Duncan Gray is a retired Episcopal Priest and was the 9th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi. I met him at St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Oxford, Mississippi, where he was rector, like his father before him. His father served from 1957 to 1965 during the turbulent era when James Meredith was the first Black man who was allowed admission into the University of Mississippi.
St. Peter’s organized itself in 1851. The church building was completed just prior to the Civil War in 1860. Its first service was just prior to Mississippi’s secession and, according to Duncan, “has a history of being an enlightened community in some pretty difficult times in Mississippi.”
“My father was involved in trying to keep a lid on the anger around the integration [of the University of Mississippi] and providing some leadership when the university was in great turmoil. In 1962 James Meredith entered the university. The efforts through the courts preceded that by a year or so. All during that time, my dad preached about the need to open the doors and allow this man to enter. As [the case] worked through the court system, his sermons became more pointed. I remember vividly his sermon on the Sunday before Meredith officially entered, and the riots that took place Sunday evening. I remember the sermon following the riots. Half the congregation left.
He was a kind and gentle man and part of the reason the church held together was he never quit loving the folks who hated him. One of his mottos—more than a motto, I mean, he lived it—was, “If you hate those who hate you, they’ve won.” And he refused to go that route.
So he would be prophetic in his ministry and then go make a call on the folks who got upset. That was the model I grew up with.
I remember him shaking his head over what somebody had done and saying words to the effect of, “But Duncan, God loves them and I do, too.” So crosses were burned in our front yard and the threatening phone calls were part of our common life. We were taught how to respond to the threats.
One time, somebody called and said some terrible things to my mother and threatened to kill each one of us children by name, and Dad said something to the effect of, “He’s got a lot of problems, but he’s probably got children of his own.” And, you know, he humanized all of these folks that I would [have been] tempted as an adolescent to demonize. And that stayed with me forever.”
-Have your parents modeled advocacy for others for you?
-When have you managed to “love people who hate you?”
-When have you stood up for what is right, even though it may have been difficult for you?
-Have you tried to humanize people when others have tried to demonize them?
-If you have a faith tradition, how does it call you to work for justice?
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I love this!