This article was originally published by The Mennonite

A new journey for new moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht: A new journey

Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, Mennonite Church USA’s new moderator, has faced racism and sexism in her life.

Elizabeth Soto Albrecht challenged the congregation of Nueva Vida Norristown (Pa.) New Life Mennonite Church on May 5: “No more shunning, no more violence. It’s a call for discernment in difficult issues. We must lead it. We must learn how to fight
for unity.”

Soto Albrecht (right) talks with Kevin Ressler and Mindy Nolt, two of her students from Lancaster Theological Seminary. Photo by Emily Ralph
Soto Albrecht (right) talks with Kevin Ressler and Mindy Nolt, two of her students from Lancaster Theological Seminary. Photo by Emily Ralph

As the first Latina to be appointed moderator of Mennonite Church USA, Soto Albrecht feels the pressure of a church facing the challenges of the 21st century: hot issues stirring up conflict, diverse expectations from diverse people, uncertainty about the future of the church.

Yet she is uniquely qualified to serve in such a time as this. “As a woman, there’s always been a natural, organic sense that I can’t pastor this beautiful church without making connections,” she says. “Networking comes very naturally for me, and I want to be able to continue that in my role as moderator.”

Nueva Vida was just one stop in what Soto Albrecht is calling her “journey to Phoenix” this summer: more than a month of traveling around the country to listen, network and meet the many people who make up Mennonite Church USA.

The members of Mennonite Church USA don’t know how they are similar or different, Soto Albrecht says. “I will be the connector saying, ‘This is the commonality, this is what keeps us together.'”

La comunidad me ha llamado (A community calling me forth)
When Soto Albrecht was approached about becoming Mennonite Church USA’s next moderator, she was fully prepared to say no. She had already been serving on the Executive Board for two years and knew that the volunteer role of moderator would take much sacrifice and extraordinary leadership.

“She struggled with balancing this commitment, her work and, most of all, her family,” remembers Dionicio Acosta, a member of the Leadership Discernment Committee. “I was proud of her as a person, her discernment in the whole process, her desire to be there for her daughters.” As a fellow Puerto Rican, Acosta was thrilled to call a Latina to the role of moderator. “I [was proud of] the amazing example she was leaving not just for her own daughters but for my daughters as well to see the church opening its doors for women in leadership.”

“I was afraid,” Soto Albrecht says. “Afraid of doing a lousy job. I had to take a step of faith and, with the little courage I had, say, ‘I’m going to be obedient to you, God.'”

It had been while she was serving on the Executive Board that the denomination faced the difficult decision about whether or not to cancel or relocate their biennial convention in Phoenix, Ariz.

Arizona had passed a sweeping anti-illegal-immigration law in April 2010 that included a provision that allowed law enforcement to stop and ask for papers from anyone they suspected of being an immigrant.

Responses to the legislation were varied and passionate; leaders from Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church) were adamant that they would not attend the convention if it were held in Phoenix.

For Aldo Siahaan, pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center, the decision to hold the convention in Phoenix brought into question whether Menno­nite immigrants mattered.

Not attending the convention, says Siahaan, “is one of the ways we are showing our solidarity with our brothers and sisters who have been affected because of the immigration legislation.”

Then, during the board’s January 2011 meeting, when it was making a final decision about the convention’ location, Soto Albrecht’s name was nominated to be the next moderator-elect.

“I thought to myself, This doesn’t make sense. These two things don’t go together,” Soto Albrecht says with a laugh. “Then I realized that this was a reality I needed to live into.”

Whether pastoring in Colombia or, later, working as a chaplain at Lancaster (Pa.) General Hospital or as coordinator of field education at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Soto Albrecht says, her calls to leadership have often been a direct result of “people believing in me and seeing things I can’t see. Usually they’re right. There is a community calling me forth, then there’s God, and sometimes ‘m the last one to get on board.”

Fui desde sentada en la parte de atrás a (From sitting behind)
Her story reflects that of many other children who struggled through racist structures to make a life for themselves. Growing up in the racially charged atmosphere of Chicago in the 1960s, Soto Albrecht and other Puerto Rican children were relegated to the back of the classroom, where, knowing no English, they were neglected and passed to the next grade only because of social promotion.

The social stigma was not extended to all newcomers—Italian immigrants were welcomed and celebrated, given seats at the front of the classroom and quickly integrated into the white social structures. Even as a child, Soto Albrecht noticed that these European immigrants soon learned English and did well academically while she, after six years of schooling, still could not read or write.

The direction of her life changed when her mother sent her to Puerto Rico in sixth grade to live with her aunt, an experienced teacher who determined right from the start that her niece would learn to read and write Spanish. After a single semester, Soto Albrecht had learned the skills she needed to take her education into her own hands. When she returned to Chicago, she refused to “sit behind” and found ways to wiggle her way into the middle of the classroom, where, within the space of only a few months, she taught herself to read English.

Even as her grades improved and she made a name for herself academically, the shame of her early years continued to haunt her.

