by Sharon K. Williams
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is recognized around the world for its stellar work, as its tagline says, in “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.” MCC’s distinct commitment to following biblical principles of peace, justice, and nonviolence makes it somewhat unique. Other organizations aspire to MCC’s example and are grateful for MCC’s partnerships. MCC staff and workers are attracted and committed to the clear articulation of these principles.
But MCC staff persons of color have had a different experience within the organization. When problems or disagreements arise, they often find themselves bound by a system that refuses change, and maintaining the status quo so as not to disturb some constituents becomes more important than following MCC’s own just policies. This is especially the case for persons who are called to lead antiracism and anti-oppression ministries within the institution.
Ewuare Osayande, MCC US’s anti-oppression coordinator, has experienced this firsthand. In a public meeting held at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life (Norristown, Pennsylvania) on January 31, Osayande spoke of a “crooked path” where people of color and some white people as well have often been the focal point of practices within MCC that contradict its stated values and policies.
Osayande was aware of MCC’s justice commitments when he applied for the position. He also came to MCC with his eyes “wide open,” knowing of the previous struggles of people of color who have worked there. When another person was dismissed without due process last summer, Osayande had already been documenting stories from as far back as the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, as well as MCC’s broken relationships with Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, the first MCC staff persons of color. Osayande began to draw the leadership’s attention to the overall lack of integrity in the employment relationships and processes—this call to accountability is one of the stated roles in the anti-oppression coordinator’s job description. Osayande’s concerns were met with attempts to silence him, and a letter of reprimand was placed in his personnel file without due process.
Osayande carefully followed the organization’s grievance policy step-by-step over a two-month period. Requests for conversation and explanation of the charges in the letter were denied. Left with no recourse, he began to go public with this situation and the historical experiences of people of color inside MCC. Only then did the leadership respond. Thus far, it’s been positively. Conversations have begun, and the letter has been removed.
During his talk Osayande identified three tiers of white privilege inside MCC. People who are white, Mennonite, and connected in the local area of the MCC offices generally receive the benefits of Matthew 18:15-18 principles of reconciliation and of giving and receiving counsel when problems arise. Persons of color, those from other Christian traditions, and who are not from the local MCC community often do not experience the same spirit of welcome and respect. People of color and white people who have called MCC toward a more authentic witness for justice within its own house are met with a double standard of expectations and micro acts of aggression that often result in burnout and/or dismissal.
As Osayande clarified throughout his presentation, this is not unusual behavior for Christian organizations and churches that are predominantly white in leadership and constituency. Addressing the hidden roots of systemic racism and oppression that still rise up is one of the greatest challenges. Few do it well. The most painful part, for those caught in its sweep, is the unawareness, silence, denial and oppression that results from unjust in-house practices.
“People of color are not looking for perfect white people, but for white people who are so connected to their hearts, who are willing to make mistakes and ask for forgiveness, knowing God’s grace is sufficient,” Osayande explained.
“It’s about the quality of white people’s hearts, about building capacity for a willingness to work for change, to truly create the ‘beloved community,’” he said, referencing a phrase coined by Vincent Harding and preached by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The commitment of people of color in MCC is to follow our God, whose power is greater than white supremacy. Our commitment is to follow Jesus, to extend mercy, to show God’s love, to honor the God who spoke to the prophets saying, ‘I love justice.’ Isn’t this at least part of what it means to be Anabaptist?
“MCC leadership has shown signs of the possibility of change in the past few weeks. I am committed to establishing a more appropriate accountability process as long as MCC and its constituents are committed to it.”
Osayande encouraged MCC constituents to pray for the leaders of MCC, and to commit our support for just practices within the organization. The call to MCC is to “be true to what you said on paper” (Martin Luther King Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968). Constituents understand that maintaining healthy employer/employee relationships can be difficult, because people’s very lives are affected by decisions made. It’s important to acknowledge that constituents do not agree on everything. But MCC supporters can strengthen MCC’s witness by humbly holding leaders accountable for justice with integrity, and encourage the organization as it works toward becoming antiracist and anti-oppressive in every aspect of its work—even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s work for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Sharon K. Williams is a musician, editor and congregational/non-profit consultant. She serves the Lord with the Nueva Vida Norristown New Life congregation as minister of worship.