Dolphus Weary with Josh Dear and William Hendricks. Crossing the Tracks: Hope for the Hopeless and Help for the Poor in Rural Mississippi and Your Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2012. 192 pp. $11.99.
What an inspiring story! As one blurb put it, “[Dolphus Weary’s] journey out of physical, emotional, and spiritual poverty will challenge you to cross the racial divides in your own community and discover what it really means to serve one another.” That’s for sure.
Dolphus’s first book, I Ain’t Comin’ Back, told the story of how God enabled him to escape the poverty and discrimination of 1940-50s Mississippi to become one of the first black students in Los Angeles Bible College and then a missionary in Asia.
Crossing the Tracks: Hope for the Hopeless and Help for the Poor in Rural Mississippi and Your Community is the rest of the story, the account of how God not only overcame Dolphus’s opposition to return to Mississippi but also equipped him to serve its people in gospel ministry.
Earlier in my life, I had fled Mississippi with the vow, “I ain’t never comin’ back.” But then God called me back, and I obeyed. Now to my utter amazement, I was declaring, “I can’t ever leave!” I’d never felt such freedom. (56)
Using the story of his own fascinating life, Dolphus guides us to four action items: (1) Gospel-centered racial reconciliation; (2) Repenting of sins of omission as well as commission; (3) Just affirmative action policies; and (4) Practical bridge-building for Christians and churches.
Gospel-Centered Racial Reconciliation
Racial reconciliation is ultimately a spiritual issue. “Yes, racism manifests itself in ways that are very ugly and obvious,” Dolphus admits. “But if we only work on the social aspects of racism and never introduce the gospel, then we’ll never see complete transformation” (32).
Although Dolphus argues persuasively for political and social action, he always keeps the gospel central. Indeed, God taught him that “proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and working for racial reconciliation were two sides of the same coin” (53).
Sin of Silence
Racism can be a sin of omission as well as commission. Dolphus observes:
You don’t have to be a member of a racist group to practice racism. You don’t even have to feel prejudice against an entire race to practice racism. All you have to do is watch someone from another race being treated unjustly and remain silent. (70)
It’s not enough to not be racist, in other words. There has to be a resolve to oppose racism and promote racial reconciliation. Without that positive commitment, we can be guilty of passive racism.
Just Affirmative Action
I’ve never been a fan of affirmative action as commonly understood and practiced. However, the way Dolphus introduces it, defines it, and works it out in practice is both compelling and convincing. “In its purest form,” he explains, “affirmative action is a policy that considers race after all the other qualifications have been met” (125).
Dolphus insists it isn’t enough to say “Great idea!” Clear policies are essential to make sure the ideal becomes reality. “Policy is a discipline that ensures that we follow through on our good intentions,” he writes. “It’s an objective reminder of what we said we want to do and be” (128). For colleges and seminaries, that means not just having racially and ethnically diverse students, but faculty, management, and staff as well.
Affirmative action is controversial, and, as I mentioned, I initially read this section with deep skepticism. But Dolphus’s version is highly persuasive. Read it before you jump to conclusions. Even if you’re not persuaded, I’m sure you will be convinced of the need for some policies and actions to level the playing field in many spheres of everyday life.
Bridge-Building on the Ground
Apart from its gospel-centered focus, what I liked most about Crossing the Tracks was how it demonstrated that racial reconciliation doesn’t require grand public gestures but can begin right where we are.
“How many Christians do you know who don’t look like you?” Dolphus pointedly asks. He challenges churches to reach out to other congregations of different racial composition, and provides two pages of ideas for how racially different and divided churches can partner together in kingdom work. According to Dolphus, when Christians who don’t look like each other come together in the ways he proposes, three powerful things happen (165-166):
1. They actually address a real need in their community.
2. They show the world what racial reconciliation looks like by coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ and living out the unity Christ desires.
3. Because of that unity they offer a compelling witness to the world that Jesus is Lord of a united people, answering Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
Unique Man with a Unique Calling
I assure you Crossing the Tracks is not an anti-white polemic or a politically correct tract. Dolphus comes across as a kind, gentle, loving Christian man whom God has raised up to call his church to greater Christlikeness in its pursuit of racial reconciliation.
Writing a review of such a good book is easy. Now for the hard part—crossing the tracks.
This review was first published at The Gospel Coalition