This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Who speaks for me?

Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leaders

After having been in my role with Mennonite Church USA for just over a year now, it is clear to me that communication is one of the biggest challenges we face, not only in our denomination but also in our area conferences and congregations—and probably in our own homes. Communication across cultures, races, genders and generations can be difficult. We often seek out iconic figures who can speak on behalf of a whole group; we need a single face to help us understand what is foreign to us.

Who speaks for me? As an African-American, I ask myself this question daily as I watch the news and listen to the radio. Once upon a time, my daddy told me it was the president of the United States (this was B.O.—before Obama). I remember him asking me some fatherly question—the one that you are asked after you have obviously made a poor decision. “Why did you—?” he asked. My response was of course, “Because I thought—.” (You can probably fill in the blanks with discussions you had with your parents.) The conversation ended with my father saying, “That’s what you get for thinking. That’s why we pay the president.”

Was Daddy being serious, or was this just some joke the old Mississippi country boys used to tell each other down on the farm? You see, my daddy was born in 1907, and I cannot honestly believe that a man who grew up in the segregated South during the Great Depression and two world wars could have much faith in the thinking of the Washington establishment.

But maybe my daddy was foolish enough to believe it. As I listen to the popular media, I am supposed to believe that Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton are the eyes, ears, mouthpiece and moral compass for me because I am an African-American. When did I lose my right to think and decide for myself? When was the popular election for an African-American spokesperson? I guess I missed it. No other racial/ethnic group in our country has officials who swoop in like Batman and Robin at the slightest sign of racial injustice. Boy, are African-Americans fortunate. I wonder who the spokesperson is for Caucasians? Was it Bush? Maybe it is Fox News. Who speaks for the Hispanics, and do they have a Mexican representative, a Cuban representative and one for the Colombians? Maybe J.Lo and Ricky Martin take turns, I don’t know.

Now most of the examples I have given so far have come from popular culture and from the mainstream media, but as I have worked with Mennonite Church USA Intercultural Relations, I understand that many in our church are asking, Who speaks for me? Often I and other racial/ethnic people in the church are asked to speak on behalf of our respective race. Although some say I resemble Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I still don’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the entire black race, not even for all black Mennonites. I could probably more clearly articulate what it means to be Christian than what it means to be African-American.

What I do know is that at some point in my life, I learned that I had to speak for myself. Outside my faith, I decided to let no other banner define me. At times I vote and choose officials to represent me at various levels of government, but I understand that I must hold on to my personal values and beliefs, no matter what the popular media says. I can forgive and forget past hurts and pain even if a talking head tells me otherwise. I can even think about the images I see and the words I read and judge them for myself in spite of what others want me to think and believe. Again it is my faith and my relationship in Christ that serve as the basis for how I see the world and how I live my life.

Finally, just a bit advice to pastors, youth leaders and the shepherds of our church: Treat those who follow you as individual children of God. Ask them how they would like to be treated and what things they as individuals find offensive or what it will take to help them grow. You see, no single Hispanic, African, Asian, white or black person can speak for another. Even within a single race we are multifaceted, not monolithic, in thoughts and opinions. We are each uniquely created, and because of that we each have a unique voice. I pray that all members of Mennonite Church USA may find their voice and the opportunity to share it as part of their gift to the kingdom of God.

Glen Guyton is associate executive director for constituent resources for Mennonite Church USA.

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