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Delta Stories

By March 31, 2023 8 Comments

What do I remember? The place was close enough to Vicksburg to visit the battlefield, which was primarily a siege of that Mississippi citadel Gen. Grant wanted–which is to say, needed–to control of Mississippi river traffic. And did. I’d never been that close to a place where people still call the whole horror “the War of Northern Aggression.”

Maybe twenty years ago, returning from a long interview in Jackson, Mississippi, I went out of my way to drive up along the river, through the Delta area.

I stopped for gas in a town named Rolling Fork and proceeded to lock my keys in my car when I got out to pump gas. There I was, lily-white guy in a Delta world where I was one of few, and my blamed forgetfulness left me a problem–no way to get back in the car.

The clerk in the convenience store shook her head when I asked about cops, and then somebody sitting there over coffee volunteered that she ought to call “Buzz.”

Everybody giggled. I was the idiot.

Anyway, she called, told the man on the other end how this out-of-towner locked himself out of his car and we’re wondering–she and the others–if he might come over and, you know, help out; and he did. He slicky-slickyed his way into the Schaap Skylark as if he’d done it before often enough, for which he got a fulsome tip I’ll have you know.

I’d come up into Delta country just to make sure what I remembered was real. I wanted to see Cary, Mississippi, even though I was pretty sure no one I knew would be there, Black or white. Mostly what I remembered was that we’d gone along on a “service trip,” service, as in “Christian service.” We were maybe three dozen earnest members-large, most high school and college-age young women recruited to teach at Bible schools in area churches, churches that stood out in the country, in cotton fields where the kids’ parents worked. 

The quality of these old pictures isn’t good, but they’re just about fifty years old. It was 1977, and my wife and I were recruited to help–doing exactly what, back then, wasn’t always clear. Two weeks, as I remember, enough time to create maybe a half-dozen week-long Bible schools like this one. 

We took a school bus all the way down south, a fifteen-hour trip, to Cary, Mississippi, where that yellow monster shuffled country kids to and from Bible school and didn’t get a proper rest in swampy heat that exceeded anything I’d ever felt in my life (and we’d just moved to Iowa from Arizona). 

Back then, “service trips” weren’t intended to be history classes. Prep work, to me, seemed scanty and more than a little overdone. The KKK was alive and well in the region, and was capable and often did raise its ugly head, we were told. (I was doubtful, but the leaders weren’t wrong.) The people lived in tiny houses like this, right in the middle of the cotton, as if those tar paper shacks had grown up with the crop. 

Me?–the prof-type? I spent some time working in the Center’s library, an odd place with more CRC Publishing House work than I’d ever seen in one place–books like Rooftops over Strawtown, all about Pella, Iowa; two novels from the typewriter of Casey Kuipers, a schoolteacher in Zuni, NM, and a number of others, cast-offs from a range of church libraries. Cary Christian Center had become one of the most needy centers of relief for CRC “service groups” like ours–mission barrel clothes and steel chairs and tools–and a library none of the locals would ever be likely to read. (Today, some of them hold down space in our library.)

I could go on and on with the oddity of the enterprise–how stark raving strange it was to believe that the whole lot of us foreigners were doing great work by bringing the natives Bible stories or painting walls in the Center, an school once meant for “coloreds.” I could wince at what manners of racism were actually perpetuated by our sense of doing the white man’s burden, being God’s own hands in his world. 

Once, needing something from a hardware store, a couple of us went into town, where a woman with a memorable Dutch name (Alvinah Spoelstra?) ran a home for the handicapped (and, yes, I know that’s brutal wording). Somewhere in my memory there lies a photo I didn’t take but should have of this devoted woman.

I can’t help but remember my own regard for the enterprise, the “service” we were offering, not to mention the life experience all those young white women were accruing in the cotton fields of what might well have seemed a foreign country. The whole experience wasn’t always a good time–I could tell stories–but there were smiles, lots of them on different color faces.

