This may be the 20th version of this article that I’ve composed. For the last 10 years I have aired out my emotions and opinions on paper only to archive it and never share it with anyone. That stops today.
Parts in this series will be released on Monday of every week until it is finished.
I’m twenty-three years old and live in the same city I became a Christian in (York, Pa). I’m a member of our Conservative Mennonite church here in the heart of the city, and was baptized over ten years ago. I fled a life of drugs and gang violence in an innocent hope that whatever guidance the Mennonites were giving me would lead me to something worthwhile. Fifteen years after meeting my first Mennonite, and fully immersing myself into our culture, I’m finally willing to put my neck out on the line.
When I first realized the type of commitment becoming a member of our church entailed, I was already baptized and attending men’s meetings. I made sure that I checked every box and cooperated to the full extent. I didn’t believe in any actual value that would come from church standards and the smaller details that were written in our rule books. I did believe with all my heart that Jesus was the head of our small church here in York, and that accepting adoptance into this family was worth all of the risks. I was an African-American (albeit bi-racial), city raised, hood influenced young man that wanted nothing more than to sell everything he had into something. There have been times I thought the church wanted me to sell myself to them, but there were plenty of loved ones along the way to clarify where my focus should be. I was almost always directed straight to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of my faith. There have been and continue to be many moments of confusion, but I stand confidently today willing to say that I know that for right now, I am where I belong.
That’s a little bit about me, but that only sets the stage. I’d like to walk you through a journey and make some bold assertions about racial conversations among our Anabaptist churches. These are the shareable details, the ones that don’t senselessly implicate many well-meaning people I have met along the way. There is much more I could say that would season my arguments and make me a winner. But that isn’t my goal.
I hope that through this writing, I can help us as a people avoid ditches that make the Race Conversation (which is a good and acceptable conversation to have), a drudgery to all who participate in it. It may not take away biases and immaturities from either spectrum, but I think it will at least give us hope for a better direction going forward. To God be the Glory.
The Disadvantage Most of Us Are In
After about a minute of thinking, I believe I could name fifteen Mennonites of color that I know on a personal level. There may be another couple dozen that I know of, but that is the gist of the diversity of my “Mennonite circle”. Of course, everyone else is white, and I’m not ashamed to admit that whenever I visit a church, I take note of whether there is anyone of color in the room. It doesn’t make me feel more comfortable or accepted, it is just something that comes to my attention naturally. Growing up where I have, the dynamics of my relationships outside the Menno-sphere is the exact opposite. I went to a school with over 1000 students my freshman and sophomore years of high school. There were between three to five white students in my entire Freshman class. Not my homeroom, but every ninth grade student in the building.
I have friends from all walks of life, but for the most part, they are made up of two seemingly incompatible groups. My black friends and family, and my white friends and family. I’ve had the privilege and joy of befriending many Hispanic people along the path of my life as well. As a teacher, in my middle school classroom, every one of my students is Hispanic except for one white student. I love them all the same.
I remember one time being told by a Mennonite outside our local congregation that I shouldn’t be able to marry into the Mennonite church due to my ethnic and racial background. I would never be fully accepted by the Mennnonites, and I would never fully be accepted again by anyone else. This person also worked with the assumption that this would be the same struggle that my children would one day have. This person compassionately told me, “at least if you marry a Mennonite, they will have lighter skin than you, that might help a little.” Some things are better left unsaid.
I remember going to a man of leadership in our church and bitterly explaining how angry I felt that someone had told me these things. The Pastor was ashamed to admit that he was raised to believe the same way, but was grateful that living in York had taught him that this was a misguided way of thinking. It still stung to feel a hint of distrust going forward, but it was rewarding to receive affirmation that I was a complete part of the brotherhood, with no limitations due to my race. Just to make sure, I emailed every brother in the church and challenged their perspective on the situation. All of them affirmed that this was an opinion their parents shared, but that they would all be standing with me to battle against these prejudices. I’m still grateful for this affirmation today. This experience helped me later in life to support three other first-generation Mennonites that faced the same prejudice. One of them walks bitterly today because of the same words I was given, it is truly a shame.
My experience is completely different from what the man who approached me that day predicted for my life. I haven’t married, but I have never felt rejected from a racial group in York. If anything, the only struggle has been how impossible it has felt for the two worlds to get along with one another. I was fully accepted in every group I ever came across, my race was a mark of beauty, not a mark of false identity. However, this comfort has not been consistent, when I go outside of York it is normally a different story.
I have had to live my life with the knowledge that most Mennonites in America live with a grave disadvantage. They know few (if any) people of color personally, and this leaves them unaware of the things I have come to know personally. Our peer groups can consist of large youth groups in which we hang out with people who look, act, and live like we do. They are all within three years of our age, and likely share similar worldviews. This is also true on the church level, our churches all look the same and that matters. It’s noticeable and it leaves an impression on the world around us.
I’m not here to launch into how this could change or why it should change. Instead I’d like us to consider what this has done to us as a people group in America today. Why is this a disadvantage?
A group of seniors from a Mennonite high school came into York one year to evangelize and spend the day in “the big scary city.” We’ve had many groups like this come in over the years to spend time prayer walking, witnessing, and serving people here. Some groups have been a breath of fresh air, and some have left me relieved to see them go. But this high school group contained some people I had met at MACSA Bible Quizzing and at youth meetings on separate occasions. There were many zealous and upright young people in this group and many of them are in missions today. But there was one person in particular that said some things that nearly drove me to bitterness and contempt. He spent most of the day talking about how all of “these people” make a living off the work that his family and church do. He slipped up once and even mentioned black people, which showed what people he was primarily talking about. My pastor Clayton raised all of his children here in the city, so he did well at combating much of what this young man had to say. I also chimed in a little, as I felt like I was somewhat qualified to speak into the situation. I asked him, “so how many people of color do you know personally?” I’ll allow you to assume his answer.
By the end of the day, we hadn’t convinced him, but I overheard many good conversations from the rest of the group as to why it mattered severely how their outlook of “these people” was. One friend opened up to me and shared how he felt handicapped, he wasn’t going home to anyone different than himself. He had grown up only knowing about black people, what his parents and the news had shown him. He went home and joined a kids club in a city near his house. He now runs it as a married adult.
Many of us are disadvantaged… We don’t know and relate to people of color in positive ways. We haven’t taken the time to get to know them and gain first-hand knowledge. I’ve watched my pastors, fellow brothers, and friends all come to improved places when it comes to relating well to the diverse groups around them. They also converse about it far better than they used to, and it continues to improve. There is only one way to effectively do this, we need to relate to people of color on a regular basis. News outlets can’t help you, friends and their mission stories aren’t enough, you will need to go in and do it yourself.
Many Mennonites operate with the same perspective that the confused young man had. Their peer groups show them a set of people that doesn’t reflect society around them. Mennonite circles are almost all one race, whereas the world is an incredibly diverse place. So although not all Mennonites are doomed to live with discriminatory and defamatory opinions of the people of color around them, they are all living with a massive ditch on all sides ready to trap them into that reality. I’ve met many people who have jumped over those ditches, and some of them were the ones who discipled me. But what traps can we fall into if we don’t?
Trap #1: The Trap of Deflection
The first trap is the most common one. If your response to the paragraph above this one was to say “yeah, but that isn’t just Mennonites or white people.” Then I would like to challenge you with something.
I’ll admit that you’re right, but I’d like to put our focus on an aspect of Christian life that should help us understand why it doesn’t really matter if it isn’t “just the Mennonites” who have this problem. And that being right in this situation doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to grow into a righteous perspective.
We serve a God that told us to lay down our lives for the people around us. To serve others before ourselves, to love others as we have been loved. If this is truly our purpose, then wouldn’t it make sense for us to do our part to address a universal issue? If everyone is racist, then wouldn’t it be good for us to not be that way? To be Christlike and show an example that is set apart and promotes righteousness?
This is what we preach, but politics often leave us living the opposite. Finger pointing is never a good look for us, it is near pointless to even mention the wrongs of the “other side” in matters of racial conflict. If we have a problem, we have a problem. There is no good coming from us looking for the speck in the eye of society, while we sit in our secluded culture operating with the same prejudices towards them as they hold toward us.
We as the Christian church need to be okay with being blamed for wrongs that are not exclusive to us. We hold a great responsibility, we are of the royal priesthood. When we use the evil of our world to justify our own, we do something not only unproductive, but very ungodly. How can we lay our lives down for others and hunger after righteousness if we are too busy comparing ourselves to the world?
This trap is more easily bred due to the common upbringing for the Mennonite in America. We worship with and hold accountable each other in a group that is separate from the people of color that many of us claim we want to love. When we point fingers at them and point out their wrongs in comparison to ours, we mock God and His call for His church. How severely Jesus would rebuke the church for this very problem if he were to engage in our race conversations! How often are our conversations for the purpose of serving and loving better? And how often are they to make ourselves feel less responsible for the sin in the world we are equally responsible for as finite humans?
When people tempt us and use poor arguments to judge and unfairly categorize us, we need to consider our place here on earth. We are sheep following a shepherd. A shepherd sending us out in humility and lowliness, with great responsibility to be perfect. Let’s stop doing everything we can to hold the Black Lives Matter movement accountable, and focus more on the dirt we are living with ourselves. I’ve told my students many times, a smart man listens to all constructive criticism, but a wise man takes all criticism and makes it constructive. Let’s be wise, making the most out of ever opportunity, because the days are evil (Eph 5:15-16).
Trap #2: The Trap of Elitism (Ethnocentrism)
The second trap is one that comes easily with any group that contents itself to live in a culture that lacks diversity. One of my strongest concerns with Mennonites is our willingness to live our lives without much spoken concern to the fact that we aren’t integrating like minded Christians into our circles. It’s especially concerning to me since belief in God is a broad sweeping norm in African-American culture. We have a place to find common ground but it’s never where we choose to start…
To Be Continued….
Until next week, feel free to check out this sermon that was passed on to me a couple of years of ago from a friend. It puts bluntly the difficulties that exist not just in the Anabaptist culture, but white Christian culture in general. I’m not advocating for all he is teaching, but his overall message is something I gladly endorse and share with friends often.