Reunion highlights many changes since days of integration

Complete the Circle
By George Evans
I recently celebrated the 50th reunion with other participants of a six week summer service project at St. Francis Center and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Greenwood during June and July 1965. At the time I was a seminarian at a Benedictine Monastery in Conception, Missouri. I came with nine other seminarians to Greenwood and lived in a Boy Scout hut in the woods behind St. Francis of Assisi Parish and volunteered to help two Franciscan priests, Fathers Nathaniel and Daniel, in their work during that turbulent fascinating time of change in Mississippi.
At the time Father Nathaniel was the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish and the co-founder along with Miss Kate Jordan Foote of St. Francis Center in Greenwood. Together they had started Pax Christi, a lay institute for women, whose mission was to serve the needs of the black community in Greenwood.
The center was located in the middle of the black community and provided the entire spectrum of services from food and clothing to literacy and tutoring programs, financial counseling, healthcare services and anything else that might arise.
The center was staffed by the ladies of Pax Christi.   They were assisted in the summer by a score of female volunteers primarily from Catholic colleges for women in the Midwest. We seminarians worked primarily with the young boys in the neighborhood in educational and recreational activities. A benefactor had provided some undeveloped land not far out of town for the parish use.
We would load up a bus every morning and go to the property and work with the kids to help fix up a cabin on site and clear a playing field for various sports activities. After returning we would work on any of the center activities that needed us including the pharmacy, educational programs and recreational programs in the gym. We converted one comer of the gym into a teen center.
The young women worked in all the activities of the day at the center and especially with the young girls and women from the neighborhood. We all joined together for celebration of the Eucharist every afternoon before dinner. What special celebrations they were. It dawned on all of us that bringing to the altar the work and service shared during the day enriched the Mass in wonderful ways and encouraged us to return the next day fed by the Lord’s own body and blood and enriched by the strength of the united worshiping body.
The reunion was a small group. Fifty years had taken its toll in deaths, health issues and lost contact. Eight of us gathered in Jackson on Friday night for a wonderful dinner and reminiscences of the unique summer of 1965. Stories abounded and the dreams of our youth recounted. Father Nathaniel and Miss Kate were recalled for their incredible leadership and dedication to a mission still today ongoing in Greenwood though under different circumstances.
On Saturday six of us journeyed to Greenwood where we met with Father Greg Plata, OFM, at St. Francis. Memories flowed over us as he led us on a tour of the parish. Much of what we knew 50 years ago is still incorporated in a larger and more developed plant. The most nostalgic moments for the men was a journey back into the woods on the back of the property where the Boy Scout hut has been lost to the elements over the last 50 years. We tromped around in the woods until it became clear where the hut had been. We wondered how we had survived without air conditioning and only an army cot for sleeping – we were all young and doing the Lord’s work and that made it easy.
The 50 year perspective was eye opening. In 1965 everything in Greenwood was completely segregated.   The 10 seminarians were never invited to Immaculate Heart of Mary, the defacto “white” church at the time.   Today Father Greg is pastor of it and St. Francis of Assisi and white, black and Hispanic parishioners attend Mass at both churches. In 1965 many people we worked with had trouble registering to vote. Today many city and county elected officials are black.
Public schools are all integrated at every level. Many changes for the better have occurred. However, much still needs to be done. Crushing poverty is still rampant and not only in the black community. The public schools which were white are now overwhelmingly black and not very good. Good jobs are few and far between.
Problems that exist throughout the Delta are still present in Greenwood. St. Francis Center has recently closed due to changing times and St. Francis of Assisi School continues to offer great grade school education but relies on contributions and benefactors from many different places in the country plus wonderful Sisters to keep going.
We need to keep working as we did 50 years ago. The issues are different but the needs of people persist. The joy we found in service in 1965 is still available today if we serve and support St. Francis Church and School. The same can be said as we work for and serve all in need in our own parishes and communities.
Its up to each of us to find and identify the great needs of today and live the Gospel by bringing Jesus to bear on the lives of the needy by our compassion, generosity, care and concern. The happiness that will follow will be as great as the service provided. It worked for us in 1965 and will   the same in 2015.
(George Evans is a pastoral minister at Jackson St. Richard Parish.)