Tag Archives: Racism

Listening for Pentecost

by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

These last few days I’ve been in California with a delegation of leaders from Franconia Conference. We are here to cultivate further relationships with a group of churches who have expressed a desire to join our Conference. All four congregations are immigrant churches who have been connected with the Anabaptist movement for years. We find ourselves in this space together to build on past informal collaborations, to build relationships and trust.

Meanwhile, at the same time that we are here, all hell seemed to break loose in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The east coast felt very far away from this side of the country. Yet, reading on my iPhone and following social media meant that the scenario wasn’t far from my mind as we met together. Most of these initial meetings have involved a lot of listening. As we are listening, I am reminded again that the process of transforming racism and xenophobia begins with a willingness to listen, to be challenged and to be changed.

Franconia Conference leaders with pastors Buddy Hannanto (2nd from left) and Virgo Handoyo (right) in San Gabriel, CA.

As the days have built, they’ve also involved a lot of eating together and extensive travel time on the freeways that crisscross the massive urban sprawl of Southern California. Yet in the middle of the conversations, I sensed more and more the possibility that emerges through honest listening that allows some vulnerability. Our delegation, John Goshow (board moderator), Mary Nitzsche (Associate Executive Minister), Aldo Siahaan (LEADership Minister) and I, represent one of the oldest configurations of Mennonite-ness in the hemisphere. Largely shaped by the experience of Germanic people, here we were listening to the experiences of immigrants and people of color on the West Coast. We were challenged to recognize that our systems aren’t always friendly to people who speak English as a second or third language. We were challenged again that our established patterns aren’t always reflective of the movement of the Spirit that had and continues to stir a global movement of people who live in the way of Jesus. In the meantime, we were served lovely meals and received gracious hospitality.

This is not always easy work. Those of us attached to these systems sometimes feel a need to defend them. Taking a listening posture rather than a defensive one allows us to hear both critiques and affirmations. I find that often as a white dude who is leading in this system, I want to protect our organizational process and the validity of the way that we do things. I don’t think that we have constructed systems with an intention to be oppressive or biased, yet often times they are. There is still work to do as we seek to be representative of the reign of God yet to come with persons from every tongue, tribe and nation.   Recognizing that the journey toward reconciliation of all people is more than I will ever accomplish doesn’t allow me to sit idly; it requires each of us in our time, place and space to do the work that we are invited toward that represents God’s Pentecost intent.

With leaders at San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church.

In the meantime, we are being transformed by relationships with people who open their lives and stories with us. The pain and the celebrations are real. We can bear witness to these things together along with Christ who weeps and who also rejoices.

This fall we will have opportunity to continue to be transformed as a Conference community as at least five immigrant congregations seek to join us as new members. We will have ongoing opportunity to listen together, to extend Christ’s great shalom intended for us and for the whole world. This is will likely be our work for our time as a community together.

NOTE: Stay tuned for more information on the congregations looking to join Franconia Conference. Also, delegates – be sure to register for Assembly Scattered Meetings which will be a time of listening and discerning together regarding these congregations.

Still a place of storm

by Stephen Kriss, Director of Communication and Leadership Cultivation

Steve KrissIn July I traveled with a group of four Eastern Mennonite Seminary students to bear witness to Mennonite Central Committee’s ministry of presence in New Orleans, now nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaks that have reshaped the city.

Pam Nath, formerly a professor at Bluffton (Ohio) University, has served as MCC Central States representative in New Orleans since this more recent initiative began, building upon a generation of MCC presence that had a brief hiatus in the years before the storm.

Nath graciously opened her network of relationships with locals working toward justice and hope in this complex process of rebuilding a city.

New Orleans is a distinct place in the American soul and landscape, reflecting earlier French and Spanish rule. It’s unique in architecture, geography and racial-ethnic mix.

Before arriving, we tried to acquaint ourselves with the city’s history. We learned about the immigrant groups who built the city. More recent waves of Vietnamese found it to feel a lot like the Mekong Delta.

