When Cynthia and I moved into the Mennonite Mission Network Service Adventure unit house in Jackson, Miss., in 2018, I noticed a card posted on our refrigerator door, left behind by the unit’s previous participants. It was a quote from Mississippi native William Faulkner: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
In our time at Open Door Mennonite Church, we came to understand not only more about our world through our experience in Mississippi but also more about God and the people God has called to be an Anabaptist witness in Mississippi.
Open Door Mennonite Church is a small but extraordinary group of people whom God has called together to be a witness for peace and racial reconciliation in Jackson. Open Door Mennonite brings together African Americans from Jackson and Omaha, Neb.; Choctaw people from the Nanih Waiya area of eastern Mississippi; conservative Mennonites from Florida, Iowa and Ontario; and a former Marine from northern Mississippi, via Raleigh, N.C.; all of whom are seeking to be witnesses to God’s peace.
The fact that such a diverse group of people can worship together is, in itself, a miracle and a witness to God’s reconciling love.
The Open Door community introduced Cynthia and me to the potential and paradoxes of the Deep South. We learned more about the history of the cruelties of slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, as well as how those wounds continue to fester.
We learned that the task of racial reconciliation did not end with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Deep disparities and divisions continued under the radar of the national news.
But the Open Door community continued to foster understanding among people of different races and socioeconomic conditions by quietly working in the local neighborhoods, through helping professions in the community and as advocates for more just social policies.
At the same time, Open Door congregants love the positive aspects of Southern history and culture, the natural beauty of Mississippi and the extraordinary musical, literary and culinary accomplishments of its people.
Open Door has spent years wrestling with the issues of racial and political divisions that have reemerged at the forefront of our national consciousness. Members offer their wisdom to other Christian communities that too often reflect our national political divisions. Open Door continues to be a church with a vision for multicultural worship. Their commitment to service is evident in their taking on the responsibility of sponsoring a Service Adventure unit.
Their vision continues to expand through plans to start the Peace and Justice Center of the Deep South and to host community groups in their building once they are able — with the help of friends from near and far — to complete building renovations.
Open Door is inspiring by its very existence and nature. Its members have invested deeply in understanding Mississippi and, as a result, have wisdom to share with the world.
Roger Neufeld Smith of Topeka, Kan., was co-leader with his wife, Cynthia, at the Jackson, Miss., Service Adventure unit from 2018 to 2020.