DAY OF UNITY: Officials, community come together for annual prayer service

Published 3:59 pm Thursday, June 15, 2023

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NATCHEZ — God and unity go hand in hand during Natchez’s Day of Unity celebration, a day when citizens of different church backgrounds and ethnicities come together in prayer.

Natchez celebrated its Fourth Annual Day of Unity Recognition Ceremony at Zion Chapel AME Church on Wednesday.

The celebration included a prayer by Natchez Early College Academy graduate Destiny Addae; scripture by Beau Baumgardner, president of the Jewish congregation of the Temple B’Nai Israel; and a message by the Rev. Birdon Mitchell of Zion Chapel AME Church.

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Former Mayor Darryl Grennell established the first Day of Unity on Flag Day, June 14, 2020, in response to national unrest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by white police officers.

Mayor Dan Gibson pointed out Grennell in the audience of Wednesday’s celebration, and Grennell thanked Gibson for keeping the tradition going.

“These are praying days,” Grennell said. “Mayor Gibson, I am so glad that you’ve maintained that tradition here in Natchez. A day of prayer.”

Grennell shared a story that shared with him about a praying woman.

As Grennell was driving to Wednesday’s unity celebration from New Orleans, he was reminded of a story his maternal grandfather, William Cleve Johnson Sr.— “Papa,” as he called him — told him in his childhood.

As Johnson was working for the U.S. Corps of Engineers, he met an older couple on the road from Jonesville, Louisiana, and could see that they needed help.

“He said to himself, ‘I’m not supposed to stop and pick these people up in this government vehicle,’ but he couldn’t pass them by,” Grennell said. “So, he gave them a ride into Natchez.”

“… The old man told my grandfather, he said, ‘Mister, we knew that somebody was going to stop and pick us up. We didn’t know who, and we didn’t know when, but we sure do thanks you.’ And the old woman, when she got out of the car, she looked at my grandfather and she expanded her eyes, and she said, ‘Mister, God is going to bless you.’ And the old man said, ‘Mister, she knows what she’s talking about. See, I don’t know God like she knows God, because she talks to God all the time. If she says, ‘God’s gonna bless you,’ he sure is gonna bless you.’”

Grennell said God did bless his grandfather, who lived to be 102 years old and in his right frame of mind until he died.

“I think about that old woman all the time,” he said. “She had a relationship with God. She prayed all the time.”

A poem by Mark LaFrancis demonstrated how unity is also about showing love to your neighbor.

“Sometimes, unity is just a flat tire,” LaFrancis said.

His poem told the story of a woman in distress on the side of the road as she was driving her children to school and had a flat.

A stranger stopped to help her, and when she began fumbling through her purse for a tip, he says, “Oh no, ma’am not at all. You see, I’m your neighbor,” LaFrancis said. “Puzzled, the woman said she didn’t recall seeing him before and he said ‘We’re all neighbors. You, me, your sweet children, even those folks who passed you by.’ … A neighbor doesn’t need a flat tire for us to render aid to show unity. No, the answer was given to us scores of years ago. Long before tires and automobiles. Simply put, love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Mitchell spoke to attendees about what it means to be unified — when people no longer see each other for their differences.

“We still live at a time where people see differences … a black man and a white man, a black woman and a white woman instead of women and men,” he said. “When we can start seeing each other as Children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, then and only then we can bring about true unity.”