Felipe Hinojosa describes the struggle of Latinas and Latinos to become part of the Mennonite church in the United States. He starts with Mennonite missionary work in Puerto Rico, South Texas, New York City and Chicago from the 1930s to the 1960s. These are stories about the conviction and sacrifice of missionaries who ventured off the family farm to preach the gospel in unfamiliar contexts — people like T.K. Hershey and William G. Detweiler, who left Pennsylvania in 1936 to bear witness in the borderlands of Texas.
Hinojosa recounts the excitement and awkwardness of white people inviting themselves into someone else’s community — both the thrill of the exotic and the fear of the foreign. These sites of missionary work displayed the promise of the gospel — the gathering of a people of various ethnicities, cultures and languages, worshiping God as the interracial body of Christ.
But some mission workers were concerned for ethnic purity. “The Mennonites would preach to us and live in our community,” remembered Ted Chapa, a young Mexican-American boy in Mathis at the time, “but if one of their sons or daughters wanted to marry a Mexicano or Mexicana, that was a no-no, and they would open the Bible and explain why that should not happen.”
It’s no surprise that the Bible can be used to justify prejudices, but it is surprising that Latinos tolerated the racist failures of some missionaries and became Mennonite. They found enough of the goodness of Jesus in the white Mennonites. “For many Mexican-American youth,” Hinojosa says, “the VSers became models for how to live a Christian life.”
Yet, white Mennonite missionaries emptied their gospel of the parts of Jesus’ message that would challenge the oppressive social codes of the white establishment. “VSers complied with the established racial codes in South Texas,” Hinojosa explains. “For the sake of the mission, it was important for VSers and Mennonite missionaries to maintain strong relationships with the local Anglo community.”
Hinojosa doesn’t shy away from the prejudices of past Mennonite leaders. “I was never strong for mixing Mexicans into our church building with our whites,” declared a leader in the Illinois Mennonite Conference in the 1930s.
He also records the white leaders who spoke out against the sin of racism. In the 1950s, Guy F. Hershberger, professor at Goshen (Ind.) College, claimed that “to take part in any form of race discrimination . . . is a contribution to war.”
Despite a mixed history of mission and race relations, Latinos and Latinas joined the church. “Even with the racist missteps and paternalistic patterns of Mennonite missionaries,” Hinojosa says, they organized Latino Mennonite churches and “managed to impart an ethic of peace, service and simplicity.”
Hispanics became Mennonite as a result of people giving their lives to relationships across racial barriers. Our interracial denomination is sustained because of “the memories of basketball games, shared meals and service projects.”
As more Latinas and Latinos became Mennonite, they found fellowship with African-American Mennonites and together formed a group called the Minority Ministries Council. “We want to have a say in everyday affairs of the church,” wrote Lupe De León, a member of the MMC staff. “We want to be leaders.”
MMC was successful in making room within the denomination. African-American and Latino leaders were soon trusted with positions within denominational structures.
And Latinas as well: Hinojosa’s chapter on feminism tells the story of how women and men negotiated rival currents within their faith and culture.
Although there were fewer men in many Latino churches, Hinojosa says, “they held the majority of the leadership positions on committees and virtually all the pastoral positions in the church.” Latina women were also kept from leadership positions in broader church structures, including the all-male cohort that was MMC. “MMC leaders focused on racial injustice in the church and society and were not prepared to address the marginalization of women within their own ranks,” Hinojosa writes. Against all odds, the women found ways to organize their own movement of church growth. “Whereas the all-male MMC leadership struggled to build a grassroots base,” Hinojosa comments, “Latinas were quick to organize 18 church groups with a total membership of over 300 across the country.” Evidence of the legacy of their success was the appointment of Elizabeth Soto Albrecht as the first Latina to serve as moderator of Mennonite Church USA.
The MMC not only sparked a movement of color within a mostly white denomination but also succeeded in developing vital relationships between brown and black people. Hinojosa recounts the Cross-Cultural Youth Convention in 1972, where nonwhite Mennonite youth gathered for worship, fellowship and discussion of what it means to be minorities within the church and country.
At the convention, John Powell, Hubert Brown, Lawrence Hart and Neftali Torres, among others, challenged the youth to engage with issues of faith and identity. And the youth did come together to call upon the Mennonite church to support the work of the National Farm Worker Ministry as well as endorse the lettuce boycott. “We ask our Savior Jesus Christ to be with Cesar Chavez,” they prayed.
But there was a backlash, and the youth movement and MMC were accused of leading the church astray with “a mixture of Christianity and Communism,” wrote a Pennsylvanian Mennonite. Taken aback by a gospel with such political implications, Lancaster Mennonite Conference restricted the participation of their Hispanic communities across the U.S. from the MMC. Leaders advocated a new Hispanic organization “whose focus would be evangelism and church planting, not political and church reform.”
This constricted what was allowed as an authentic Latino Mennonite identity. To give another example, Hinojosa states that more than half of Latinos support same-sex marriage. Such diversity doesn’t fit within the Latino/Latina Mennonite identity that has been constructed and that is assumed to be against LGBT inclusion. But, in reality, we — speaking as a Hispanic Mennonite — are on both sides. I know, because of my own family and my conversations with Hispanic Mennonites. Hinojosa notes his surprise that white Mennonites support this opposition to LGBT inclusion under the guise of being an antiracist church. A truly antiracist church would honor the diversity among every racial group and not use one part of us against the other.
A flyer came in the mail for a Mennonite heritage tour, including only European cities. Hinojosa says most white Mennonites know more about their origins in 16th-century Europe than about the struggles of people of color in the 20th century. Someday, perhaps, a Mennonite heritage tour will include visits to La Plata, Puerto Rico, Moline, Ill., and Brownsville, Texas.
Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina and serves on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA.