A call to the church: Race, class and gender; a social worker’s perspective

Melody M. Pannell currently serves as assistant professor of social work and chairperson for the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at Eastern Mennonite University. She also serves as the chairperson of the Religious Affairs Committee for the Harrisonburg-Rockingham, Virginia, local branch of the NAACP. It is her life mission to embody practical theology through the values and ethics of social work and encourage those that she serves to engage in a transformative journey of emancipatory hope in action and empowerment through holistic, therapeutic and restorative ministry. Melody is the founder and executive director of The Destiny’s Daughters Empowerment Ministry LLC and the assistant executive director of Men About Positive Purpose LLC, a spiritual empowerment and personal leadership development program that strives to assist adolescents and young adults to evolve into persons of good character and integrity, to enable them to overcome challenges and to realize their God–given purpose through therapeutic mentorship, spiritual formation and community organizing. Melody will be a speaker at Orlando 2017 as well as presenting several seminars.

When I first heard about the theme for this year’s Mennonite Church USA convention, “Love is a Verb,” I was immediately committed to listening, learning and reflecting on how this theme could actualize in an expanded and inclusive manner within our church congregations, communities and the broader society in which we serve. I was excited to envision and prepare to contribute to the variety of relevant topics that would be offered during the seminar sessions in Orlando.

The scripture passage, 1 John 3:16–18, chosen for the convention resonated with my desire to participate in both the calling and the empowerment of the church to engage in a more proactive response to the social disparities, injustices and structural inequalities that are present in the life of our congregations and institutions especially regarding race, class and gender.

I sense a strong call for the church to continue shifting our response to injustice. Instead of showing love with just our words, we must begin speaking truth to power and taking deliberate and sustainable action in love. “Love is a Verb,” is more than just a “theme,” this is a call to a higher level of discipleship and a deeper willingness to sacrifice ourselves and embody the love of Jesus Christ. It is a call to “lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” in a way that utilizes our collective and individual power, influence and resources to dismantle gender discrimination, address historical harms and resist structural racism.

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18

 As I considered this theme, I wondered how the Mennonite Church could internalize the belief that “Love is a Verb,” particularly through our Anabaptist values of social justice, non-violence and peace in our new social-political climate. As a social work professor at Eastern Mennonite University, where I teach, Race, Class and Gender, I often pose analytical questions to my students such as:

Who are the disfranchised that are on the margins of our society?

Where are the disparities and injustices taking place?

What have been the historical harms done and to whom?

What are the dynamics of the powerful and powerless within our own institutions?

In my ministry work with adolescents, I look to analyze the question:

What are the psychosocial, political and socioeconomic issues that are affecting the overall mental health and holistic wellbeing of our youth?

As a church leader and in light of our convention theme, I would pose the question:

How can becoming more self-aware, socially conscious and culturally competent assist the church in our call to love one another as Christ loves us, with action and in truth?

Although discussing issues related to race, class or gender can be uncomfortable, we must challenge ourselves to hear, evaluate and assess the realities of power, privilege and patriarchy and how they affect the quality and growth of our church communities. As I prepare to share in Orlando, it is my mission to create sacred spaces that we can come together in a spirit of love and openness to address some of these questions. I believe that one of the ways that we can develop a higher level of awareness and empathy for others is through the sharing of stories, interpersonal reflections, as well as the analysis of social injustices that affect the quality of life of those that we love and are in community with.

Personal stories such as “A Mennonite Girl from Harlem,” will paint a picture of the unique congregation that I was born into where black and white, rural and urban intertwined and wrestled with the practical theology of Anabaptist values, norms and beliefs.

Testimonials from members of the ministry of #DestinysDaughters will show how therapeutic mentoring, spiritual formation and restorative justice practices have empowered young women to transform their trauma of racism and sexism into resilience and a strong personal identity in Christ.

Conversations will equip our youth to build a stronger capacity and cultivate a healthy sexuality, utilize self-determination and agency to address body consciousness, and integrity as they evolve into young women and men of God.

We’ll engage teachings on responding from a restorative justice approach when the sacred bonds in congregational life are abused through mistrust, betrayal and broken boundaries

I believe that the church is called to be a place of healing and hope. It is a place where we are encouraged to develop strong relational bonds and interpersonal skills that increase our capacity for building community and actively engaging in congregational life.

I welcome you to join me in Orlando to be challenged to become the embodiment of love that transforms self and society.