Photo: Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency, leads a session at Hope for the Future. Participants seated at the table (clockwise from top left) included Lefuarn Harvey, church relations assistant for Mennonite Mission Network; Ken Hochstetler, CEO of Everence; Isaiah Crosby, Hesston (Kan.) College student; Abraham Mateo, Hesston student; and Brian Burkholder, campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” These words from prominent abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, spoken by Goshen (Ind.) College professor Regina Shands Stoltzfus, framed the end of the fifth Hope for the Future (HFF) conference at Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va.
In the midst of a blizzard, leaders of color from across Mennonite Church USA gathered Jan. 21-24 to encourage one another and wrestle with the next steps in the journey toward antiracism and intercultural competency across the denomination. Members of the dominant culture representing a variety of Anabaptist-Mennonite institutions joined the meeting on Jan. 22.
In a concluding summary of the event, Shands Stoltzfus acknowledged that the weekend represented
hard work and a mix of emotions. “All of us in this room probably wish something were different about today or this weekend. But this is what it means to work against systemic racism. There is no ‘fluffy-bunny-nice’ way to work at this if we want to be real about it,” she said.
HFF conferences were created to provide a safe space for open conversation among leaders and emerging leaders of color in Mennonite Church USA. Last year, members of the dominant culture were invited to join the gathering, which focused on power and the way it operates in Mennonite systems and organizations. In addition, students of color from three Mennonite colleges—Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., Goshen College and Hesston (Kan.) College—attended the event as part of the group’s commitment to leadership development.
“We see this group as an adaptive group,” said Iris Léon-Hartshorn, Mennonite Church USA director of transformative peacemaking and a member of the HFF planning committee. “We are adapting to where we are on this journey of antiracism. When my generation got into church institutions, we had to learn everything, and the thinking is that we can give college students a heads up about how things work, and give them opportunities for mentoring and being groomed for leadership.”
An emerging proposal
Building on last year’s themes, the 2016 gathering focused on human resources and best practices and policies that organizations can adopt to improve recruitment and retention of diverse employees.
“What we hoped for at the beginning was that we’d have some real, concrete policies and best practices that we’d ask all agencies to put in place,” said de Léon-Hartshorn.
During Saturday afternoon sessions, the group processed recommendations for policies and best practices developed by the people of color caucus. In table groups, HFF participants chose one policy and one best practice to discuss and presented a list of strategies to help implement them. Groups presented these strategies as “memes”: creative visual presentations that included singing, illustrations, dancing and more. (You can see videos of two presentations below.)
Strategies were discussed for diversifying institutional and organizational boards across Mennonite Church USA, recruiting diverse talent, increasing access to antioppression training for MC USA staff and leaders and more. A subcommittee will work to further refine the recommendations and present them to institutional leaders.
The roots of the struggle
On Jan. 22, Felipe Hinojosa, associate professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and author of the book Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture, joined the gathering via Skype. He focused on the story of the Minority Ministries Council, a Mennonite coalition of African-Americans and Latinos that formed during the Civil Rights movement, and compared it to the work HFF is engaging today.
“Hope for the Future is about envisioning a new world and the idea that another church is possible,” said Hinojosa. “We are dismantling stereotypes and affirming identities that white supremacy has tarnished, accused, stolen or harmed. There is tremendous power in that, if we remember our history.”
The Minority Ministries Council eventually disbanded under pressure to integrate from white leaders
and disagreement within the movement about next steps forward. Hinojosa asked participants to think of ways integration and giving up separate spaces harmed people of color and prevented them from writing and developing their own Anabaptist theologies and ways of being church.
He ended with a concrete call for HFF attendees to work to establish ethnic studies programs and curriculum at Mennonite educational institutions and to make spaces for people to study the history of Mennonite people of color.
“How can we revamp our narrative?” said Hinojosa. “Can we re-envision our educational systems to give the same amount of attention to racial/ethnic studies as we have to peace and justice? We’ve got it within us to do that, and if we don’t, our stories will continue to be left out.”
Worship and study
The weekend also included times of communal Bible study on Scriptures focused on oppression, gender and racism. Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, and Michelle Armster, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Central States, led a study on Ephesians 4:12-16, the theme text for the weekend.
Villegas identified three kinds of love—colonial love, paternalistic love and mutual love—and encouraged participants to strive to embody the third, which is marked by reciprocity and trust.
“Loving is a kind of knowing,” said Villegas. “To love is a struggle to know God and to know each other. And you can’t really love God without loving the people beside you.”
Throughout the weekend, participants also met in caucus groups, with people of color and white people each meeting together. The groups reflected on diversity initiatives in their organization and what was working well and what wasn’t, as well as barriers that prevent people of color from having access to and feeling welcome in institutions.
HFF participants joined Calvary Community Church (C3) for worship on Sunday morning, Jan. 24. In his sermon, C3 leader, Bishop Leslie W. Francisco, encouraged people to claim the greatness inside them placed there by God.
“There is an anointing on your life,” he said. “Faith is the activator, and God will release that which is there inside of you.”
The work continues
HFF planners said the format of future gatherings will continue to adapt and change to meet future needs. Many attendees are ready to see the ideas discussed at gatherings put into action.
“This year was a continuation,” said Christian Parks, a student at EMU and attendee at Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. “Many of the same things were brought up again. We talked about mentoring and points of access for young adults in institutions. I wish it was building more.”
For many attendees, the opportunity to build relationships and network was a highlight.
“The fact that we have a gathering talking about difference and the struggle in the church is positive,” said Abraham Mateo, Hesston College student and member of Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvacion in Fort Myers, Fla. “Nothing will be changed in a minute. It takes time and work.”
Everence, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Mission Network co-sponsor and plan the event. Members of the planning committee included Armster; de Léon-Hartshorn; Stanley Green, executive director of Mennonite Mission Network; Gilberto Perez, senior director of Intercultural Development and Educational Partnerships at Goshen College; Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency; Noel Santiago, LEAD Minister for Spiritual Transformation for Franconia Mennonite Conference; and Shands Stoltzfus.