In 2018, I was guest preaching at a Mennonite church as part of a summer internship. This was the final church I was preaching at for the summer before my final year of seminary.
I began my sermon the same way I did all my sermons that summer. I introduced myself by telling people my name (because most people mispronounce it the first time), where I am from and how I joined the Mennonite church.
There was one other part of my introduction that I often included. I would often mention my wife and refer to her maiden name, Dirksen. This was my way of trying to connect with the ethnic Mennonites in the room.
Surely, this last name would be familiar and give me credibility. After the introduction, I continued with the sermon.
After I preached this sermon, my mentor/coach, a Black woman, came to talk to me. She asked, “Jerrell, why did you mention the Mennonite connection through your wife?”
I explained my reasoning, and she told me something I will never forget. She told me to always remember where I come from.
One of the beautiful things about human beings is that we are malleable creatures. We have the ability to adapt and assimilate to any environment we are placed in.
I have always been someone who wanted to fit in, and at times I have caught myself forgetting where I come from.
It can be a struggle, juggling who people want me to be and who I have been created to be. This has been made clear to me in ministry as I try too hard to adjust to an environment that is not my own.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Hope for the Future conference in Atlanta (page 22). Hope for the Future is a gathering hosted by Mennonite Church USA for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) folks within the denomination. Our theme passage for the weekend was the Book of Esther.
As we studied the life of Esther, I thought about Esther’s journey of assimilation. A Jewish woman, she is forced to enter a beauty contest in order to be queen of Persia. She is advised to shed and hide her Jewish identity. Later, after she becomes queen, there is a threat that the Jewish people could be eliminated without Esther’s intervention.
In this moment of crisis, she is forced to remember where she comes from. She has to remember that she is Jewish, and though she is now the queen in a foreign land, it is her time to make a difference.
While I am a Black man within a predominantly white denomination, I still have a responsibility to my community. I must remember where I come from.
I did not grow up in the Mennonite church. I have not always been married into the “ethnic” Mennonite heritage. I have a history before these moments, and that history is what has created my uniqueness.
I believe God has created us not for assimilation but to share our unique gifts and stories wherever we find ourselves.
We are not supposed to bury who we are. We need to be willing to be our authentic selves.
This is a scary proposition. I’m guessing Esther felt a similar fear when she was called upon to show up for her people. But there comes a time when we must face the fear of rejection in order to be who we have been called to be.
My advice for all people, but especially for my BIPOC siblings is this: Be yourself. Be who God has created you to be. Share your gift with the world. Remember who you are and where you come from.
Because who knows? There may be a time when you are called upon to show up for those who share the same story as you.
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