ELKHART, Ind. — About 30 African-American Mennonite pastors and lay leaders expressed optimism, hope and surprise during a gathering April 24-25 at Mennonite Mission Network and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
The African American Mennonite Pastors Gathering was organized by MMN in partnership with AMBS and the African American Mennonite Association. Guided by the theme “That They May Be One” from John 17:21-22, the event offered an opportunity for black leaders to learn of the variety of Mennonite Church USA agencies and resources available to empower them in their ministries.
MMN sent invitations to 33 congregations with black leaders in Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Many were AAMA congregations. There are 51 AAMA congregations.
The leaders heard about service programs offered by MMN and degree opportunities at AMBS. They heard from representatives of Everence, MennoMedia, The Mennonite, Mennonite Educational Association and Anabaptist Disabilities Network. They toured MC USA’s offices and the AMBS campus.
Journey of pain and faith
Many said a sermon by Bishop Leslie Francisco III, of AAMA and pastor of Calvary Community Church (known as “C3”) in Hampton, Va., resonated with them.
Francisco shared his journey of pain and faith in ministry. He inherited the church from his father, the late Leslie Francisco II. The elder Francisco became a member of the Mennonite church through a mission outreach by white Mennonites in Newport News, Va.
He said white members planted the church but left when the elder Francisco, who was part black and part Native American, became a leader.
Francisco said he told his father he would never be a pastor, in part because of the pain his father endured while pastoring the small, struggling Newport News church, and then the church that would become C3.
Despite resisting and enduring his own struggles, Francisco eventually obeyed God. Now, C3 has about 1,200 members and an elementary school and has planted four churches, including one in South Africa.
“I learned how to trust God by watching my father,” Francisco said. He is passing the legacy to his three daughters, two of whom are involved in the C3 ministry.
Among the surprises was a video message from Glen Guyton of the MC USA Executive Board, offering free lodging at the convention in Kansas City in July to the leaders in attendance and their church members who are first-time MC USA conventiongoers.
Other highlights were the table discussions in which leaders and agency representatives shared their stories. Discussions sparked conversations ranging from how to grow ministries to addressing problems in their communities and overcoming racism in the church.
John Powell, a retired MMN employee who has worked for decades on racial reconciliation inside and outside the Mennonite church, drew laughter when he said he had hoped such a gathering would happen “before I died, but I don’t plan on dying anytime soon.”
He said many of the black congregations planted by white churches had been neglected.
“There are new congregations, but there were some here that were church plants that had white pastors and so forth that are still struggling,” Powell said.
George Taylor, a lay leader at Schaumberg (Ill.) Christ Community Mennonite Church, said the gathering gave him a broader and deeper perspective.
“I felt more of a connection with more African-American Mennonites, and seeing the work that is being done at this high level gives me hope that the same intensity is going to trickle down to the churches,” Taylor said.
Show on the road
Cyneatha Millsaps, pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., and an AMBS graduate, said she was a little disappointed more pastors did not attend, but was glad that she did.
“I’m thinking they’ve got to take the show on the road,” Millsaps said of the event planning team. “It might be instead of trying to have us come to them that they have a small delegation that comes to us . . . I’m happy that they are listening and want to hear our voices at the tables.”
Tyrone Taylor, assistant associate pastor of New Foundation United in Christ Fellowship in Elkhart, said he was unaware of the resources at MMN and other agencies and had not had much contact with other black Mennonite leaders.
“They talked about how some [in the church] are scared to speak out about this [racism and reconciliation],” he said. “You have to have a place to inhabit this type of atmosphere where you feel free to speak or to share your emotions with others and your questions or your doubts.”