Photo: Left to right: Reynosa Mel, Alfonso Sanchez, John Powell, and Marin Munoz. From Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs, 1971-1995. IV-10-007.3 Drawer 2 Folder 46. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.
I think the question for me right now is, what are the stories [from our history] that we need to tell?—John Powell
Among the stories Powell hopes Mennonite Church USA will remember is the work of the Minority Ministries Council (MMC). He can remember clearly the high-energy conversations among leaders of color at a 1969 meeting in Chicago. The meeting brought together both African-American, Latino and Native American leaders from across the Mennonite church to discuss the possibility of an interethnic coalition to address issues of race across the church. At the time, Powell was serving as the leader of the Urban Racial Coalition, a primarily African-American group connected to Mennonite Board of Missions (a precursor agency to today’s Mennonite Mission Network).
Although Latino leader John Ventura had been involved in conversations about race and the church since the formation of the URC in 1968, the 1969 meeting provided an opportunity to solidify an intercultural partnership.
“Our thought at that time was, Let’s combine our efforts. There is no need for us to be fighting for the crumbs from the ‘master’s table.’ Let’s combine our efforts and work at this together,” said Powell in a Dec. 21, 2016, phone interview.
So, in 1969, Latino and African-American leaders formalized their partnership through the MMC, an organization that brought people of color together to work for racial justice, leadership development and representation of people of color in the Mennonite church. Powell was joined by Lupe De León, a Mennonite pastor from Premont, Texas, as a co-executive secretary. In addition, Lynford Hershey, a former pastor in several urban areas, the last one Wichita, Kan., was appointed to serve as a liaison and educator with white Mennonites.
Although the MMC was disbanded in 1973, the organizing of leaders of color through the MMC had a profound impact on the Mennonite church’s understanding of race as a systemic issue in the 1970s, and it set the stage for many of the structures and initiatives to build intercultural competency that still function in the church today. The current MC USA Racial Ethnic Constituency Groups, especially the African-American Mennonite Association and Iglesia Menonita Hispana, are direct descendants of the councils that grew out of the MMC. In addition, the work of the MC USA Racial Ethnic Council, which brings together leaders of color from a variety of backgrounds, is a model that echoes the structure of the MMC.
“In a way, the MMC set the example of people of color working together, and we have continued to honor that now in the form of the REC [Racial Ethnic Council],” wrote Iris de León Hartshorn, MC USA director of transformative peacemaking, on Jan. 9.
In a statement to the broader Mennonite church soon after its founding, the MMC steering committee wrote: “We, the minority peoples of the Mennonite Church, are deeply concerned about the depth of racism in America. We are concerned about the participation of Christian churches in hate, discrimination and segregation.… We are deeply hurt by the Mennonite Church’s participation in the things that keep minority people from rising to an economic and spiritual level guaranteed to us by God.” The statement goes on to identify goals for the MMC’s work, including a commitment to “tell it like it is” in conversations with white brothers and sisters in the church and to develop “indigenous congregations” that were relevant to the “communities in which we serve.”
At the time of MMC’s founding, many congregations of color were led by white missionary pastors. Together, MMC leaders worked on projects meant to equip leaders of color in the church and expand the conversation on race across the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Among the projects spearheaded by the MMC were these:
- a Soul and Spirit retreat, which brought together interracial couples in the church to share their stories and support one another;
- the planning and execution of a Cross-Cultural Youth Convention, an event primarily for youth of color across the church, and held Aug. 20-25, 1972, at Epworth Forest Park in North Webster, Ind. (According to the promotional brochure for the event, its purpose was to “provide minority youth with an opportunity to gain a sense of their identity and to help young people be proud to stick with the church.”);
- hosting cross-cultural theological summits, which brought together African-American, Latino and Native American church leaders and scholars to reflect on the ways culture informed theological understandings;
- Lupe De León, along with other Latino leaders, helping invite the church into activism alongside the farmworkers movement led by Cesar Chavez in California and across the United States;
- production of a number of musical recordings, featuring music by The Mennonaries, a gospel choir from Burnside Community Mennonite Church, Columbus, Ohio;
- hosting seminars for white Mennonites to listen to the stories of Mennonites of color. Hershey noted that “a lot of the white people we met had never heard a person of color speak about how they were hurt by racism.”
The MMC was also responsible for the administration of the Compassion Fund. In 1969, at the Mennonite Church conference in Turner, Ore., Powell proposed the development of a funding structure to support the work of racial/ ethnic Mennonite congregations. According to Felipe Hinojosa in his book Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture, Powell appealed to the white Mennonite history of being a “religious minority” to invite solidarity with racial minorities. The Compassion Fund called on each congregation to contribute $6 per member per year to support the work of racial/ethnic leaders. However, despite its approval by conference attendees, contributions to the Compassion Fund never met anticipated amounts (falling short by over $100,000).
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