By Wil LaVeist
LEESBURG, Va. (Mennonite Mission Network / Mennonite Education Agency / Mennonite Church USA)—More than 60 Racial/Ethnic leaders in Mennonite Church USA gathered Jan. 25–27 in Leesburg to encourage unity, celebrate the denomination’s multicultural progress, and begin outlining specific ways to help the entire church thrive as its membership rapidly becomes more diverse.
“Hope … for the Future II: Persevering with Jesus (Hebrews 11:1-12:3),” held at the National Conference Center near Washington, D.C., gathered leaders from Mennonite agencies, educational institutions and congregations throughout the denomination. The event, which was open only to members of Racial/Ethnic groups (Africans, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans), was a follow-up to a Jan. 9–11, 2011, meeting in Tampa, Fla., in which participants freely discussed their experiences in the church.
As in Tampa, attendees in Leesburg rekindled and developed relationships as they discussed challenges they share in common, but focused mainly on developing concrete ways to move forward the broader church’s longtime efforts to embrace racial reconciliation and diversity.
The three-day event was sponsored by Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Education Agency, and Mennonite Mission Network.
“The purpose of this gathering is for people to be able to talk openly and freely about their experiences in the church and to talk openly and freely about how they want to help transform the church,” said Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency and a member of the group’s planning committee.
The group concluded the gathering by forming smaller consensus groups that agreed that a strategic plan emphasizing leadership development, mutual care/support, and policymaking should be produced. They also called for another meeting within a year that would expand beyond Racial/Ethnic leaders to include other denominational leaders and those who strongly support the transformation of the church.
“This is not about leaving anybody out, but it is about giving this group an opportunity to get to know each other, finding ways of supporting each other within the system, and to respond to the church in a positive way. It is indeed about hope for the future,” Romero said.
Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, Mennonite Church USA’s moderator-elect, set the tone for the event by urging the group to walk by faith inspired by hope. Soto Albrecht referenced the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote in his classic 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that the Christian church can’t just be a thermometer reflecting the cultural norms of the times, but rather a thermostat that changes the community. She said that if Mennonite Church USA is to thrive, Racial/Ethnic leaders must commit to helping the church proactively address its rapidly shifting demographics, which reflect what is also happening in America and throughout the world.
U.S. Census reports estimate that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of the total population after 2040. Anabaptist church membership among white North American and European churches is declining, while Asian, African and Latin American churches are growing rapidly. The emphasis on Jesus, the Gospels, peace, justice and service is a powerful draw, particularly in places where ethnic and socioeconomic political strife has ripped apart nations and families.
The Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church merged in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA. A 2006 Young Center of Elizabethtown College study found that from 2000 to 2005, 25 percent of new Mennonites were non-white compared to just 6 percent from 1995 to 2000. Meanwhile, Mennonite Church USA recently reported a 6.6 percent membership decline the past two years from 104,687 to 97,737, a nearly 19 percent drop in the past 12 years. The report did not include new church plants.
“People of color, don’t lose your prophetic voice,” Soto Albrecht urged. “We have moved from tokenism. We have arrived at a critical mass (including at leadership levels within the church). Can we produce now systematic changes? I want to believe and have faith in God that we can.”
Other speakers presented topics such as understanding what multiculturalism truly means for the church and individuals, and that not just whites, but people of color, must become interculturally competent. A presentation on the history of racism noted that the idea of race was socially constructed in the 17th century to justify the transatlantic African slave trade, attacks on indigenous cultures, and the taking of their lands through colonialism. White privilege was nonexistent during Jesus’ time on earth. However, institutional racism continues to tear at the humanity of whites and people of color alike.
John Powell, recently retired from Mennonite Mission Network after 23 years of anti-racism work, led a discussion that chronicled the denomination’s efforts over the past half-century to address internal racism. Disillusioned when the Minority Ministries Council was disbanded in the 1970s as Hispanics and African-Americans divided, Powell left the Mennonite Church, but returned years later.
Powell and others in attendance who were part of those past efforts acknowledged that many of the same issues that were raised more than 40 years ago, such as racial insensitivity and lack of support for people of color in leadership, are still being raised today. However, they agreed that one of the key lessons learned is that members of Racial/Ethnic groups must work together in love and in partnership with their white brothers and sisters to help the entire church live into Jesus’ mission.
The group aims to engage the broader church and will produce a report from the event to be shared with all of the institutions represented. Some of the themes that emerged were:
- The importance of Racial/Ethnic leaders speaking with unified voices.
- Honoring those pioneers in the denomination that made it possible for many of those leaders present to be in their current roles.
- Recognizing the rich diversity in the denomination.
- The importance for all work being grounded in the Bible.
- Strong commitment to Anabaptist teachings, including service, community, justice, discipleship and reconciliation.
The meetings ended with worship and communion led by Michelle Armster, an associate pastor for community life at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., and served by Soto Albrecht and Rafael Barahona, director for Hispanic Pastoral Leadership Education for Mennonite Education Agency. Tony Brown, a Hesston College sociology professor and internationally acclaimed baritone, inspired the group with his singing, and Pastor Sunoko Lin of Indonesian Christian Fellowship Maranatha, Northridge, Calif., and a member of the Mennonite Mission Network board of directors, delivered a message of hope. Powell received special recognition for his contributions to the church. Attendees encircled Powell in prayer.
Roy Williams, a Mennonite Education Agency board member and former Mennonite Church USA moderator; and Madeline Maldonado, associate pastor at Iglesia Evangélica Menonita Arca de Salvación in Fort Myers, Fla., and a Mennonite Mission Network board member, participate in small group discussions during the Hope for the Future II Conference. (Photo by Carol Roth.)
View a video series on the event: Hope… for the Future II