By Gary G. Yerkey
The Rev. Peter W. Gray, rector of the Church of the Nativity in Greenwood, Mississippi, could be forgiven if he felt overwhelmed by his ancestral lineage. His father and paternal grandfather were long-term bishops who promoted racial reconciliation in Mississippi. His great-grandfather, the first Duncan M. Gray, was elected Bishop of Mississippi in 1942. His maternal grandfather was a priest.
Yet Gray prefers to speak not of legacy but of what his father — Duncan M. Gray III, who retired in February after 15 years as Bishop of Mississippi — calls the “ordinariness” of life.
“I think the challenge for me … is just to do your work and to have the integrity and courage to tell the truth when it’s time to tell the truth,” he says. “And that’s enough.”
The young Gray, who is 33, is married to the Rev. Giulianna C. Gray, priest-in-charge at St. Stephen’s Church in Indianola, 30 miles west of Greenwood. His father jokes that Peter must have thought that there were not enough priests in the family.
Peter’s grandfather, Duncan M. Gray, Jr., who turned 89 on September 21, is certainly the best-known of the Gray dynasty of Episcopal bishops in Mississippi, particularly for his work on behalf of racial justice during the 1960s.
Controlling that crisis, however, was not easy, as Gray learned on the night of Sept. 30, 1962. As rector of St. Peter’s Church in Oxford, he sought to calm a white mob that had gathered at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) to protest the enrollment of James Meredith, the school’s first African American student.
With Wofford Smith, the Episcopal chaplain at the school, and two faculty members, Gray tried to talk with students and restore order. He climbed onto a Confederate monument near the campus entrance and pleaded with them to disperse. But instead some students seized Gray and his supporters and beat them until campus police intervened. Later that night, more violence erupted. Students hurled Molotov cocktails, set cars on fire, and fired guns. Two civilians died.
Now, more than 50 years later, Gray says that his commitment to racial equality was strengthened in 1953 during his senior year at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, when trustees voted against admitting African Americans. All but one faculty member resigned, and the trustees reversed their decision several months later.
“Spending my senior year in seminary dealing with the racial issue set me up for my ministry in Mississippi,” Gray said in an interview at his grandson’s church in downtown Greenwood. “It was a high-priority issue for all of us [and it] placed the whole issue of integration very high on my agenda from the very beginning.”
Duncan M. Gray III said his father’s stance on racial equality split St. Peter’s Church in Oxford down the center: “He had all these people mad at him, and the church was on shaky ground.” But people still loved him. “I remember thinking, at 15 years old, Boy, wouldn’t it be great to be loved like that.”
His father would “ultimately love those folks who were saying terrible things” about him and threatening him. “That capacity to love was what really influenced me. I saw a life of fulfillment and joy.”
He said he was never told to do something “because your dad’s a priest.”
“Quite the contrary,” he said. “I remember Dad saying, ‘We do this because we’re Christian. … This is what Christians do.’”
Few Episcopal priests in Mississippi at the time were ardent segregationists, the elder Bishop Gray said. “That’s the reason I was elected bishop [in 1974],” he said. He won the clergy order on the first ballot and the lay order on the second ballot. Then he held the office for 20 years.
The younger Bishop Gray’s tipping point came in 1992, when he decided to become “a whole lot more proactive across the racial divide than I was.” Through a series of pastoral letters and events he kept the diocese focused on issues of race and reconciliation.
“Part of [my father’s] witness was that he was always not quite sure,” he said. “And a piece of my own journey is to come to terms daily with my own blindness and my own fear.” The elder bishop Gray’s ideals have held steady. “I’ve always believed that improving race relations, racial equality, was an important part of the church’s responsibility,” he said. “We needed not just to change the laws but to change people’s own perspective and inner commitment. That’s been a major obligation, duty, responsibility of the Episcopal Church.”
Image: Peter W. Gray, Duncan M. Gray, Jr., and Duncan M. Gray III • Karin Henriksson photo