This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Race, power and diversity

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Understanding how power works in Mennonite institutions was the theme of “Hope for the Future IV” Jan. 23-24 at Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvación.

Michelle Armster, interim executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Central States, prays over Sue Park-Hur, who preached the closing sermon at “Hope for the Future.” — Andrew Bodden/MMN
Michelle Armster, interim executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Central States, prays over Sue Park-Hur, who preached the closing sermon at “Hope for the Future.” — Andrew Bodden/MMN

The event gathers people of color in leadership positions to address racism and help the church embrace diversity.

More than 100 attendees made this the largest of the four annual meetings. For the first time, students from Mennonite colleges were invited. Fourteen students from Hesston (Kan.) College, Goshen (Ind.) College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., participated.

“Many of these young adults are going to be leaders of the church,” said Iris de León-Hart­shorn, the event’s lead coordinator and director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA. “If these young adults can start to understand now how power works in the church, they will be way ahead when they start working for the church and will have greater influence in the church earlier.”

Christian Parks, a senior at EMU, was excited to learn from “people who have been where I’m trying to go.” Parks said that as a first-generation Afri­can-American Mennonite from Philadelphia, it felt great to be around so many other people of color, since dealing with racial isolation has been a common church experience.

Among the 26 white participants were leaders of all MC USA agencies.

Exploring power

Participants first gathered in separate rooms for people of color, whites and college students. The groups allowed for safe, unfiltered talk about racism. Then participants moved to one large room and divided into mixed table groups. They analyzed case studies of how power is used based on racial, ethnic and gender perceptions.

“The planners hoped to create a setting for open and honest conversations about power, an area that many times in the church we never talk about or want to address,” said Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency.

Cultural acceptance

An issue that emerged is the belief among many people of color that “cultural acceptance” means they must learn white culture but whites do not have to reciprocate. An outgrowth of this is the perceived distinction between Mennonite culture and Anabaptism theology.

People of color tend to identify as Anabaptist rather than Mennonite. Identifying with the persecution Mennonites in Europe endured during the 1500s, they are drawn to the modern church because of its Anabaptist emphasis on following Jesus’ way of peace and justice.

People of color want to express Anabaptist theology within their cultural contexts while experiencing other cultures on equal terms. Many view being Mennonite as a cultural expression of Swiss German and Russian heritage that they can celebrate but do not have to conform to. This tension often emerges during worship. Mennonites are known for four-part harmony hymns. Worship at Arca de Salvación involves Latin and rock music.

‘Candidates of color’

Cultural complexities emerge when hiring people to work for Mennonite institutions. A panel discussion of human resource representatives from Mennonite Mission Network, Everence, Goshen College, Mennonite Central Committee U.S., Mennonite Health Services, MennoMedia and Hesston College became uncomfortable for some as their candidate outreach efforts were criticized. Many hirings occur by way of networking and recommendations from institutional insiders who are usually white.

Human resource representatives described being challenged to adjust recruitment efforts to reach “candidates of color.” They asked for help in navigating communication with new congregations, where the correct person to contact or the ideal communication method may differ from older churches.

Sue Park-Hur, co-director of ReconciliAsian in Southern California, gave the concluding Sunday worship sermon on “Seeing in the Light.” She said discipleship is the movement from looking to seeing. Jesus releases us, sets us free and helps us to see the worth and beauty of the people God has created.

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