Black women lead regional retreat for national crowd

‘Black Mennonite Women Rock’ is theme of Central District Conference event

Oct 13, 2014 by and

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CASSOPOLIS, Mich. — Cyneatha Millsaps, pastor at Community Mennonite Church, Markham, Ill., has been around the Mennonite blocks of community life. She persists in participating in Mennonite life, though it sometimes is not sensitive to differences, especially racial and ethnic issues.

Women dance during Central District Conference’s Black Mennonite Women Rock retreat at Camp Friedenswald Sept. 12-14. More than 150 women attended. — Camp Friedenswald

Women dance during Central District Conference’s Black Mennonite Women Rock retreat at Camp Friedenswald Sept. 12-14. More than 150 women attended. — Camp Friedenswald

Millsaps kept her experiences in mind when she had the opportunity to organize the annual women’s retreat of Mennonite Church USA’s Central District Conference at Camp Friedenswald Sept. 12-14.

She said women of color often don’t attend the retreats because they are held at a camp.
“Women of color do not like to camp,” she said. “They believe camp life is different from what it really is. We need to get them to the camp so they see what life really is like.”

So when the retreat planning rotation fell upon the Chicago Mennonite churches in the conference this year, she knew it would take excellent programming to bring women of color.

“If we get them there, they will have a great time,” she said. “But we need to get them to the camp, so they see how much fun it is.”

With worship planners and leaders focused on sharing from their perspectives as black women, Millsaps successfully attracted more women of all colors to the event than in many years previous. About one-third of the more than 150 registrants were women of color.

Black Girls Rock

Inspired by a show on Black Entertainment Network titled Black Girls Rock, whose message is empowering young black women, Millsaps coined the phrase “Black Mennonite Women Rock.” It became the theme for the retreat.

The challenge was to plan a weekend that would speak to women of color but also make white women feel welcome and involved.

The theme caught the attention of many African-American women from the East Coast to Illinois.

It also drew the writers’ team of three white women for the MennoMedia Shine curriculum, who felt it was essential to attend. They wanted to learn the stories, experiences and needs of Mennonite women of color firsthand so that the Christian education materials they write speak to children of all races and ethnicities.

Rose Stutzman, managing editor of the Shine curriculum, said, “We knew intellectually about the needs of women of color, but this weekend allowed the stories to wash over us.”

Keynote speaker Hyacinth Stevens, a Mennonite pastor in Bronx, N.Y., and African American Mennonite Association representative to the Mennonite Women USA board, preached messages of challenge and hope, using Genesis 16 and 21 and Psalm 139.

Stevens preached about the dilemma of Hagar and Sara, who were more intimate than owner and slave, yet when the boundaries were crossed the intimacy turned into mistrust and jealousy.

Attendees were challenged to recognize that they are all grafted together, cannot be separated and need to overcome discomfort with differences, celebrating their need for each other.

Women fellowshiped with pontoon boat and wagon rides, walks in the fen and lots of good food. Camp Friedenswald traditions of 7 a.m. “polar bear” swims lured only a few determined women.

Crystal Y. Sellers, assistant professor of music at Bluffton (Ohio) University, led music; Sarah Thompson, executive director of Christian Peacemaker Teams, led worship; and Regina Shands Stoltzfus, assistant professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Goshen (Ind.) College and Nekeisha Alexis-Baker, writer and theologian, spoke.

A communion service, led by Addie Banks, pastor at King of Glory Tabernacle in the Bronx and mother of speaker Hyacinth Stevens, brought women together around tables to share in the symbols of Christ’s body and blood.

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