“When your education is stolen from you, you will always struggle,” she says. “I felt handicapped, wanting to express these wonderful ideas flying through my soul and mind—how do I put this in words?”

Her own experience has given her a passion to speak up for the marginalized.

“When I see children whose education is stolen from them, I have to speak up—firmly,” she says. “When I see people who are rejected, I have to speak up, because I was rejected. That’s why I want to speak on behalf of the immigrants in this country.”

Deseo estudios teología (I want to study theology)
Soto Albrecht’s family moved back to Puerto Rico when she was in middle school. After graduating from high school, she was accepted into the prestigious University of Puerto Rico, where she studied health education. When she finished her bachelor’s degree, her mother pushed her to study medicine, but she responded, “No, Mommy—I want to study theology.”

Her friends and neighbors couldn’t understand why she would want to go to seminary. Was she trying to find a husband? But Soto Albrecht soaked up her classes, first for two years at Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico, and finally finishing her degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.

After seminary, she taught at Goshen (Ind.) College for three years in the Spanish degree program and worked for Mennonite Board of Education in fund-raising for minority education.

Soon she moved to Akron, Pa., to work for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) as assistant for its Latin America office. It was during this time that she met and married Frank, her husband.

While their daughter Yentli was still an infant, the three of them moved to Bogotá, Colombia, to serve with the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Commission on Overseas Mission (COM). They were joined two years later by Sara, their second daughter.

Soto Albrecht found her roles in Colombia, first for COM and later for MCC, and as pastor of Armenia Mennonite Church, to be fulfilling. During her second term with MCC, she completed her Doctor of Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, which allowed her to integrate her love for theology, health education and advocacy for women and children.

In October 2004, she was ordained; the following summer, her family moved back to Lancaster.

The culture shock of returning to the United States was difficult. In Colombia, Soto Albrecht was respected as a minister and as a U.S. citizen; her ethnicity didn’t matter.

“I dreaded going back to Lancaster,” she says. “I had suffered racism and sexism in the United States and didn’t want to fight that battle again.”

As she struggled to find her new identity in Lancaster, she was given the opportunity to take several units of Clinical Pastoral Education at Lancaster General Hospital. “CPE helped me become a better pastor and see my identity as a minister of the community at large, not just the Mennonite church,” she says. She continued as an associate chaplain at LGH for seven years, resigning only to take on her role as moderator.

Soto Albrecht’s pastoral gifts have also blessed the members of Laurel Street Mennonite Church, her home congregation, according to Janet Breneman, her pastor.

“Her pastoral care and concern for others are always evident, especially for those in our congregation who come from afar and don’t always and immediately feel at home among us,” says Breneman. “In her new role as moderator, she will hold her mother and pastor heart in her hands.”

Camino a Phoenix (Journey to Phoenix)
Glen Guyton, director of convention planning for Mennonite Church USA, sees Soto Albrecht’s appointment as a sign of hope to people of color. “It is proof that our denomination is changing in many ways,” he says, “hopefully to a denomination that is more inclusive, more compassionate and led more by the Spirit.”

Soto Albrecht, too, dreams that her time as moderator will help the members of Mennonite Church USA become a community of discernment, beginning first with herself and extending to all the members of the board.

“That’s something I learned from my Pentecostal Mennonite upbringing in Puerto Rico,” she says.”To be in tune with what God is doing and to be in the Spirit.”

Community discernment is messy and requires a commitment to unity, she says.

“Among the beautiful diversity of different cultural and ethnic perspectives, different ways of doing community interpretation, we can still claim unity in Jesus Christ,” she says. “Not just in a romantic, feel-good way but [in] how … we embrace our diversity as one body in Jesus.”

It was Soto Albrecht’s desire to celebrate the denomination’s diversity and to listen to its unheard stories that led her to plan her journey to Phoenix. “I am realizing what a privilege I have as a citizen of the United States,” she says. “I may not have power to make cultural institutional change, but I can speak.”

After weekend trips to New York City and Philadelphia, Soto Albrecht, her husband Frank, and her communication team were to leave Lancaster at the end of June, arriving in Phoenix on July 5, the closing day of convention, when she will give the keynote address and receive her charge as moderator. After Phoenix, her team will travel up the West Coast and across America’s heartlands.

“When we return, and I look back, I want to be able to say I was empowered by holding all these stories so that they inform and shape me as moderator,” Soto Albrecht says. “I want to connect with and meet people I don’t know but who I know are doing God’s work. I want to be able, when I pray, to see people and faces, and I want to know they are praying for all the staff they have empowered to work on their behalf.”

Soto Albrecht will be documenting her journey on her website, While her journey begins with a single story—her own—she hopes that by the time she has finished her term as moderator she will have been able to collect 1,000 stories.

“This journey is not about me,” she says. “God will be speaking to all of us.”

And though she will travel many miles this summer, Elizabeth Soto Albrecht realizes that her pilgrimage will not end in July; the real journey will have just begun.

Emily Ralph is the associate director of communication for Franconia Conference and
coordinator of She is a member of Salford Mennonite Church in Harleysville, Pa.

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