We glimpsed stories of slave trade and the city’s ruthless marketplace that separated families. At the same time, the Code Noir devised by the French was considered a “kinder, gentler form of slavery.” The city is full of complexity, complicity, and contradiction.

We watched Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and readily carried the visuals of thousands of people stranded at the Superdome, others marooned in their attics as flood waters rose. Locals were quick to point out it wasn’t the storm that nearly destroyed the city. Instead, levees and seawalls failed in dozens of locations, allowing water to pour into low-lying neighborhoods, flooding up to 80 percent of the city.

Listening to storm survivor stories is tough, recognizing this part-natural and part-human catastrophe. But far more agonizing were the ongoing stories of racial aggression and the contempt evident in patterns of civic behavior that undermine the flourishing of the city’s black majority population. One student said she frequently wanted to scream as we listened. The stories were so consistent, so prevalent, that many we spoke to had come to best understand the situation as a combination of storming and conspiring forces with seemingly faceless people dictating maneuvers.

The listening was exhausting. We came to recognize patterns of trauma in those we encountered.

I’ve traveled further to listen to people tell the difficult stories of oppression and conspiring forces before.

But these New Orleans stories were as intense and difficult as I’ve heard from anywhere in the world. In some ways, the listening was more disconcerting because we were still in the U.S.

Hard listening in New Orleans made us all wonder where those hidden stories might be closer to home.

We wondered whether we were missing similar struggles next door or down the block. My guess is that we are.

I wonder what it would take to have the kind of courage, time prioritization, and wherewithal to find them out and to bear witness more regularly with the neighbors near at hand. My guess is that hearing even closer to home will be even more difficult.

I suspect, uncomfortably, that in not listening and not knowing, we become silent conspirators for those under the heavy weight of ongoing struggle.

This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review. Reposted with permission. 

An Anabaptist “In House” Discussion: Forming a Non-Racist Approach to Ethics and Social Responsibility

Race and Church
Last October, Drew Hart led a conversation at Germantown HIstoric Trust on racism in the church. Drew is working on a PhD through Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia on the intersection of Anabaptism and Black Theology.

by Drew Hart, reposted by permission

I am concerned that many Anabaptists have unconsciously and unknowingly adopted a model for social action and ethics that is problematic because it cooperates with our racialized and unjust society. Therefore, I figured I would offer an “in house” discussion on the subject. This all flows out of listening to the language and comments of my brothers and sisters (though mostly brothers) as they talk about engaging society (or not) in relation to various social issues we are confronted with in the U.S.

More specifically, I have observed many talk about desiring to remain “local”, “contextual”, “on the ground”, and “ecclesially” oriented when it comes to dealing with social realities. Let me be clear, I believe it is essential that we are rooted and grounded in local communities. When I hear these terms being used, it is often done so in great contrast to the Christendom logics for social engagement that is so common in American Christianity. Many seem to only imagine their social options for responding to injustice as being limited to the so-called democratic electoral process. More specifically, every four years, Christians pop blood vessels and gain grey hairs stressing over who the next president will be. This is the only active engagement that they will have socially, so I guess their limited options impose on them a certain manner of stress that cannot be released through daily resistance and activism. So, I am in agreement that our Christian imagination should not merely be defined by citizenship and the options given to the “good citizen.” However, there are also some serious consequences for swinging the pendulum all the way in the other direction, and again, they have racial implications, as well as others.

The first thing we must remember is that we live in a racialized society. By that I mean that race shapes our society’s movements and organization. Basically, race manages us socially and geographically. Unconsciously, most people are “patterned” by race in various ways. Most people go to a church where the majority of people are of the same race. Most people live in a neighborhood where most people are of the same race. Most people attend a school where the majority of people are of the same race. Most of the people that we call to actually chat with are of the same race. Most people regularly invite only people of the same race over to their homes for dinner. Based on race, we often have a sense that we “belong” in certain spaces and not in other spaces. In a sense, race has a sophisticated way of managing us and segregating us, despite that it is not legal segregation. This is no surprise, given that we are working with 400 years of deeply racialized laws and practices in this land. Those types of responses, if not intentionally resisted, will be unconscious and inevitable practices in our society.

