Hope for the Future: Derecho que no se defiende es derecho que se pierde

This is the fourth post in a blog series from participants in Hope for the Future (HFF), an annual gathering of people of color serving in leadership positions across Mennonite Church USA. HFF gatherings began in 2012 and initially served to create space for mutual support among people of color in Mennonite Church USA institutions and agencies. In recent years, white leaders across the denomination have been invited to participate.

Evelin Gonzalez lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia with her husband and two boys. She works at Everence® as a branch manager at the credit union. She currently serves on the Everence Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group and on the board of directors for the Harrisonburg Community Health Center.

Ever since my first participation in Hope for the Future a year ago, I have been grateful to see the work that my brothers, and especially my sisters, are doing to change the power relationships in the Mennonite church.

Living in Harrisonburg, mostly interacting with white people, it was impossible for me to imagine that there is actually a movement of people of color among the Mennonite church who, by living out their faith, are working to create a more inclusive church.

That is the dream that was articulated during the Hope for the Future event this year; an invitation to reframe the concept of peace from the perspective of people of color, a peace that can embrace diversity with all its colors and shapes, a peace that will bring justice to the Kingdom of God on earth.

During Hope for the Future I heard a collective voice, from our Mennonite peoples of color, expressing deep felt emotions;

“I am tired”

“I am broken”

“I don’t want to only be the angry woman of color speaking up, but I cannot stop speaking up because my children are hurt and my people are dying.”

I can always hear my father, who would frequently repeat popular sayings when I was growing up in Nicaragua during the Revolutionary period of the 1980s. One of his favorites was, Derecho que no se defiende es derecho que se pierde (a right which is not defended is a right that is denied). This will never be easy. Themes of racism and white privilege are very difficult and cut deep. When you are the privileged, why would you want to face the vulnerability and pain that you could just as easily avoid? In the Mennonite church this is taken to a new level because of our shared story of being a peace church that historically faced persecution; a people who pulled their oppressors out of the frozen lake, who faithfully burned upon the stake, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Because of their hard work and principles, they deserve their privilege. Mennonites of European descent are not unique in this thinking, as James Baldwin points out in his essay, To Be Baptized:

“All of the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority.”

If there is any affront to the Mennonite consciousness it is to realize that their actions may have been driven by their own trauma and simultaneous access to privilege.

Euro-Mennos came to the states as victims and watched as Native Peoples and people of African descent faced oppression and genocide. Most Euro-Mennos passively watched this happen and thus, gave a new meaning to the phrase “the quiet in the land.”

In the end, I believe the Mennonite church’s collective self-perception as the peaceful makes us more susceptible to shame and avoidance. But what this world and this church really needs, now more than ever, is healing.

Everyone must remember that with harm this great, the healing process must be equally profound. We are all dealing with generational trauma and oppression and this can and should cause strong reactions and emotions. We people of color have to remember our greatest tool — empathy. And yet we must stay the course, even when we hear commentaries that might be offensive or reactionary from those whom have been dealt the best hand. People of color obviously have a right to be frustrated, exasperated, angry, and we cannot conform ourselves or deny our emotions, but we must still remember that many privileged react out of fear or shame and this is normal. Nevertheless, people of color will need to continue to push forward the process of dialogue, healing and change.

My father’s voice again reminds me:

Ninguno es libre hasta que el último de nosotros sea libre

(None of us is free until all of us are free).

People of color can’t do this as individuals. We cannot forget the unity, solidarity and freedom we have found in this space we call Hope for the Future. I feel that as soon as we are firmly isolated back in our institutions without the community and support we find at HFF, we flounder. We stop working from our emotional strength and our greatest aspirations and start being practical. We each end up as individuals against the system, facing impossible odds. We reach our limit. We become tired and emotionally vulnerable and simply await the already expected, yet surprisingly creative, excuses justifying the oppressive systems.

It is pretty hard to see hope, especially with the hysteria of our new political reality. We must remember that the darkest night is always the sign of a new tomorrow. I actually see the undercurrent of racism being expressed now as our opportunity to create transformation. In this reckoning there is hope if we reveal our unity. We must take this hope, this conversation, to our families and our neighborhoods, to our churches and our work places. We must keep the dream of freedom alive and keep doing the everyday hard work of making it become a reality.