Anabaptists: peaceful force for racial justice?

‘Hope for the Future’ participants envision an antiracist church growing in equality as well as diversity

Oct 27, 2014 by and

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HAMPTON, Va. — Participants in “Hope for the Future” gatherings are inspiring congregations to address diversity in their communities.

Ewuare Osayande, anti-oppression coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee, visits congregations with presentations about the negative impact of racism, gender and class discrimination. He encourages congregations to understand that race is a social construct developed in colonial America to privilege white people over others. — MMN

Ewuare Osayande, anti-oppression coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee, visits congregations with presentations about the negative impact of racism, gender and class discrimination. — MMN

“Hope for the Future” began in 2011 in response to the rapid growth of people of color in the church. Racial-ethnic leaders gather to discuss ways to help Mennonite Church USA make institutional changes to mirror its evolving racial and ethnic demographics.

“Hope for the Future” participant Ewuare Osayande is responding to that call in his community. As anti-oppression coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee, Osayande has been visiting congregations with presentations about the impact of racism, gender and class discrimination.

He encourages congregations to understand that race is a social construct developed in colonial America to privilege white people over others.

Before this practice of racial discrimination began, people were not categorized by skin color. When Jesus walked the earth, no group was known as “white people.”

If clearly understood, racism can be unlearned and eventually dismantled, Osayande said. Anabaptist churches could lead the way to racial reconciliation.

At the forefront

Osayande presented at Calvary Community Church (C3) in Hampton on Aug. 23-24 at the invitation of Bishop L.W. Francisco, a “Hope for the Future” participant.

At C3, a predominantly African-American congregation, Osayande said local churches should be at the forefront of seeking justice in their communities. He cited the positive role churches played during the aftermath of the recent racially explosive shooting death in Ferguson, Mo., of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.

Osayande quoted a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr., in which King urged America to become a people-focused society dedicated to peace and justice rather than one focused on war and materialism. The speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” was drafted by civil rights activist and scholar Vincent Harding, a recently deceased African-American Mennonite pastor.

Osayande said the television images from Ferguson of armored tanks and police officers in riot gear pointing assault weapons at U.S. citizens who were demonstrating was a chilling revelation that King’s prediction of America’s spiritual demise had perhaps come true.

Osayande, who also shared at a Franconia Conference pastors’ breakfast in January, believes that if Mennonites put equal emphasis on justice along with peace, they would see an outpouring of support.

Anabaptism appeals

Globally, Anabaptism resonates in communities torn by war, Osayande said. In America, Anabaptism appeals to people of color who have come out of a tradition of nonviolent direct action against racism and poverty.

Nicole Francisco shares from her table group at the 2014 “Hope for the Future” conference. — Carol Roth/MMN

Nicole Francisco shares from her table group at the 2014 “Hope for the Future” conference. — Carol Roth/MMN

During the civil rights movement, blacks in the South gathered in a church and decided they had had enough of discrimination. This led to the yearlong 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. King, then a relatively unknown 26-year-old pastor, was drafted as its leader. The courage of ordinary people inspired by the gos­pel of Jesus changed American history.

Osayande believes the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence has a crucial role to play.

“It’s a voice that the Men­nonite community should make stronger use of — calling on the forces of power in this country to practice nonviolence in their relationships with oppressed communities,” he said.

Francisco said: “Many C3 members commented on Osayande’s message and felt reinvigorated to be more proactively involved in making sustainable changes in our congregation and community.”

Part of the healing

Sandy Miller, director of church relations for MMN, said she learned as an adult that Goshen, Ind., where she was raised, was once a “sundown town,” a city that was purposely white only. Her dear friend, Lefuarn Harvey, also of MMN, who grew up in neighboring Elkhart, could not live in Goshen then because she is African-American.

“It’s important for us as white folks to recognize the privilege that is often part of our community and churches,” Miller said. “The Jesus story has room for all of God’s children, and I want to be part of the healing, not the problem.”

Improving diversity is key to achieving peace and reconciliation. MMN’s DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection) program increased its staff to 50 percent minority by emphasizing people of color among its new hires as the team increased from eight to 13 today. In 2004 the staff was 13 percent minority.

DOOR began recruiting beyond the Mennonite community to draw diverse applicants. The effort has been led by its Beloved Community Council, which explores how to foster diversity in the church and neighborhoods.

“If DOOR was going to become a ‘multi’ ministry, we realized we were going to have to begin paying attention to different things,” said executive director Glenn Balzer. He noted that DOOR is “less white” but still at a crossroads regarding diversity.


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