If we take seriously the depth of our racialized society, and how it impacts our lives (which I have only unveiled a tiny fraction of), then we must consider the racial outcomes that flow from limiting and only concerning ourselves with “local” & “contextual” realms. For example, lots of research has been done exposing national racial issues that demand massive response.

A perfect example is Michelle Alexander’s acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow. She exposed the national crises and confirmed with data what African American communities have been experiencing and prophetically speaking out against since post-civil rights era. Her simple point is that at every stage of “law and order” from policing, stops, arrests, trials, sentencing, and even after release back into society, the process is racially biased against Black people. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to order it and read it carefully (book discussion groups are being formed right now–contact Samantha Lioi for more information).

Anyway, if you live in a primarily white, suburban, middle class neighborhood that is not vulnerable to these practices and instead actually look to the police and judicial system, expecting it to provide protection and law and order, then what are the implications of deciding to limit your social engagement to your local situation?

You see, by looking down and limiting your social engagement, you create for yourself an artificial social vacuum. It is as though your community and social life has nothing to do with what goes on regionally, nationally, or globally. That isn’t so. The reality is that our way of life always has direct implications beyond our local contexts, because we are interconnected much more than we realize. Only from a vantage point of privilege and comfort, blinded by the logics of dominant culture, can someone think that an ecclesial ethic is sufficient on its own, when it has not taken seriously its own social location and complicity in social systems. This is precisely why historic Anabaptist streams have a complicated history as it relates to slavery and racism in America. On one hand, most Anabaptists did not participate in slavery, unlike almost every other Christian tradition and denomination. On the other hand, unlike the Quakers, many of whom eventually became great abolitionists, Mennonites did very little to actively confront and challenge slavery and later racist manifestations like Jim Crow, Lynching, the convict leasing system, etc. So, it definitely is important to have a formational community that produces people that can resist participating in things like slavery. But it is also important to produce people that are willing to head towards Jerusalem and accept the consequences that come from confronting a social order that does not align with God’s Kingdom.

In 1963, Martin Luther King decided to protest in Birmingham, which was not his actual residency or home. In the process, he was arrested and thrown into solitary confinement over Easter weekend (which is probably the most faithful observance of that weekend that I have ever seen). However, some moderate yet influential white ministers, who were supposed to be “for” integration, critiqued King and the movement while he was sitting in jail. One of the big critiques was that the civil rights movement was moving too fast and was being provoked by “outside agitators.” They argued that it needed to be dealt with by local Birmingham citizens, not outsiders. Dr. King in contrast, understood the danger of limiting one’s social responsibility merely to one’s own local context. Here is just a small portion of his response, in his now famous, Letter from Birmingham Jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.[1]

So, in wrapping up, I hope to stretch the focus from merely being ecclesial ethics and local concerns. We do not want to fall back into Christendom logic, where the only options are from the top down, but nor can we disconnect what goes on in Nazareth from what goes on in Jerusalem and Rome. I encourage us all to continue to practice an ecclesial ethic that is simultaneously a socially located and marginalized ethic. I’m not sure the Church collectively can truly follow Jesus faithfully in the world if it isn’t exploring the world from the vantage point of being in solidarity with the crucified among us. And if one suffers, we all suffer, therefore, as King argues, we are no longer outsiders because everyone’s suffering pertains to us.

[1] King, A Testament of Hope, 289–303.

Reflections on the Conversation on Race and the Church

On September 21, Drew Hart and Ben Walter presented a conversation on race and the church at Germantown Historic Meetinghouse in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ Peace & Justice Committee.  (Listen to the podcast.)  The following are reflections on this conversation from two men in very different walks of life: Mikah, a biracial young adult who is working with students in north Philadelphia, and Firman, a white pastor of over twenty-five years, ministering in a prosperous, rural setting.