Cary Christian Center still operates–you can look them up on line–but the staff is locals now, not well-meaning Yankees. By all accounts, the place still offers succor to poor folks along and through the Delta region.

Almost fifty years later, it’s not hard to wonder whether our “service trip” was a kind of success? I can’t help saying, undoubtedly, yes it was. If nothing else, none of those young women–today they’re retirement age–ever forgot all that cotton and two hot weeks on the Mississippi Delta. 

Did such “service trips” only deepen a propensity for racism? In some cases, I’m sure, a feeling of our being “more than conquerors” meant seeing the Delta residents as ever-needy recipients. How many in that school bus full of earnest helpers are MAGA Republicans today in the most politically conservative corner of a state preposterously red is a question I’d rather not have answered.

All this comes back to me now because a tiny little burg right there on the Mississippi Delta is no more. Eighty percent of the population is African American, about a quarter live beneath poverty level. The town where a woman named Elvinah had a place for challenged kids is gone, torn up and spread halfway over the parrish, the town where a guy named Buzz, known for his able fingers, played Good Samaritan for a stranded traveler in a locked car with Iowa plates, that town was ravaged, erased, wiped out by tornadoes that killed dozens and left the whole area mostly trash.

It’s a horror. You can’t have missed the pics.

It’s pretty much where we went, June of 1977, 46 years ago in a yellow school bus on a “service trip.”

You know what?–if I was younger, more able and capable, I’d like to call the whole bunch together–those still alive and kicking anyway–and do it again because the people we met years and years ago?–good Lord, right now they really need our help and more.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thank you for this, in so many ways, as we look toward Holy Week.

  • Jim Kortman says:

    Ahh yes. I do recall a “service trip” to Cary. Approx 1982. Don Tamminga may recall leading that trip and playing a bit of basketball in the side yard with the locals. Don – do you remember spoofing the opposing team about you breaking your nose on the rim, because you could jump that high…???
    Jim – aggred. Parts of it were good, but parts of it were mis directed. Unfortunately, it lacked the giving of dignity and the lack of understanding – at least for the young people, about all being created in God’s image and the inherent self worth those we came to “serve” had, but we weren’t mature enough to give or understand.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    In 1962 I played on an all-white college basketball team that toured South America with Grambling, then a black university. Obviously their team was made up of black players. It was a goodwill tour sponsored by the State Department to show that whites and blacks could “be” together. After a game or two—we’d win by 30, hand the opposition a flag, dress, and head to the airport—the coaches (one, my father) said, “Enough. Let’s mix the teams.” It wasn’t Christian. Or maybe it was. Thank you, Jim, for truth as how can we know. I love your writing’s voice.

  • Dennis Van Andel says:

    Yes, Elvinah Spoelstra Zwiers was a true saint who brought healing and hope to the many people she ministered to and with in Korea and Mississippi.

  • Katy Sundararajan says:

    What an excellent piece of rich memory and prompting questions. I like the keen eye toward history and change, and also a wondering about the value of things we have done in a world that has changed.

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Jim, I too thought of Rolling Fork. It is a town I prayed about and contributed to. We do need a new start for them. One filled with hope and love,

  • Karen Prins says:

    Thank you James and Barbara Schaap. I have keen memories of when my husband and I traveled to Cary, in 1974, to assist, best we could, with medical needs. What we contributed, face to face with the needs, felt so inadequate. The commitment shown by the nurse I worked with, Joy, was inspiring. The satisfaction I felt while advocating for a young boy, 8 years old, who accidentally suffered a fork thrown at one of his eyes, while playing with his siblings, is my strongest memory. As I accompanied him to the “big” hospital in Jackson, I wanted to cry over the racism I felt as I stood next to him waiting for care. We did succeed in giving care in Cary, even if it was to only a handful of dear souls, whose smiles for us were as wide as our open arms were for them. Dear souls of Cary, Jesus loves you.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you. As always, you make me make think.

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