Serving with Choctaw, couple have seen prejudice, progress

Aug 1, 2016 by and

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MERIDIAN, Miss. — A bullet tore through the home of Glenn and Emma Myers. It punctured the frame of a bed set against an outside wall.

The shooting happened in 1967 in Philadelphia, the heart of civil-rights unrest in the South. The young couple had moved to the region in 1963 to help her parents, the late Nevin and Esther Bender, serve among the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Chapel was bombed three times in the mid-1960s.

Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Chapel was bombed three times in the mid-1960s.

The couple wasn’t at home during the shooting. Yet the bullet tore open wounds on their hearts. Locals had bombed Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Chapel three times. The first time, in 1964, it was demolished. It was bombed again in February and December of 1966.

Each time, the couple and church members rebuilt, refusing to flee. The white townspeople — including Christians, law enforcement officials and the Ku Klux Klan — resisted racial equality. The Choctaw and African-Americans suffered. Often in vain, they attempted to transition from sharecropping to other work and to find dignity in a segregated society.

“We were so excited to help start a church, but we really didn’t know what we were getting into,” Glenn Myers said. “It was during the time of Freedom Summer ’64, when three civil-rights leaders were killed near here. We felt invincible in our youth. But after that first bombing, we felt some fear for our lives.”

Emma Myers said that after the third bombing, “I felt like if they all hated us that much, then maybe we should leave. I didn’t think I could take it anymore. I was seven months pregnant with our second daughter, Sheila, and that probably had something to do with dragging my feet.”

Her husband was not ready to quit.

“My feeling was that if we were to leave, God would show us, and something would open up some other place,” he said. “I was just not ready to let them kick us out.”

So they stayed. And stayed. And stayed one more time.

Along with rebuilding the bombed church, they helped purchase land in 1966 that became Pine Lake Fellowship Camp in Meridian. It was the first racially integrated Christian camp for children in the region. In the mid-1970s, they planted another nearby Choctaw congregation, Pearl River Mennonite Church.

Headwind of racism

Five and a half decades later, they still live in Philadelphia, where they continue to worship with the Choctaw, though Glenn has retired from the pastorate.

They hope that remaining in Neshoba County helped to quell prejudice, including strife beyond the bombings. They also faced headwinds in the schools where as teachers they supported equality. And they parented three daughters — Milli, Sheila and Beth — in a stormy environment while striving to model Christ’s peace.

Remaining peaceful in the face of pain was not always easy. Glenn had a row with the Neshoba County Schools over his views. When the Myerses first came to the area, integration hadn’t happened yet, so there were black schools and white schools. But after integration, the courts ordered that the county schools had to accept anyone.

“The whites treated the blacks so horribly,” he said. “I held it all in until one day during my students’ home room, I took out my frustrations. I was not hired back the next year.”

He went to Philadelphia High School, where he taught chemistry, physics and physical science for 36 years. Emma taught on and off for nearly two decades in other schools, including at Neshoba County.

Raising children in the hostile environment sparked challenges for a family trying to model peace and reconciliation.

“I know the bombings made me a more fearful mother,” Emma Myers said. “I was so afraid for my kids . . . that I didn’t give them any room to do the kind of normal exploring kids need to do.”

Glenn Myers said they thought that if they had a loving, caring home, that would be enough.

“But I know now that they needed other people to think we were OK and that we were doing the right thing,” he said.

They don’t get a second chance. But according to family and Choctaw, their hearts were in the right place the first time around. They admit to making cross-cultural mistakes that were hurtful at times.

Their oldest daughter, Milli Floyd, on a video about her parents, said, “I am just amazed that they came and stayed and went through all the things they went through. They still remained people who see positive in the world and in people and look for how God can [redeem situations]. . . . Their life and witness and walk has touched more generations than they will ever know.”

One of the Choctaw they impacted was JoAnne Ben, who grew up in Nanih Waiya and is a member of Pearl River Mennonite.

“I look at them as one of us, Choctaw people,” she said on the video. “They were really concerned about my people and dedicated their lives here.”

God’s love heals

The couple hope the fact that bombings and bullets did not banish them has witnessed to God’s love that can heal racism. They still have the bed frame with the bullet hole, through which they’ve threaded an electric alarm clock cord.

“You can’t always measure what your influence is at the time, so you have to cast your bread on the waters, and after many days it will return to you,” Glenn Myers said.

Some of that bread has returned. Today, Philadelphia has a black mayor.

“We are seeing that some changes have happened in the county and the schools and realize that we did touch some lives,” he said. “That is very gratifying to us.”

More stories from Mississippi are in the Aug. 1 issue of Mennonite World Review. Subscribe to read them!


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