“Take daring and bold steps”

mikahby Mikah Ochieng, Philadelphia Praise Center

Few people can present on the topic of race with such knowledgeable comprehension and articulation that it greatly impacts others, possibly for the first time in their lives, to open their eyes and hearts to new and positive perspectives of understanding the people with whom they come in contact everyday. PhD student at Lutheran Seminary, Drew Hart, achieved this very feat at September 21’s conversation on race at Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust.

I, for one, particularly appreciated the intentional usage of official vocabulary and language that tied thoughts, ideas, and experiences to meaningful terms that are often used in the public arena when facilitating dialogue on the topic of race. I took Hart’s usage of terminology to be a great gesture of introduction into historical and trending issues that evolved out of the topic of race. And maybe because talking about race, ethnicity, or cultural background is typically taboo in the public arena, we might need a good refresher to help us not only be conscious people of a racialized society, but active engagers of racial reconciliation.

Hart shared a glimpse into his story of growing up in a racialized society and being the target of micro aggressions, a term used to describe the subtle, non-verbalized, non-conscious marginalizing actions of others towards people of different races and cultures. Hart calls this a sort of ‘silent-killer’ in the arsenal of 21st century racism.  Like the harpoons of institutional racism, which is typically a covert form of marginalization working in the forms of our society’s institutions, micro aggressions work in such subtle ways as to not be considered existing issues in our society, but can over time, if gone unnoticed, cause great pain to its victim.

Hart tells a really great encapsulating story of when he was attending college at a well-to-do suburban Christian school and he would walk down the main path that went through the heart of the campus. Occasionally, as he would notice, when groups of white students would pass him they would walk near the opposite edge of the path, cast their eyes down or to the side and stop talking. As soon as they had crossed paths the students would go back to their conversations, laughing and joking just as casually as before.

It’s a small act that would seemingly deserve a small amount of attention, but as Hart describes, “It’s like getting a paper cut: it’s annoying at first, but when you keep receiving that type of treatment, a thousand paper cuts really adds up.”

As a biracial young person, that I was able to relate my own experience to Hart’s. I took some time to reflect and I’ve come to the undoubted conclusion that certain micro aggressions have made up the narrative of my life at a similar suburban liberal arts Christian university as well, not least of all the experience of walking along the paths of the campus and the interactions (or non-interactions) that develop between myself and white students.

Paired with micro aggressions are micro affirmations. That is, the reverse of a micro aggression, a subtle acknowledging action of another’s personal value to the other. One might make space for the other through an affirming smile or nod during a conversation that gives the other a sense of value and self-worth.

I take away from this discussion that there is hope for the Church, particularly our Anabaptist tradition, of becoming not only more racially aware, but active in reaffirmation and racial reconciliation. It is my hope, and I know from discussion with others after the event that it is the hope of many others, that the Church would take daring and bold steps to make racial reconciliation a reality in concrete steps.

Just as Hart and his conversation partner Ben Walter emphasized, reconciliation looks like being active listeners and partnering collaborators with those who share different viewpoints and experiences from our own in situations where power is concerned. A particularly pertinent issue might surround the authority of the Church and how it delegates its finances. Here, then, would be required the shared stewardship of resources across racial boundaries so that all represented peoples in the Church have a slice of dignity. It’s a hard bit to accomplish, but we at least have to try.

Firman“The radical nature of hope”

by Firman Gingerich, Blooming Glen

I am glad I attended the “Conversation on Race and the Church” held last week at the historic Germantown Meetinghouse.

Drew Hart’s comments have had me thinking a lot about my Anabaptist theological underpinnings and how they intersect with theological perspectives of people of color.

