Yes, he has a little gray on his beard. At forty-two, Chris Rice is one of Duke's oldest students. But after seventeen years of intense learning found in what he acknowledges as one of too few places like it across America, the humble racial-integration activist is back to learn how to teach--to teach what he has seen and to teach how to make grace, not race, matter.
Rice came to Durham two years ago after nearly two decades in an interracial faith community in Jackson, Mississippi, a journey he details in his recent book, Grace Matters: A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South. As a white wannabe-lawyer who grew up a few steps off the Middlebury College campus in Vermont, he was ready to change the world and find the answers to America's race problems on a quick trip to live with his family and some diverse Southerners. But he wasn't ready for the type of success he would have, finding hope in the margins of society. This was something he was able to seek out only after learning to grow by binding his life to others through downward mobility based in faith and patience--seventeen years of it.
" I think there's a danger in ever thinking you've arrived, and now all of a sudden you know it and now you can teach it," he reflects. "I think the challenge is always to figure out how to embrace the gifts of your past and the growth of your past and then open yourself up to new growth. And that requires the risk of going through paradigm shifts. That requires the risk of a loss of a certain identity because you can find significance in what you're learning in your expertise. But the challenge is to always be open to growth."
Openness was the first trait Rice learned to master in Jackson, a town relatively shut off from open minds within the bounds of marginality, poverty, and racial conflict. But in the eye of that racial storm, he and Spencer Perkins, the black son of a civil-rights leader--and Rice's new best friend and colleague--would help a community find a common ground, through faith and understanding.
More than anything, Rice was open to failure and pain. It wasn't just the broader challenge of race that he tackled; it was finding undiscovered modes of what he calls "reconciliation" from trying times in the near-breakdown of his Mississippi church congregation to almost giving up and eventually to Perkins' death of a heart attack five years ago. It's an event he painfully and beautifully describes in the book, an event that triggered his leaving Mississippi.
" I think what I learned is that you have to learn to listen to the interruptions in your life, so that even out of the ashes of tragedy can come new life," he says. "And what I sensed out of that tragedy was that I had become kind of addicted to activism, and that the next chapter in the book of my life needed to be about disengagement, reflection, and study."
With a book tour, work with the Christian Community Development Association, and studies at the divinity school, Rice has spent much of his chapter at Duke integrating himself in a new community, maybe not in as extreme a form as in Mississippi but in an equally observant one nonetheless. He is working to make a Durham society "see more common life occur across lines of racial separation."
No matter how moving it would be to see the northern side of Durham's "Broad Street Divide"--a historically African-American community that has become largely abandoned--combine with the other side in a transformation similar to that in Jackson, he knows he must remain open and patient.
Even after moving to the largely minority-populated Durham, he's still trying to find an interracial church. He doesn't hold out much hope for wide-sweeping racial reconciliation now. "But that doesn't make me hopeless. I find hope at the margins.
" I think what I learned in Mississippi was that transformation comes down to doing the little things well. The kind of transformation I'm interested in is on the ground: where people live, who their friends are, where they worship, how we come together across the fragmented lines of race and class to form new partnerships, how we work together to transform marginalized communities--on the ground."