Pioneering rural pastors are working at the intersection of faith and culture to use the power of the pulpit and community ministry to overcome America’s historical injustice.
On a rainy Thursday morning, the Reverend Christopher Diggs, who prefers to go by Chris, leaned back in the plastic booth at a McDonald’s in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town where 80% of the population is Black and 40% lives at or below the poverty line. Dressed in a casual sweater, jeans, and brown, soft leather oxfords, Chris discussed the churches he serves in two of the poorest communities in America.
“There’s no way an African American community can be held up without divine influence and intervention,” he said. “We don’t have the resources, the networks, or the connections. It’s hard to preach faith to people who don’t understand power warfare. My responsibility, despite the direct or indirect racism, is to preach and teach that God has the capacity to lift you up out of the muck.”
The following Sunday, Chris preached about the widow’s offering (Mark 12:41-44), a story contrasting a poor woman’s small offering to the temple treasury to that of rich male scribes. Jesus tells the disciples that the woman’s gift is larger because it was all she had, while the scribes simply gave a little of their surplus. The scripture is a starting point for Chris’ to discuss what he says are forms of warfare used to destroy poor communities today.
He named mothers whose sons died at the hands of those in authority. “Beware of the scribes who will sing sweet songs of life on Sunday but spew words of hate and defeat on Monday,” he said. “Beware of scribes who are content to pay a minimum wage to poor workers, but at the same time want to charge the highest wages possible for their product. Be careful of those who do not want their children to go to public schools, and at the same time create their own schools, but at the same time say they love everybody. Be careful.”
Contrasting the scribes’ contribution to that of the poor widow, Chris stressed, “Her giving is what Christianity is all about. It is not about personal gain for what we can individually attain. Christianity is walking in the way of Jesus and lifting others up.” Chris uses these stories to catalyze the communities he pastors into action. Since 2003, he has helped 10 churches from Mississippi to North Carolina lift themselves out of hardship and become thriving spiritual communities.
Then there’s Dr. Robbie Furdge, Skeeter to many, Pastor Robbie to others. A year ago, she and her husband, Maurice, became the first Black business owners on Main Street in Natchez, Mississippi.
Leaning against the service counter of her newest entrepreneurial venture, Rolling River Reloaded, she explained why she and her husband added ‘reloaded’ to the restaurant’s name. “We wanted to honor the history of this restaurant and also capture the restaurant’s new vibe.”
Less than a mile to the east, on the “Black side” of Jefferson Street, the Forks of the Road monument pays homage to the tens of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children sold here. With over 200 Antebellum homes still standing, Natchez offers a spring and fall pilgrimage with brochures promising to “transport you back in time for a taste of the old South,” a time when they once enjoyed more millionaires than any other place in the nation.
Today, the tides have turned for this town of fewer than 15,000 people. In 2019, the median household income of Natchez, regardless of race or class, was $26,443.
Seeing Rolling River Reloaded’s success, emerging business owners are seeking Robbie’s help to create their own entrepreneurial opportunities. In response, a small group of private funders has launched the town’s first small-business incubator. “Jesus was always in the marketplace. He not only built his own business, but he built community and people,” said Robbie, when asked why she focused on business.
“Most folks don’t come to the church I pastor. They’re eating in my restaurant, sharing their lives, and talking about their businesses. Ministering here allows me to empower and encourage people to create their own opportunities.”
Robbie, like Chris, believes one of the biggest barriers to success is the lack of influential partnerships and productive networks. Working within the community she can directly support people in getting where they want to go, rather than where they’ve been historically told to go.
In the deep Texas border town of Fort Davis, Pastor Matt Miles stepped out of the ambulance after transporting a Covid patient during his paramedic shift. “Call me Matt,” he said. “Reverend can be so off-putting.”
Matt’s ancestral roots run back to the 1890s when settlers built homesteads on indigenous lands. “There’s a picture of my great, great grandmother sitting outside her hutch with a shotgun across her lap and kids playing around her,” Matt reflected on his family’s photos. Growing up “country,” he understands how easy it can be to stay entrenched within the borders of your town.
In a region where, as a white preacher, it’s safer to keep your mouth shut and stick to the liturgy, Matt sees his role as something far more vital to the times. Having just returned from a shelter along the Mexico border, he candidly spoke about our government’s role in border issues. “The greatest hypocrisy in the world is what we’re doing on the border,” he said. “That’s been true for the last five presidents. Some people call me a flaming liberal, but that’s not how I see it.
“I’m called to preach the gospel. Jesus healed the sick. He tended to the needy. He gave us a particular set of instructions with which to live our lives. Jesus was real clear, ‘Love each other.’ Well, let’s do that thing.”
Matt’s sermons about human rights, food stamps, and gun control have cost him parishioners. “The church everywhere is dying because young people see the hypocrisy,” he said. “But for every older couple that leaves a young family comes.”
Much like 600 pastors polled in the “Where-do-we-go-from-here” study by the Barna Group, these three ministers from United Methodist, non-denominational and Presbyterian churches, respectively, reflect the growing trend of religious leaders to address our nation’s 400-year history of injustices. According to the study, while older practicing Christians are more likely to say nothing is required of the church in racial reconciliation, younger generations, particularly millennials, see a the importance of repairing the damage.
A millennial herself coming from a family of civil rights leaders, Robbie sees endless opportunities to both engage and transform her community. Matt and Chris see the vital importance of cultivating a younger congregation. All believe church leaders should acknowledge historical inequities and set a clear path forward spiritually, culturally, and economically. The biggest challenge though for all these pastors is as Matt states, “Determining how far out in front of people can I be and still be their leader?”