The roads between Vicksburg, Mississippi and Port Gibson, Mississippi aren’t great for running or cycling.

The Blues Highway (US 61) is a 4-lane divided speedway with narrow lanes, high volumes of truck traffic and no shoulders. The secondary roads made an arc out to the east—not the most direct route but safer than US 61. The road was winding and hilly with poor sight lines and no shoulder, but thankfully traffic volumes were much less and we didn’t encounter any heavy commercial traffic. About halfway to Port Gibson, we intersected the Natchez Trace. Again, the road was winding and hilly with poor sight lines and no shoulder—but also very beautiful.

We arrived in Port Gibson, “the City too Beautiful to Burn” (look it up). Scott was waiting for us at the Collina Plantation Inn. Scott is actually from Minnetonka, Minnesota—a rare find here in Mississippi, but apparently he was searching for an old house in which to set up a B&B. He thought he might find the right place in Virginia, but turns out Port Gibson, Mississippi held his dream. We checked in, got situated in our lovely room, and after visiting with Scott a bit, we headed out for our first interaction with Mike Herrin, pastor of the local First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson, Mississippi.

Mike is originally from south Georgia, and was called by his congregation to serve there in Port Gibson—the congregation calls, and the Presbytery approves.

Gave us history of the architecture, but eventually let on that we didn’t need to write down any of those details. All could be found on their detailed website: Mike suggested we test out the pews—have a seat—apparently they were made for “our size people”

Mike said, being of more petite stature like myself… “normal size people” he joked at Tom, who’s 6’3” frame crumpled up in the narrow aisles. But you’d only have to sit there for an hour long service, Mike pleaded, thus prompting us to inquire about the difference in Church experiences we’d had. For instance, back at Old Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church in West Memphis, the service lasted upwards of 2 and a half hours! Old Saint Paul is primarily a Black congregation, while Mike’s congregation here in Port Gibson is exclusively white. In response, Mike takes us through his understanding of the segregation of churches. He says it is primarily because of worship styles.

The Presbyterian Church underwent Black flight because of “the three L’s and two B’s:” White folks don’t like to go into Black churches because it’s too Loud, it’s too Long, and it’s too Late in the day. But Black folks don’t like going to white churches because they are too Brief and too Boring! Pastor Mike thinks we should celebrate our differences, because people like to do what they like—“isn’t it great we have this diversity,” he says, “as long as everyone understands that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Mike currently preaches on Sundays at 9am upriver in Yokena and 11am here in Port Gibson. Serving several church communities is par for the course for most religious these days, says Mike, as the population is down by 18%. When asked about the sustainability of such a situation, Mike says god is in charge, referencing the Book of Jonah—Mike is tight with Jonah, he says. Apparently, like Jonah, if you don’t follow the direction of the Lord, he will show you how wrong you are, sometimes in less than pleasant ways.

This reference to scripture turns us to how central the “word” is to not only the Presbyterian Church, but to all Southern churches, especially the Black church. Mike says that the black church is and was the most vibrant movement in shaping the religiosity of the Southern United States, reminding us that Martin Luther King, Jr. not only quoted the constitution but also scripture in his Lincoln Memorial speech. Why is the South so steeped in religion, though, we asked? Mike says hard times nurture faith, and good times sap it. The Black church experienced grinding poverty, and the church grew stronger. Today many Christian churches preach a “Prosperity Gospel—name it and claim it,” but Mike does not endorse it. Sometimes holiness and happiness don’t go together, Mike says. Our god died on a cross. He prayed saying he did not want that fate, but accepted it. Prayer as a way to succeed or out of our sorrows is not always the answer, although sometimes it works out that way. According to Mike, submission to god’s will, trust in god’s will is the most important, and eventually we’ll be at peace with god.

The prosperity of the Christian Gospel is not a material prosperity. Mike feels that you’ve got to love people into the kingdom. Small communities have to love people. Pastoral care comes first, then preaching is his approach—Not the other way around. Mike talks about “Kingdom thinking” … “I don’t care who’s locker room you’re in – Jesus wins. Jesus is the medicine.”

And by the way, the church is “not pink”!! …you judge for yourself!

After our pastoral experience for the day (I even took home a few bible study pamphlets—Pastor Mike is always on team Jesus!), Tom and I went over to the Royalty Lounge & Bistro for dinner. Wings and fried oysters, a great ambience, and a wind down before heading back to Collina for some work. We have a little more planned for Port Gibson in the morning, so we better rest up, get ready, and say our prayers that we are on the right track!