This is the first 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.
Eloy Rodriguez is the principal at the New Danville Campus of Lancaster Mennonite School. He lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with his wife Becky and three kids, Addie (9), Joel (6) and Sarah (1).
Attending the Hope for the Future conference in Hampton, Virginia was one of those life-changing moments for me.
This conference, originally created for leaders of color in Mennonite institutions, is in its sixth year and now includes white allies. I went as a person of color, but recognize that most of my life has been immersed in the white dominant culture. I would like to share my top 10 takeaways from that weekend in hopes that it will continue the conversation, but more than that, ignite action as we stand beside sisters and brothers of color in a pivotal time in our church and nation’s history.
1. What is at stake for you? This was a question posed to the white allies. A challenge to think deeply about the risk and cost of what it means to follow Jesus. This goes beyond discussions and dialogue, reading the right books and following Facebook and Twitter posts. This is a call for the white dominant culture to move from a place of fear to a place of action.
Are you ready to stand by people of color, knowing that when you do, there is a cost?
2. What does it mean to be a Peace Church? For many Mennonites, the phrase peace church brings to mind the ideas of non-violence and resistance to war. But what does a peace church mean for people of color? It has to go beyond. We developed our own version that fits what we believe is what drew many of us to the Mennonite church.
A Peace Church recognizes the Imago Dei in all humanity. It not only prays, it takes action. A Peace Church responds to violence in its streets, inside and outside its doors. A Peace Church stands with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, LGTBQ people, refugees. It stands with women. It empowers disenfranchised and marginalized people. A Peace Church understands multi-faceted violence (systemic, educational, environmental). It is more than just the absence of war or protesting war.
3. Black Lives Matter. This movement is not a leaderless movement, but a leader-full movement. It’s a spiritual movement that seeks justice for black lives and in doing so is seeking justice for all lives. Are white allies ready to stand by black lives as Jesus did?
4. We have invested our lives. I heard this phrase come from many people of color, many who have been raised in the Mennonite church. We are not adopted, but are part of the Mennonite family. The people of color I sat around the circle with are fully invested in the Mennonite church, have worked tirelessly and have risked much to work for this “peace church,” a church that has said and done things that are painful and, if I’m speaking bluntly, racist. So the question remains, why are we still here?
5. A critical mass. It takes a critical mass of people to create meaningful change. Sitting at tables in a room with 30-40 people of color, this reality became even more clear to me. We are beginning to see the masses come together, which brings hope. Sadly, we are not seeing a critical mass of white Mennonite allies “ante up” as one person put it. We need you to ante up!
6. We are exhausted. As I sat around tables and circles listening to the stories of how people of color have been treated in the Mennonite church, I could see from their faces the look of exhaustion. We are tired of having to explain to white people why the work of anti-racism and anti-oppression is critical and in fact is what Jesus has called us to. How many times do we need to share our vulnerability and our pain before you wake up? There are too many people sleeping. Please, we implore you to stay awake!
7. You will be uncomfortable. There were many times throughout the four-day conference that I felt or witnessed the unease and discomfort that comes when honest dialogue happens between people of color and white allies. This discomfort is necessary and needs to happen in order for perspective to be gained. It’s messy and uncomfortable. Find a way to move past it and stand by your family of color.
8. Our children are at risk. I am a principal in a diverse Mennonite school system. The percentage of students of color in places like Lancaster Mennonite, Goshen College, and Eastern Mennonite University are increasing, which is a beautiful thing. Here’s the kicker: Our students need to see people of color in leadership, in front of their classrooms, in their cafeterias, sitting next to them on the bus. Unfortunately, they aren’t seeing many. Why is this? The excuse is often that there aren’t enough qualified people of color to fill these positions. I think that’s a poor excuse, in fact a racist excuse, and one that needs to be looked at more carefully. Are there reasons that people of color are not applying for these positions? After this weekend, I believe there are. We need to do better.
9. Now is the time. As Mennonites, we love discernment, we love structure, we love committees, we love listening processes. These are not bad things, but when it comes to anti-racism and standing for those on the margins, the time is now. There isn’t time for just listening and talking. People of color need to see their white allies take a stand and take action, and they need it to happen now. A quote that keeps replaying in my head came during one of our circle discussions with people of color and white allies. “My people are dying, y’all.” The time is now.
10. Ruby Nell Sales. I had the privilege of hearing part of Ruby’s story and her thoughts about the current state of our country. How have I not heard of her before? To be in the same room with someone who was a part of the civil rights movement, spent time in jail and was almost killed for her beliefs was a life-changing moment for me. The question is, how will I respond to her message? Will I stay awake? Will I take risks? I hope I can answer yes and this report is part of the action I want to begin to take. She was recently interviewed by Krista Tippett on her show On Being. I encourage you to listen to the podcast entitled Where Does it Hurt?
During one of our discussions with white allies, a person of color asked everyone to raise their hand if they considered their church to be diverse. There were probably 25-30 people in the room and only one person raised their hand. How do we reconcile this reality? How can we begin to understand our own racism when we’re not interacting with people of color? My hope is that we can all begin to ask ourselves:
What is at stake for us?
What are we willing to risk?
What does it mean to be a part of this “Peace Church?”
How will I respond?
These are questions that have been whirling around in my heart and mind since that weekend. It was a time of raw emotions, hard conversations, honesty, discomfort and a reality check. But even through those things, I left the conference with hope and a new understanding of love. Using the words of Cornell West, “justice is what love looks like in public.”
May we move from a complacent love to a love paired with action — a love that manifests itself in action in the world around us; a hope for our Mennonite church moving forward; a love for justice for people of color as we continue to scream, “we are here!”; perseverance for those in the white dominant culture who decide to put their lives, careers, and money on the line to stand together with black lives; a hope for our children who can break the cycle of racism and oppression; a hope to fight the good fight as followers of Jesus. Because in the end, “my people are dying, y’all!”