NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — As Mennonite Mission Network takes new steps towards becoming a more antiracist organization, a pathway paved by the agency's forebears and contemporary initiatives is pointing the way.
From the late 1800s until today, people of color have helped shape a more multicultural Mennonite church. Mission Network's leaders say that earlier work is inspiring initiatives that they hope will pull up the deeper, oft-hidden taproots of White privilege and systemic racism.
Many people of color people have helped in creating a rich historical timeline of the Mennonite church and are now awaiting new movement forward within Mission Network to further dismantle systemic racism. These forebears represent members of churches, students at colleges and leaders within agencies. They created a long list of "firsts" in a church that, until the late 19th century, had been predominantly White and Germanic. Here is a sampling of that timeline:
- 1897 — Mary and Robert Carter, and their son, Cody, were the first African Americans to become baptized members of a Mennonite church.
- 1920 — Geneva Mercomes and Homer Church were the first African American students enrolled at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.
- 1958 — Vincent Harding joined the pastoral team at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, Illinois, becoming the first Black pastor in the General Conference Mennonite Church.
- 1960 — Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at Goshen (Indiana) and Bethel colleges.
- 1973 — Angie Williams was the first Black woman on the executive committee of the Women's Missionary and Service Commission, serving as vice president.
- 1975 — Egla Birmingham was the first Black woman to serve as a staff person for Mennonite Board of Missions; Rose Covington was the first African American appointed to Mennonite Publication Board.
- 1992 — Brenda Isaacs was the first African American woman ordained in the Mennonite Church, serving as pastor at Calvary Christian Fellowship in Inglewood, California.
- 2018 — Glen Guyton was installed as the first Black Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) executive director.
"I am surprised to hear fellow members who are White, German Mennonites characterizing the multicultural nature within the Mennonite church as something new," said Faith Bell, director of Marketing and Communication for Mission Network. "In fact, we worship together with Black brothers and sisters who have been Mennonites for three and four generations."
Bell cites as an example the story of Roberta Anna Morgan Webb, a Black Mennonite trailblazer, shared in a blog that Mission Network published earlier in 2021.
"This realignment and recommitment to antiracism allows us to celebrate the work of a great cloud of witnesses, both past and present," Bell said. "It also positions us to take information from the past and continue the story forward, to allow for a fuller, more nuanced story."
She noted that people from many cultures have been interacting with Anabaptist themes in the United States and around the world for a long time.
"As [Guyton] encouraged at MennoCon21, we cannot be surprised when the people who are a part of this body cause us to transform and embrace various worship styles and stories of witness to how Jesus has acted in our lives," Bell said. "We are all in the body, so let us make space for each member to shine, so we all shine together."
Historical backdrop informs realignment
Agency staff members along with MC USA Executive Board staff have built upon this legacy through varied initiatives. They have included Learning to Undo Racism Events (LURE), Hope for the Future conferences, training offered by Roots of Justice (previously known as Damascus Road and an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) training program. The voices of former employees and leaders at Mission Network, like John Powell and others, continue to inspire current staff, who are committed to the trainings and initiatives.
In the months to come, Mission Network hopes to grow further in its goals, with guidance from Widerstand Consulting's anti-racism audits and training. In winter 2021, Mission Network undertook the online anti-racism training developed by Widerstand, with 100% employee participation, and in June, the agency completed the firm's full anti-racism audit.
In 2020, Mission Network staff re-instated a tradition, introduced to the Mennonite Church decades before, of forming caucus groups for people of color and White people. The caucus groups provide safe spaces for people to process their questions, concerns, hopes and dreams, regarding moving into a more just future.
"To sustain the commitment, measurable objectives will be put in place to sustain accountability at all levels of the agency," said Mike Sherrill, Mission Network's executive director and CEO. "Mission Network will collaborate with its ministry partners and congregations, with a particular emphasis on consulting Asian, Black, Indigenous and Latino ministry partners and congregations, to better meet the needs of diverse communities."
Staff members who, prior to realignment, worked at helping Mission Network become a more antiracist mission agency in past seasons, set the capstone in place for this emerging structure.
