Editor’s note: From a classroom in Columbus, Mississippi podcasts are reshaping how high-school students research and tell stories of their hometowns. Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science English teacher Thomas Easterling explains the inception of his idea here (with an introduction by Deborah Fallows detailing how Our Towns reporting on Columbus began in 2014).
This is the second installment of a series highlighting some of the Real Mississippi podcasts, now in its third season. The series’ first installment featured Raegan Calvert’s “You Can Go Back Home Again,” produced by Braedon Rothert. This installment features Christina Zhang’s “Having the Grace to Find a Sense of Place,” produced by Sawyer Levenson.
On May 8, NPR announced the finalists for its 2022 Student Podcast Challenge. Both Calvert and Zhang are among the 15 finalists named out of more than 2,400 entries were submitted across 45 states and the District of Columbia.
Here is Christina Zhang’s “Having the Grace to Find a Sense of Place.”
On Popp’s Ferry Road in Biloxi, Mississippi, you’ll find the First Baptist Church of Biloxi. Inside that church, you’ll find another church: The Chinese Grace Bible Church, which lies in the heart of Christina Zhang’s episode of the Real Mississippi podcast series, “Having the Grace to Find a Sense of Place,” which you can listen to here:
In the 7-minute-long podcast, Zhang explains how the small but growing number of Chinese Grace Bible Church congregants find their way through a series of hallways to a room no larger than a standard living with a cardboard sign identifying the space. That space, as Zhang reports, serves as a place where Chinese Americans in Biloxi – a city where Asian Americans represent just over 5% of the total population in a state where they represent just over 1% of the total population – gather to share culture.
Those who meet in that church within a church and worship from office chairs that serve the place of pews “find comfort in knowing that this may be the one room in this region where they can feel a perfect balance of ebullience and fortune without the fear of prejudice or exclusion,” Zhang tells listeners.
A Biloxi native, Zhang attends school 250 miles away in Columbus, Mississippi at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, the state’s two-year residential high school. The podcast assignment in Thomas Easterling’s English class, she said, helped her engage with members of her community again, like Annie Hsu.
In “Having the Grace to Find a Sense of Place,” Zhang introduces her audience to Hsu, a 24-year-old whose family has been attending the Chinese Grace Bible Church since its founding in 2013. Hsu discusses the important role the church plays for the community’s youth, which in her Sunday school classes runs the gamut of toddlers through pre-teens, particularly when it comes to shaping their identity.
Zhang said interviewing Hsu helped her “gain a lot of insight into my local Chinese community, which means a lot to me.”
Standout moments in the episode include when Zhang’s thoughtful, fast-paced narration takes a backseat to bring listeners inside the church to hear parts of a service. Another is hearing directly from the youth that Hsu teaches.
“When I interviewed the kids in the church, I didn’t realize how much of a role the church played in their day-to-day life,” Zhang said. “So many friendships and bonding experiences happen that I didn’t even know about.”
With “Having the Grace to Find a Sense of Place,” Zhang invites listeners to a Mississippi city they’ve likely heard of, or might have even visited, but she creates a space to hear from voices less often heard from. In her MSMS classroom, she knows she’s not alone.
“After listening to the podcasts from my classmates, I realized that these profound stories happen all the time, everywhere, no matter how big or small a town is,” Zhang said. “The representation that my classmates delivered for towns all across Mississippi is unmatched. This type of storytelling really helped me recognize how different everyone’s stories are, and how they connect to form Mississippi’s culture.”
You can read Thomas Easterling in his own words on why he began assigning students to podcasts here. You can listen to Christina Zhang’s “Having the Grace to Find a Sense of Place” here, and the entire archives of Real Mississippi podcasts here.