Race, Church and Change

Mark 12:28-34a

“We are in a moment of historic reckoning with our country’s legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice. And I am so glad that we as a community are coming to this moment having already done so much good work together as a community. Building on our decades-long work for LGBTQ justice, we began in earnest five or six years ago to educate ourselves about other systems of oppression and to locate ourselves within those systems. Matt Alexander, an organizer with Faith in Action who has done an Education Hour here and has been to several of our services, has said that among the predominantly white congregations with whom he works, we are at the leading edge of being an anti-racist, anti-oppression church, a church that’s really working on racial and economic justice.

So: Yea, us! 

And, as we know, there’s always another step to take on this journey of being an anti-racist, anti-oppression church. What might that next step be for us as individuals and for us as community?  We are blessed in Mennonite Church USA with national leadership made up predominantly of people of color. And that leadership recently held a webinar called “Race, Church and Change” that was a forthright — and sometimes even funny – conversation about racism and the Mennonite Church. I’d like to show excerpts from that webinar this morning to inform our conversation about these next steps.

So, this is a participatory sermon. Here’s what I’m going to ask you to do. As you watch these excerpts from this webinar, please write down any ideas you may have for next steps both for you to take on your anti-racist journey and/or the next step you think our congregation needs to take on our anti-racist journey.  What are things we need to talk about and wrestle with?  And then, Pat, Joanna and I would love it if you would be willing to send those “next step ideas” to one or all three of us to inform our conversations.

Before I show the webinar, I want to start by acknowledging that we are not all in the same place on this journey. Some of us have been on it longer than others. Some — most of us — identify as white; some of us identify as People of Color; and some of have even more complex identities than are indicated by those two categories. Some of us are Jewish, for instance. Some of us are a mix of races and ethnicities. Some of us are immigrants to this country and some of us were born here. Some of us grew up Mennonite and some of us didn’t. We bring all of these differing identities to this conversation on race, church and change.

I’m going to introduce the folks on this webinar by having Bart put their names and titles in the chat box.  I’m only going to be able to show a small part of this webinar. I really recommend you watch the whole thing. The link to it is also in the chat box — you can cut and paste it from there.  This June webinar was so popular, there’s going to be a second webinar on July 23. And I’ve put information on how to register for that below. If you register, even if you know you can’t attend when the webinar is being held, they will send you the links to the recording of the webinar, so it’s worth registereing. 

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(top row)

Iris DeLeon-Hartshorn, Associate Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA

Su Park-Hur, Denominational Minister

Carlos Romero (translator), former Director of Mennonite Education Agency

(middle row)

Glenn Guyton, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA

Erica Littlewolf, director of the Indigenous Visioning Circle of Mennonite Central Committee (Central States) 

Tobin Miller Shearer, director of the African-American Studies program at the University of Montana and also the founder, with Regina Stoltzfus (Rachel’s Mom!) of the anti-racism training program, Damascus Road

(bottom row)

Felipe Hinojosa, history professor at Texas A&M and author of a book on Latino Mennonites

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I want to start with a small clip from Tobin, in which he names the question that congregations shouldn’t be asking as they take their next step on the journey (15:45-17:04).

I don’t often hear folks in this church say “we want to be more colorful,” but I think it’s good to have Tobin’s framing of the right question here at the start — how do we continue to equip ourselves to resist racism out of our faith commitments?

So Iris asked the question, “How is racism manifest in the church?” and here’s Glenn’s response (8:09-9:28).  I was really grateful to Glenn for introducing the idea of cultural supremacy and the idea of culture in general, which is so important when looking at the issue of racism in the Mennonite church.  So what is culture? Sue Park Hur offered a really great definition (18:13-19:17).

“People like us do things like this.” That’s culture, and everything has a culture. Countries have cultures; organizations have cultures. Your family has a culture, a way of doing things that you don’t even know you have until some new person comes into your family — usually an in-law— and remarks upon how differently things happen in your family.  We have a culture here at the church.  There’s nothing wrong with culture and having one. 

In fact, it’s good for white people in particular to have a culture! One of the insights from the field of “whiteness studies,” is that people immigrating to this country often came (and come) with their own unique ethnic identities and traditions and languages, and in order to join the white dominant culture here — if you are granted that entry into whiteness — you have to leave behind those unique identifies and traditions and languages. My Dad, for instance, grew up speaking a dialect of German. When he went to public school, the kids and even the teacher shamed him for not speaking good English, which was a way of sort of coercing him into whiteness. Those unique ethnic and cultural identities get flattened into vanilla whiteness. And in this unconscious longing for what they have lost, white people sometimes culturally appropriate other people’s seemingly more vibrant and intact cultures. 

Mennonites are a bit unique among white people in that we still have a pretty strong cultural identity.  As Meg said when I was talking to her about this, “The upside of a  strong cultural identity as a white person, whether or not it’s an identity you were born into, is that it gives you an identity to hold onto that is not just ‘white person.’ There’s a resilience in that that we do have our own stories and traditions that we can claim that is not just this commercialized white picket fence American Dream that’s been manufactured to fill this gap (of no longer having a culture).”

But that same Mennonite culture can also feel exclusive to people who are not from it; it can become a barrier to entry into the community. People who are not a part of that culture have to work harder to get in. I’ve seen that happen here. And having that distinct culture can sometimes morph into “cultural supremacy,” o it’s not just “We do things this way,” it’s “This is the best way to do things.” Often, this “supremacy” is quite unconscious, but it’s there. 

So, to unpack the idea of cultural supremacy a bit more, and how that gets mixed up with whiteness, I want to play a rather extended clip that features Tobin and Glenn. They are both responding to the question, ‘What is the impact of culture in the church?” (28:57-35:35)

One woman wrote in the chat box after Glen spoke: “It is such a relief to hear all this. I am white, middle class but did not grow up Mennonite and still often feel excluded because of the cultural exclusivity.” So cultural supremacy affects not just people of color in the church.

There’s much more that could be said. Again, I encourage you to watch the webinar, sign up for the next one, and please communicate your ideas about next steps for yourself and for the church to Joanna, Pat or myself. 

Our work here is about anti-racism and anti-oppression, but it’s about more than that. It’s not just about what we are against, is it? I selected the passage from Mark to frame this sermon because it talks about what we are working for and why. This work — which can sometimes feel so heavy and so fraught because we’re dealing with centuries of collective trauma — people of color’s trauma, yes, but also white people’s trauma — this work is really about love.  We do it because we want to love God — the Source of Life, our Creator — with all our heart and understanding and strength, and we want to love our neighbor as ourself. When we center our lives in that love, then, Jesus says, we are not far from the kindom of God.  Then we are living in the realm that Jesus came to announce and enact. Then we are living our reason for being as followers of Jesus. Sounds worth it to me! Thank you for being on this journey with me and as a community. Amen.