For example, Mauricio Chenlo, Mission Network's minister for church planting, relates to several Haitian and Latino churches, through church-planting work and grant proposals. He also produces resources in Spanish, including: Enviados (Sent) and Pacificadores (Peacemakers). He also periodically visits Ecuadorian Indigenous churches and connects them with Mission Network workers.
"Antiracism work is real when you don't only talk about structures and realignment but also forge more just and mutual relationships," Chenlo said. "Relational power is key. ... For example, church-planting work done by the Latino community is highly established by relationship. We learn from this and try to incorporate their relational gifts and perspectives into our Sent Network culture."
Ann Jacobs, church relations associate, has helped forge many multicultural initiatives with Mission Network partners, as well as through her work with congregations led by people of color in the past six years.
"I have been building relationships with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) leaders in their own communities to introduce the vision of collaboration, by bringing them off the edge of marginalization and more into the center," Jacobs said.
When Marisa Smucker, senior executive for the agency's Ventures division, was Mission Network's director of Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), she began realizing that marketing materials needed to better serve historically marginalized communities. She hopes to further develop that understanding and initiatives now, in her current role.
"People of color tend to form strong bonds with families and home congregations that often make it more alluring for them to find service opportunities closer to home," Smucker said. "We have to gear our marketing beyond individuals, to their community — to home churches, parents and grandparents. In Black, Indigenous and other communities of color, people tend to lean heavily on community discernmenet."
Separate caucuses help to prepare for deeper unity
Bell, Chenlo, Jacobs and Smucker have participated at various times in the people of color caucus at Mission Network. Three White caucuses, each with about seven people — a third of Mission Network's total staff — also gather regularly. The caucuses are co-facilitated by Marcella Hershberger, Lynda Hollinger-Janzen, Eric Frey Martin and Joe Sawatzky.
The goal of having separate caucuses is to provide safe places for the processing, which can help lead to a deeper solidarity and unity in ongoing realignment efforts. In the near future, Mission Network plans to create a multiracial antiracism task group with members from both types of caucuses.
"The recommendation from Roots of Justice is that White staff members meet in separate caucuses, so that they can work out prejudices, issues and biases, so as not to expose people of color to further trauma and make them feel more marginalized than they already do," Frey Martin said.
Hollinger-Janzen said, "We can learn from each other and safely help each other process what went badly in former situations, so as not to repeat our mistakes."
She added how being part of a caucus helped her to dissipate some of the anger and grief she experienced when trying to process racially induced tragedies, such as the murder of George Floyd.
"All the news was so overwhelming that I didn't know where to start," Hollinger-Janzen said. "I would read about racism in the paper every day, and the anger was part of the powerlessness and helplessness I felt. This caucus is giving me an emotional and spiritual outlet and new tools, and that all helps."
Hershberger said, "Caucus work is a marathon, not a sprint, and it requires a long-term commitment, with the ability to pace oneself. But it is worth it, because it is more than a social justice issue; it is a kingdom of God issue."
Sawatzky agreed. "The fact that we have sustained it continually for 16 months or so ... demonstrates the kind of commitment that we'll need to increase the broader antiracism and intercultural capacity of the agency.
"Racism is an anathema to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We engage in this work not because we are somehow captured by the political persuasions of our day, but because Jesus Christ has reconciled us into one body, through his cross, and by his spirit we are overcoming the sin that still clings too closely."
Through Mission Network, Jacobs has worked with missional pastors and leaders from urban locations to form the Missional/Ministry Caucus Team for ministry opportunities (MMCT). This team has identified ways to be resourceful and visible during the pandemic, staying engaged with ministry trainings and webinars that meet the needs of the church. In 2021 Mission Network was approved for a $15,000 grant to continue to meet those needs and to inspire meaningful outreach to urban partnerships.
"My vision for realignment is that we break down walls that often remain invisible to us," Jacobs said. "We have been hesitant to name and address the issues that keep us from moving forward together, and my prayers are that we create something more meaningful and that we join God in doing the next new thing."