Drew reminded us that much of Black Theology comes from the perspective of people on the margins.  He correctly reminded us that much of Jesus ministry was birthed and expressed among folks who were oppressed and on the margins.  The Kingdom of God Jesus was calling people to participate in was a kingdom much at odds with the kingdom of the occupying and brutal Roman government.

Drew suggested that if we want to recover vital Anabaptist faith values, it will need to come through stories of people on the margins.  I think he is on to something that we should pay attention to.  Our Anabaptist parents were often marginalized by persecution or rejection.  Life on the margins taught us much about trusting God and the community to uphold us.  Anabaptism from the margins measured faithfulness by how we followed Jesus’ teachings.  Anabaptists were often bold in offering a prophetic witness to the culture that did not know Christ.

For many years I have felt growing tension over this in preaching.  Settled-in people don’t want faithfulness measured by how well we live the Sermon on the Mount.  We white folks often project that our faithfulness is connected to how we fulfill the American dream.  I’m reminded of what Scott Hutchinson, a pastor friend, told our staff several years ago as he was unpacking a Jesus parable to us: “There is no church in North America that would have Jesus of Nazareth as their pastor today.”    Jesus offered hope, new life, and courage to those on the margins of society and saved much of his criticism for those settled in, the religious and political leaders.

With a fresher perspective I’m wondering again how people on the margins can teach me, a white pastor, about the radical nature of hope that Jesus preached to the masses of the Galilean villages.

Several themes from Drew and Ben Walter’s conversation were helpful for again naming perspectives.  I found it valuable to ponder my white guilt, knowing that I believe deeply in the biblical themes that all of us are created in God’s image.  It was also helpful to be reminded that many people of color do not have the same privileges as I do.  I wondered about ways to model the kind of reflecting conversation between Drew and Ben in our churches.

One thing I have little to wonder about is our future.  The Germantown historic meetinghouse was filled, and mostly with folks much younger than me.  The willingness of younger leaders to have this conversation will only help us move more boldly toward the biblical themes that “we are all one In Christ Jesus.”  May we all help grow John’s dream in Revelation 7 where there is a gathered multitude worshipping at the heavenly throne made up of people from all tribes, peoples, and languages.

Conversation on Race and the Church

Race and ChurchOn September 21, Drew Hart and Ben Walter presented a conversation on race and the church at Germantown Historic Meetinghouse in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ Peace & Justice Committee.  This conversation connected Anabaptist and Black Theologies and identified areas in which churches participate in both institutionalized racism as well as acts of micro aggression.

Part 1:


Download the podcast

Part 2:


Download the podcast

An invitation to transformation on the Damascus Road

Sharon Williams, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life

No matter what you think of the Beatles, drummer Ringo Starr had it right when he sang that peace, trust, and love—“you know, it don’t come easy.” The same thing goes for change.

For several years, Franconia Conference has been on the forefront of change. It’s been a “love-hate” relationship, to say the least. At Fall Assembly we sang, “People from every nation and tongue, from generation to generation” (Israel Houghton, You are good, 2001). People from different cultural backgrounds and generations continue to embrace Jesus, the church, and the Anabaptist vision in both Franconia Conference and Eastern District Conference. God’s Dream is alive among us. So is change.

Since 1997, Franconia Conference has taken some steps toward becoming a multicultural conference. But the root of white Mennonite identity runs deep, and the work of dismantling racism in our conference “system” signaled that necessary change was coming. Predictable resistance and conflict ensued revealing that we have a long way to go.

The Spirit invites us to a new identity that encompasses all our people and congregations. We need to redefine how we engage in mission. We need a different way of dealing with power and leadership issues—a different way of being the people of God together.

I believe that God’s transformation is available for us. The Damascus Road Anti-racism analysis training offers an in-depth analysis of how power and identity shape us as a people and as a church. It opens a whole new way of understanding the God’s reign in the Anabaptist perspective.

Transformation is hard and change can be scary. However, change that honors God and moves the church closer to God’s Kingdom is the most exciting, fulfilling, life-giving transformation we can ever experience. Can we trust God in this process of new learnings, new understandings, new ways of being the Church? For such a time as this?

