Hope for the Future (HFF) is an annual gathering of people of color serving in leadership positions across Mennonite Church USA. HFF gatherings began in 2012 and initially served to create space for mutual support among people of color in Mennonite Church USA institutions and agencies. In recent years, white leaders across the denomination have been invited to participate. This year, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, was invited to participate.
For many years, I have greeted groups with the salutation — “Shalom.” Similarly, I often close my letters or emails with this valediction above my signature. This practice is no mere habit; it reflects my understanding of God’s call to seek the wellbeing of all those around me. Better than any other single word, “Shalom” captures the richness of God’s desire for humankind. It signifies God’s transcendent action to bring about wholeness — safety and security, peace with God and neighbor, justice and forgiveness, health and prosperity. It reflects God’s intent in the first chapters of Genesis — human flourishing in the bosom of God’s bountiful creation.
As I reflect on my participation at the recent Hope for the Future conference in Hampton, Virginia, I think of the ways that many participants expressed their longing for a greater experience of God’s shalom in our world. As keynote speaker Ruby Sales expressed it, many experience narratives which oppose God’s shalom: “genocide, white supremacy, patriarchy.” These combine with the fearmongering and scapegoating rampant in our political environment, leaving many marginalized people to wander in the desert of despair.
Ruby’s presentation and pleas from other people of color convinced me that my experience of today’s world is very different from theirs.
Iris de León-Hartshorn said it well regarding our changing political milieu: “This 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 in this country.”
While I live with the comforts and relative ease afforded by white privilege, Iris and many other people of color in our church face acts of discrimination in public spaces. From the tenor of the unkind remarks some white folks make in public, they seem to assume that all people of color are recent immigrants who should be deported to their home country. Devout Muslims who wear traditional religious clothing are particularly suspect of being terrorists.
I participated in two sessions of a “white caucus,” where white allies gathered to discuss our role in addressing racism. We acknowledged that racism is a sin in our nation which stains all members of the body politic, white people as well as people of color.
Our caucus recognized that because of our white privilege, we have unique responsibility to seek God’s healing for this wound in our corporate soul.
In the larger gathering, I heard the call for white folks to “speak up,” rather than remain the “quiet in the land” during a time of great disquiet in our nation. This call prompted me to review what our church has said about racism in years gone by, and what we would do well to say now. Corporate statements or resolutions are one important way that the church can speak up for what is right.
I discovered that the delegates for the former General Conference Mennonite Church and the former Mennonite Church both adopted the same statement on racism at a joint conference at Normal, Illinois in 1989. A few years later, in 1995, the delegates of the Mennonite Church acknowledged a statement which had been passed by the Iglesia Menonita Hispana convention. To my knowledge, we have not given major attention to these statements since then.
We did participate, however, in the drafting and adoption of a statement on racism produced by Christian Churches Together in 2013, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. This statement is an extended Christian response to King’s letter, the only such reply that I know of. It provides excellent counsel for our church at a time of heightened racial tensions.
I believe the time is ripe to either update the 1989 statement on racism or to write a new one which sets forth the commitments of our church for this unique time in history. One of the seven priorities of Mennonite Church USA is “undoing racism and advancing intercultural transformation. To that end, Our Purposeful Plan states that we seek “to overcome antipathy and alienation among different cultural groups through dismantling individual and systemic racism in our church, making a way for people of every racial/ethnic group to have just and equitable access to church resources, positions and information as manifestations of the one new humanity we have in Christ.”
This is much more than a social or political goal. It is a spiritual yearning which draws us toward God’s preferred future, a longing which can only be fulfilled through God’s gracious initiative.
I believe with all my heart that this is a part of the Biblical shalom which God intends for all creation.
Let us yield ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit among us, where “divisions between nations, races, classes, and genders are being healed as persons from every human grouping are reconciled and united in the church,” (Article 9, Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995).