SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Nearly 70 pastors, leaders, directors, coordinators, educators, change-makers and others with connections to Mennonite Church USA met Feb. 8-11 at the Hyatt Regency Riverwalk Hotel for the seventh annual Hope for the Future gathering.
HFF brings together leaders of color from across MC USA to explore the ways power, privilege and racism function in the denomination.
According to Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking and a member of the HFF planning team, the struggle for justice and peace within MC USA and the world has faced setbacks recently as divisiveness, suspicion and targeting have become the norm.
“Along with the setbacks has come a resurgence of confidence in leaders who will side with the vulnerable,” she said. “Evil will not have the last word when we follow Christ’s example of love, walking with the vulnerable even unto death.”
Participants heard from four speakers. Sue Park Hur, co-director of ReconciliAsian, a peace center in Los Angeles that equips leaders in Korean and Asian American communities to serve in ways that promote unity, justice and peace; Glen Guyton, MC USA chief operating officer and director of convention planning; Juan Martinez, professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.; and Chantelle Todman Moore, co-founder and lead coach at unlock Ngenuity in Philadelphia.
The conference room erupted in clapping and cheering Feb. 9 after MC USA announced the decision to name Guyton executive director, effective May 1. Guyton will be the first African-American in this role.
“The timing and location were pretty amazing,” he said. “It was wonderful to be surrounded by friends and leaders from across MC USA, to feel the love and be touched by the prayers of people I have gotten to know over the course of 25 years within the denomination.”
Speakers explained the work of people of color within MC USA as they explored Scripture, research, poetry, history, sociology and more.
Park Hur challenged the group to imagine and name what we can create together, instead of focusing time and energy on what we are against. She dared participants to become courageous conspirators like the Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh in Exodus 1.
“The exodus from slavery to liberation began with these women,” Park Hur said.
Juan Martinez began with an adage: La esperanza es la última que muere (Hope is the last to die). He challenged participants to “look for hope in the right places,” to let go of the models of Western Christianity and look to the margins.
“What can we learn about being Christians from those in the Global South?” Martinez asked.
As the conference concluded, Chantelle Todman Moore addressed disagreements faced by the group and challenged them to be a beloved community together.
“I saw us struggling [this weekend] to figure out what it means to belong to each other as church,” she said. “I wonder if in our quest to live out the gospel we know each other’s names and each other’s stories.”
Drafting a letter
Participants were encouraged to bring topics that they hoped to explore together with affinity groups.
Group topics included cultural interactions and language among people of color, preparation and response in light of Guyton’s appointment to executive director, immigration, LGBTQ inclusion and people of color, and Journey Forward, MC USA’s denomination-wide renewal process.
With input from participants, a writing team drafted a letter calling MC USA to recognize diversity and embrace it as a gift. Feedback became tense as some people expressed concern about celebration and full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life of the church. The writing team reiterated their work reflected what was named around tables, and committed to revising the letter based on participant feedback.
According to de León-Hartshorn the expectation wasn’t necessarily that the group would speak with one voice but that it could speak to the church and each other with love and respect.
“Our struggle together is important work,” said Martin Navarro, stewardship consultant and financial representative for Everence. “We cannot pinpoint a one-size-fits-all identity statement to describe us. That’s the beauty of this group.
“We have the chance to be a model of what the larger Mennonite church needs — being diverse and OK with different perspectives. We do not need to agree on issues but we should be able to empower each other to go forward in this work.”
Hope for unclear future
Many left challenged and energized. Many were left with lingering questions, and some left disappointed.
“I’m thinking that we are at a place of ambiguity,” Navarro said. “For some this is difficult, but I believe this is where we need to be to grow. We came into this conference not knowing what to expect, and we did not leave with clear answers. We need to embrace our uncertain future and focus on the now.”
De León-Hartshorn said she felt people of color wanted to stay together, no matter their differences.
“I realize our theological viewpoints on LGTBQ inclusion are at different places, but if we can continue to move toward a deep love for each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, that in itself can help us move to being church together,” she said.