What is a peace church? People of color define it

Hope for the Future supports racially diverse MC USA leaders

Feb 27, 2017 by and

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HAMPTON, Va. — It is time for white leaders and members of Mennonite Church USA to reconsider what it means to be a peace church, participants said at a gathering of people of color in leadership roles.

More than 70 people attended the sixth annual Hope for the Future event, titled “Doing Kingdom Work,” Feb. 2-5 at Calvary Community Church.

From left, Raphael Barahona, Calenthia Dowdy, Ann Jacobs, Evelin Gonzalez and Colleen Whigham-Brockington take part in Hope for the Future. — Jenny Castro/Mennonite Church USA

From left, Raphael Barahona, Calenthia Dowdy, Ann Jacobs, Evelin Gonzalez and Colleen Whigham-Brockington take part in Hope for the Future. — Jenny Castro/Mennonite Church USA

The gathering is a point of connection and support for MC USA leaders of color. For the past three years, key leaders who are white have also participated.

In a caucus group discussion, people of color said many had joined MC USA because of its peace theology but were discouraged at the church’s silence in the face of discrimination, oppression and fear. The group worked to define what a peace church means to them.

They presented these ideas to the large group: “A peace church recognizes the imago dei [image of God] in all humanity. It not only prays; it takes action. A peace church responds to violence inside and outside its doors. A peace church stands with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, LGBTQ people, immigrants and against all forms of violence.

A peace church empowers disfranchised and marginalized people. It understands multifaceted forms of violence — systemic, educational and environmental. It is more than the absence of war or the protesting of war.”

People of color in attendance noted that, in the wake of new U.S. presidential leadership and the flurry of executive actions that followed, many are wondering what the current reality in the United States means for MC USA as a historic peace church.

“The first few weeks of the new administration have increased the urgency for people of color and other marginalized groups,” said Regina Shands Stoltzfus, assistant professor of peace, justice and conflict studies at Goshen (Ind.) College and a Hope for the Future planning committee member. “The election and subsequent early actions from the new administration illustrate how much more unsafe this country will become.”

Iris de León Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for MC USA and a member of the Hope for the Future planning committee, said: “This [current reality] has some very different consequences for people who are white and people of color. For people of color, this affects our lives, our families, our communities and our relationships. Even being a U.S. citizen as a person of color does not give you the same guarantees a white person has.”

Easy to imagine

In caucus groups, participants explored one of three tracks: “Black Lives Matter and Anabaptist People of Color,” “Our Future Together” and “Sexual Abuse/ Misconduct and People of Color.”

In the “Black Lives Matter and Anabaptist People of Color” track, Shands Stoltzfus led a discussion on what it means to be a peace church considering the experiences of people of color in the United States today.

Recalling the 2014 shooting death by police of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Shands Stoltzfus asked parents to imagine their own children lying dead or dying in the street. She asked them to imagine police with guns and dogs keeping parents from their children. For many people of color, the exercise didn’t require much of a stretch.

Several people named the visceral fear that they carry all the time — fear for themselves, for their spouses, for their children. Participants shared stories of pain, discrimination and mistreatment. They spoke about a church that too often justified, minimized or avoided addressing these experiences.

Participants in the “Our Future Together” track envisioned Hope for the Future working in two ways: resourcing (capacity building and leadership development) and holding agencies and organizations accountable. Plans are in the works to invite more people of color to the planning committee to help Hope for the Future move into this vision.

The “Sexual Abuse/Misconduct and People of Color” track included members of human resources departments and others.

“Familial relationships among our white brothers and sisters is one of those cultural realties in our institutions,” de León Hartshorn said. “The tendency is different treatment for those within ‘the Mennonite family’ compared to those ‘outside’ — people of color.”

The group observed that when a person of color is disciplined for misconduct, institutions tend to view that person as representative of their entire race. It is unlikely that a person of color would replace a person of color who was disciplined. That never happens with white people, the group agreed.

Speak truth to power

Keynote speaker Ruby Sales, a theologian, historian, activist, and educator, spoke about two narratives in the U.S.: the one of genocide, white supremacy and patriarchy, and the one of abolitionists, labor organizers, heroes and heroines. She recognized the despair many people are experiencing in this moment in history.

Sales presented a challenge: “If we follow Jesus, we must find the courage to stand up and speak truth to power and to each other.”

“Ruby was prophetic,” said Sue Park Hur, co-director of ReconciliAsian and co-pastor of Mountain View Mennonite Church in Upland, Calif. “She spoke to exactly what we were talking about in the Black Lives Matter group.”

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