The 11th annual Damascus Road Anti-racism Analysis Training is Friday–Sunday, February 25-27, at Philadelphia Mennonite High School. Will you come, with leaders of your congregation and our conference, to lay a new foundation and understanding for the transformation that God has for us?

Training details and registration are available here.

Mennonite Church USA board reaffirms decision churchwide gathering set for Phoenix 2013; moves to establish secondary meeting location

During the Jan. 7–9 meeting of the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA in Tampa, Fla., the board took the following action:

“The Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA expresses its gratitude for the prayers and counsel given by members across our church as we have considered the issues relating to the location of the 2013 convention. This decision-making process has brought us to a deeper level of sharing and understanding and to a common expression of our desire to be a church through which the healing and hope of God flow to the world.

“After spending time in discernment and consideration of the counsel of many, and knowing that the prayers of the church are with us, we reaffirm the prior January 2009 decision of the Executive Board to hold the 2013 convention in Phoenix, Ariz. We are committed to work on creative ways to include those delegates who, because of conscience or concerns for safety, will be unable to gather with the church in Phoenix and at a minimum to find a satellite location at which delegates can participate in the delegate work of the assembly.

“As we make this decision, we reaffirm our commitment to the 11 action items described in the “Recommendations Regarding the Churchwide Convention in 2013,” dated Dec. 21, 2010. As an Executive Board, we are deeply grateful for the prayers and support of the entire church as we have struggled with the many issues involved in this decision. We pray that we would continue to find ways to let God’s healing and hope flow throughout our church and to the world.”

The 11 commitments are as follows:

1. We will encourage our churches to teach the scriptures about God’s will in regards to ministering to all immigrants and seek to provide a loving and just embrace of all peoples in the congregations of Mennonite Church USA, regardless of their legal immigration status.

2 We will encourage pastors and leaders to become instruments of grace, peace, justice and joy in their churches and communities by offering spiritual, emotional and physical support to immigrants in our communities.

3. We will seek to avoid the partisan political rhetoric about immigration that divides our nation and our church. Rather, we will to work to bridge our differences through respectful conversation based on our common Christian commitments and the resolution on immigration adopted in 2003.

4. We will include Racial/Ethnic groups an integral part of the new churchwide “Investing in Hope” purposeful planning process and its implementation.

5. We will create a multi-ethnic task force with appropriate staffing to address the needs of immigrants and Racial/Ethnic groups within Mennonite Church USA.

6. We will give serious attention and energy to our anti-racism priority by inviting an outside group to conduct an anti-racism audit at the Pittsburgh 2011 convention.

7. We will reevaluate the purpose and expenses of biennial conventions, in order to make these gatherings more accessible to all who wish to attend. Further, we will attempt to provide for alternate regional locations and/or technology to bring the convention activities and delegate discussions to the many who cannot attend the convention for various reasons, including cost, inability to take time off work, and/or a hostile environment for immigrants.

8. We will change the program planning process for future conventions by designating that 50 percent of the planning committees for the 2013 convention be Racial/Ethnic people. Further, we will designate that 40 percent of the seminars, worship services, and service activities at the 2013 convention be focused on the churchwide priority of anti-racism, and continue with 20 percent at future conventions.

9. We will clarify the process and significance of the adoption, application and staffing for follow-up of church statements, such as the 2003 statement on immigration, so that the expectations for the outcomes of their adoption are clear.

10. We will pray for our governmental authorities, that God would give them wisdom and compassion, and that they would enact legislation to protect and benefit all of the immigrants in our nation.

11. We will support the programs of our agencies and affiliated Anabaptist institutions that offer appropriate services to people who are undocumented. Further, we will advocate changing laws that harm recent immigrants or prevent them from receiving humanitarian aid. We will advocate for just and fair means by which undocumented people can achieve legal status.