What we might unintentionally say when we gather

Apr 18, 2014 by

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Over the course of the last few years, I have been a part of more conversations than I care to admit and/or remember about Christian conferences, gatherings, conventions, etc. and why they lack diversity. Sometimes these conversations have been proactive, with planners wondering from the beginning whether or not they are asking the right questions, whether or not their planning committee is representative of the voices they are hoping to see represented and what might contribute to making a space unsafe for some people. But more often than not these conversations have taken place after the fact, when publicity has been launched and an organization or group has come under fire for the lack of gender diversity, racial-ethnic diversity or a number of other factors.

Again, more times than I care to remember I’ve attended or been invited to events whose keynote lineup features 90 percent straight white men, perhaps with a woman or person of color thrown in at the very end to add some “flavor.” Too often these voices are added as afterthoughts to meet some unspoken “diversity quota” and to allow planners to feel like they’ve addressed the “diversity question.”

In truth, when I look at these posters or Facebook events or email invitations, it’s hard to feel excited about attending. Why would I want to go some place where my voice — and the voices of other diverse people — are clearly not valued? If it’s true that so many of these gatherings are wanting to wrestle with the future of Christianity and the church, then why do their panels reflect an outdated and harmful model of whose voices are valued?

I also realize that it is complex. I carry a lot of privilege myself. And I sometimes wonder: when I receive invitations to write, to speak or to contribute, do I pause to think about who may or may not be at the table? Am I willing to turn down a good opportunity for myself to make space for a voice that’s not already represented in the conversation? I’d like to think the answer would be yes, but it’s hard. It’s hard to willfully walk away from the center or any glimmer of the spotlight, no matter how large or small.

But what I do know is that our current reality is not acceptable. Anabaptism was a movement that began in Europe, and therefore at its genesis was primarily composed of white Europeans. However, even then Anabaptists were pushing the limits of what was acceptable and who could participate. Women were key leaders in the early church, and their stories are memorialized in books like the Martyrs Mirror right alongside the stories of males. But as our structures congealed and became more formal, perhaps so did our rules and our expectations about who and how was an acceptable participant. When our survival was not at stake, we had time to get down to the business of institutionalizing oppression and policing people’s bodies.

As a member of Mennonite Church USA, which is part of the Anabaptist fold, I know that we have worked long and hard to undo some of the legacies of this harm. And so much work still remains. We are not there yet. Unpacking the ways that “isms” are wound into our church will require constant vigilance. But I believe we are moving forward, however slightly. One of our churchwide priorities is a commitment to intercultural transformation.

As someone who has contributed to conference planning, I don’t always get it right. But I want to offer at least a few suggestions:

  • Let’s find ways to celebrate difference. There is value in being united behind a common goal, but too often, we let unity become almost a spiritual end in itself. When Paul suggests that there is neither “Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free” I don’t think he was suggesting that we just ignore the different gifts we bring in order to be Christian. Can we recognize that to be together with the complexity and the beauty of our diversity on display is a gift from God?
  • Conference-planning committees should represent the people that you hope to see there. Naturally, when we’re excited about something, we want to draw in people from across our networks. But our networks can be limited by our social location, our geographic location, our interests, etc. So if a planning committee consists of a group of people who are all drawing from the same network or communities, it should be of absolutely no surprise when the gathering that they plan fails to reach beyond those boundaries or include diverse voices.
  • Nobody wants to feel like a token. There have been times when I’ve received an invitation and it’s been clear that the only reason I’ve been invited was to fill a quota, and not because the planners had any interest — and sometimes even knowledge — about who I am, what I do and what I care about. Nine times out of 10 I’m going to turn an invitation like this down. If I’m included, I want it to be because the planners value having a feminist voice represented and are actively committed to undoing oppression.
  • It is not fair to invite speakers into a space that will not be safe for them. Too often, people invite one or two minority voices to be a part of an event that is largely run and populated by privileged voices, without giving any thought to how the culture of this particular gathering might feel to those people invited in. It’s important to ask ourselves the question: what about this space and its assumed culture could be harmful? Where is power at play in violent ways? How must we make space?
  • Don’t use universal language to describe something particular. We should avoid holding gatherings with universal language that implies a broad movement is represented, when in fact it’s open only to particular conversation partners. If it is, those particular partners should be clearly articulated. There may be times when a homogeneous gathering is appropriate. Maybe women or men want to get together to talk theology apart from the other. Maybe people of color need to be together in a safe space to talk. But if we want to host a universal Anabaptist conversation, then it should represent at least some of the diversity found within Anabaptism. 
  • Nothing will change until privileged folks start saying no to being a part of oppressive gatherings. Those of us who carry a lot of privilege must bear this weight. It is not enough to simply pull new people in if we are not willing to make space for them. As long as straight white men consent to speaking on panels full of other straight white men, and these sessions make money, nothing has to change. We have to vote with our dollars, with our time and with our energy. And sometimes this will mean stepping back and saying no. I’m preaching to myself here, too.

The truth is, it is hard. There will be no such thing as a perfect conference. We all need grace. But I have to believe that — if we’re listening for the movement of God’s Spirit — we’ll hear it calling us and challenging us to keep wrestling with these tough questions so that we might live into a better future together.

What would you add? What have you learned as you’ve tried to bring together groups of people for conversation? You might also be interested in these guidelines for healthy groups and gatherings developed by the Mennonite Church USA Racial Healing Task Group

Hannah Heinzekehr lives, works and writes from Newton, Kan. She holds a master’s in theology and community development from Claremont School of Theology. This post originally appeared at femonite.com, where she explores the intersections of Mennonite identity, theology and feminism.


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