Racial/Ethnic leaders from Franconia and Eastern District Conferences joined Mennonite Church USA leaders from around the country at the “Hope … for the Future II: Persevering with Jesus” conference, January 25-27 in Leesburg, VA. According to the conference’s press release, the purpose for the event was to “encourage unity, celebrate the denomination’s multicultural progress, and begin outlining specific ways to help the entire church thrive as its membership rapidly becomes more diverse.”
Yvonne Platts, a leader in Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (Franconia) attended with Ertell Whigham, Franconia’s Executive Minister, Ron White, Eastern District’s moderator, and Noel Santiago, Franconia’s Minister for Spiritual Transformation. The conference had an atmosphere of solidarity, Platts reflected, even a lightness of spirit despite the heaviness of the topic and weariness of travel. “I am always moved by the gatherings that bring people of color together in a significant way,” she said. It was a “chance to celebrate just how far we’ve come as a people of faith in helping the church to live out its call.”
White was particularly struck by the call to unity, noting that “our future work as a multicultural group will only go as far as our unity will allow.” In order to experience and express that unity, leaders need to learn about and understand one another’s cultures, he added, which could be a challenge since the diversity within the church is great. “It has to start with how we best demonstrate that we care about each other,” he said.
The conference included recognition of the number of positions filled by leaders of color on the national level, including positions in the denomination as well as in Mennonite agencies. It is a sign of progress, observed Whigham. “We are positioned to speak into the culture while the culture may not necessarily embrace what we bring.” Meeting together with other leaders and sharing similar experiences was powerful, he said. It was a time of naming the difficulty of leading as a person of color in the midst of the dominant white culture, “not to beat up on our white brothers and sisters,” he said, “but describing a reality … they might not be aware of.”
Representation in positions of leadership is increasing, but is still not what it needs to be, noted Whigham. A number of young leaders at the conference—gifted, intelligent, visionary leaders—“said to us older folk, ‘Don’t give up—we commit ourselves to take the baton and keep moving forward, standing on your shoulders and continuing to engage,’” Whigham said. “That was hopeful.”
That raises the question of how current leaders are working to expand the leadership capacity in people of color within the Mennonite Church, White said. “Are we putting our young people of color in position to be our future leaders and how can we best equip them and create effective leadership among our cultures, and what can we do to support each other in this work?” he asked.
A highpoint in the conference was a sendoff blessing for John Powell, who recently retired after 23 years of anti-racism work with Mennonite Mission Agency. It was a bittersweet moment for Platts, knowing that “his work and that of others confronting the powers-that-be to look at systemic racism has gotten us this far and in the room together but there still exist huge … challenges to overcome.”
The future challenges could be overwhelming, but Platts remembers the words of one of the songs they sang together: “The journey is long.” Going forward, she said, she will hold onto those song lyrics and “pray for the wisdom, strength, and knowledge about how to best work with others to advance the kingdom of God in my church community and … conference.”
Read the press release from Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Mission Agency, and Mennonite Education Agency, the conference’s sponsors.