment of people at lunch that it’s understandable if I confuse it with heaven. There might be a clump of Hispanics men in one corner, I think they are usually roofers; then there is always a group of elderly black men sitting with Rev. Rawls, who is the clear host of the meal. At the serving end of the room there are a variety of black women hovering over the stove and serving line. The rest of the room was filled with white faces: some wearing blue PDA shirts, some in the Methodist yellow shirts, some in the red shirts the Salvation Army wore. There were other individuals in worn paint-spattered clothes and scuffed work boots and tool belts worn so thoroughly that they were limp. Then in the middle of the room sat a group of Mennonites. They were easy to spot because the women all wore long calico skirts with their clean long hair gathered up on top their heads and covered with distinctive white caps. I never saw a hair out of place on any of these women. As the pastor of the Southern Baptist Church said at their building dedication, “They may look a little funny but they sure do good work.” It was common knowledge around town that the Mennonites didn’t have any experience in electricity or plumbing but no one could surpass them on carpentry.
photos by Judy Hain, February, 2007
I met Dorie and Luther, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee who are both retired and do mission work full-time. They go to the Mexico border part of the year, then return home to catch up on their mail, wash clothes and head back out to Mississippi. I think Dorie said their five weeks here has been the shortest time they've spent here. Luther is one of those guys who can do just about anything. We met him at Miss Mary’s house. He was laying ceramic tile while we painted. He and Dorie work as a team and she knows exactly what Luther will need as he prepares the floor for the tile.
What you couldn’t see as you look around the room at lunch because they look like everyone else is how many Canadians are here. Yes, Canadians. I think that has been my biggest surprise. This is an American problem yet the Canadians came to help. Some are staff at the PDA camp. Graham is a young adult volunteer from Ontario. Brian and Wilf and Mary and Charles are all from Canada. Kyra brought her daughter for the week because she didn’t have classes that week back in Canada. Kyra is on the staff with the Presbyterian church as a trauma counselor. Some aren’t getting paid to be here- maybe none of them, I never knew. They just came. I was sitting and talking with a group of people back at camp one day and realized I was the only American at the table; everyone else was Canadian. And they are such nice people I couldn’t help but think this is what Americans used to be like before we started being afraid of terrorists and global warming and world financial crises. They were easy going and generous but humble people.
On Friday I was helping build the rails around a two-story deck for a lady and she invited me to the special service they would have at the First Southern Baptist Church that Sunday. Kristian D’Ambrino would be there to sing the song she wrote for the town when she was Miss Mississippi in 2005, “Pearlington’s Prayer.” I already had a copy of the song and was impressed enough to want to attend the service.
At the beginning of worship the minister told the congregation that he had invited Rev Rawls and the Missionary Baptist church to join them in the dedication of the new sanctuary. Sure enough, about ten minutes into the service the doors opened and a crowd of about 20 or 30 people came in. After church was over I saw Shirley Thompson whose house we worked on in October. I remembered she goes to the AME church elsewhere in town but she had come for the dedication. This made for a solidly multi-racial crowd.
Sitting there watching so many people visiting for the dedication I thought a little about visiting. When you invite people to visit you have to be prepared to explain the way you do things and be ready to welcome them with open hearts and arms and make them feel welcomed. You are saying, “I will make room for you to sit where I usually sit. I will welcome your worship style and will give thanks to God for the wonderful differences between us.” This is what the white congregation said when they opened their doors with such love that day.
But I also learned a little about the compliment you pay when you become the guest and visit another church. I realized what a generous act that is. You are effectively saying, “I will worship the way you choose. I will sing your songs. Any money I put in the collection plate will be yours and I give up control of how you spend it. Your prayers will become my prayers. I will care about your concerns.” This is what the blacks of Pearlington were saying that day when they visited the all-white First Southern Baptist Church.
I couldn't help but notice how the races acknowledged each other with such love. Pearlington, I have been told, still has a KKK presence in the community, although I never saw any evidence of it. Certainly that hate group has a strong history in this tiny Mississippi town. At the end of the service the white minister looked over at Rev Rawls and said, “I’m glad these walls got knocked down so that across the racial lines we can gather and worship together.” As soon as he said this there were “Amens” from the black Missionary Baptist congregation and wild applause from the whites of the Southern Baptist church.
It was the surprises on this trip that impressed me the most. The people who came to help that you never thought of: the electrician from Las Vegas, the couple from Tennessee, the Canadians, the Mennonites. Is that what heaven will be like? Surprises? If heaven is anything like eating lunch at the church, I can’t wait to get there.