My congregation planned a worship service with a conversation on race. It was a revealing encounter for many present.
Being the only African-American in the congregation, I and a white member sat up front during the children’s time. The storyteller asked them about similarities and differences between us. Among the numerous differences named, there was only one matter-of-fact reference to skin color. After church, several members expressed a desire to continue the conversation with children and adults.
Do these children’s responses reflect the thoughts of children in society generally? No! I think these children’s parents are trying to teach them to value everyone, regardless of race.
My view was affirmed by a person struggling to find a spiritual community. We talked about race and its impact on children, and I brought up the worship service. He said, “Was this in a Mennonite church? From my experience, Mennonites teach their children how to love and respect everyone.”
So, have we done enough?
Race is a dominate force in America. Historian Robin D.O. Kelley says, “Racism is not about how you look, it’s about how people assign meaning to how you look.”
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama dealt with racism. There was a call for a national conversation on race. It never happened. The desire for political change persuaded reluctant whites to say, “I’ll vote for him. He’s half white.”
A 2012 survey on racial attitudes showed 51 percent of Americans express explicit anti-black attitudes. A similar 2011 survey revealed 52 percent of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Hispanic attitudes.
These statistics are revealing but not surprising. While no racial attitude tests have been conducted in Mennonite communities and congregations, several friends have suggested these statistics probably represent the attitudes of Mennonite communities, too.
That’s hard for me to believe. We place a high value on being an antiracist denomination. Many people have participated in antiracism training and engaged in racial reconciliation endeavors. If our children are representative of the attitudes of Mennonite parents, we are headed toward racial reconciliation.
I have had numerous conversations about racial attitudes across the denomination. Rather than dealing directly with racial tensions, we tend to allow economics and class to dominate the discussion. Many say, given our current reality, that these factors trump race. They believe economics and class undergird the immigration issue, both nationally and in Mennonite churches. Is this true?
Several gatherings have allowed people of color to talk about their hopes for the church. Many have said white brothers and sisters may teach mutual respect but don’t understand the plight of people of color. A few question whether they really want to understand. If we don’t deal more realistically with race, our desire to become a culturally transformed community will be lost.
As part of a family with different ethnic groups at the table, we need to talk about how race impacts our relationships. Being open and honest with each other, we can find solutions that will give all of us hope.
Secular society is reluctant to have a genuine dialogue on race. Can we model what needs to be done?
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Conference of Mennonite Church USA.