A Virginia congregation’s desire to deepen its understanding of racial justice connected it more closely to its neighborhood and inspired others beyond its walls to confront complicity with white supremacy culture.
A pair of Sunday school courses developed by Melody Pannell and Seth Crissman have transformed small conversation into big action.
Like many others, Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg felt moved to do something in the wake of George Floyd’s deadly beating by police in 2020.
“We are located in what has historically been the African American part of Harrisonburg,” said Immanuel Pastor Matthew Bucher. “Reflecting on that was a key part of the class — particularly where Mennonites have confronted or not confronted integration as a part of God’s mission.”
Bucher asked Pannell and Crissman to develop and co-lead a course with him that ran from September 2020 to May 2021. Sessions were mainly online because of the pandemic on Thursday evenings, with outdoor field trips.
Pannell said the sessions focused on awareness, cultural competency and humility.
“The opportunity for deep dives into the material was offered to the congregation after each session,” she said.
Scripture was woven with stories of movements in church history, particularly Anabaptism, with an emphasis on where there have been opportunities for growth in regard to racial justice.
Harrisonburg sits on slavery’s Trail of Tears, which Bucher had known little about before the courses.
“Much of that was on Route 11 right here, and I’ve never seen anything about that in most of the Shenandoah Valley museums — that folks were marched through Harrisonburg as enslaved people,” he said. “Now it’s just a street, and half a million people were marched down that street as slaves.”
Immanuel is situated in a neighborhood where urban renewal decimated the African American community with displacement a century ago. Field trips connected the congregation with its local community, which in turn developed into continuing relationships.
Reflecting on helping lead, Crissman said it was important to use Scripture to put God’s ordering of the world at the center of both individual and congregational work. But it isn’t easy amid scattered priorities and busy schedules.
“Churches and leaders are struggling, but the answer isn’t to push aside other work of the ministry of reconciliation,” he said. “A lot of programs fail when they try to work for change in the church because they focus on doing another thing rather than trying to be another way.”
Crissman is a part-time preaching pastor at Zion Mennonite Church, a more rural congregation in nearby Broadway. The church had been wanting to dig into racial reconciliation for quite some time, and lead pastor Sarah Piper had heard Pannell share about her experiences with discrimination as a guest speaker in a class.
“Melody was gracious in shaping the class for Zion with a shorter time frame,” Piper said of the 10-week Sunday school series that ran last year from September to November.
The shorter series was titled “Creating the Beloved Community: Engaging in God’s Transforming Work of Racial Reconciliation.” Adults and youth participated in 45-minute units on Scripture, stories and skills, with table group discussions and journaling opportunities.
“It was a fantastic opportunity to learn from the theological diversity within our congregation, as well as the generational diversity,” Piper said. “We heard that it was helpful to have a safe and brave place to engage in conversation to gain insights and skills to follow Christ.”
Piper noted that Zion’s diversity spans the contemplative to the charismatic, including those with priorities on evangelicalism or social justice.
“One of the surprising impacts of the class is that by God’s grace we could have difficult conversations in a politically polarized climate in a way that strengthens the church and grows our reflection of Christ in the world,” she said. “This is ongoing work for us, and I truly feel it is by God’s grace — it’s not something we did. That’s so noteworthy in this day and age.”
Crissman said it was helpful that both congregations came with curiosity and humility, recognizing a need for outside resources.
“There can be an expectation of expertise with church leaders, and sometimes the ongoing process of learning is de-emphasized, but it’s predicated on being humble,” he said. “Learning is supposed to be the posture of disciples, and both churches chose the posture of being learning communities.”
Pannell and Crissman are interested in working with other congregations on these themes. They are developing a curriculum that focuses on Anabaptist theology and Mennonite congregational contexts.
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