By Ervin Stutzman
Last month, I wrote a blog and a column about the insights I’m gaining about white privilege. By the responses I’ve gotten in person and in writing, it seems that I hit a nerve. White privilege is a “squishy spot” in our corporate psyche as a church. By that, I mean it is a very sensitive topic somewhat like an infected cut on our skin which causes pain when we touch it.
One respondent asserted that it takes vulnerability to admit white privilege, but it takes audacity to work at institutional change. He is praying that I will have the courage to influence such change. Another respondent declared that we need a consistent conversation to move us beyond “Racism 101” toward the “hard work of examining white privilege, dismantling racism, and embracing the beautiful multi-cultural diversity of our people.” Both of these comments imply that effecting change on the corporate level will be very difficult, and that we have a long way to go to reach the stated priorities of our church.
As a pastor/leader, I have found that it is nearly impossible to change a group’s behaviors or habits without first changing my own. In other words, I cannot make people go to a place that I haven’t been; I must lead them there. So when it comes to undoing racism and advancing intercultural transformation, I am proceeding with the conviction that I must model what I hope others will do.
To educate myself on this front, I am reading a variety of books. Because I’m particularly interested in the interaction between my Amish/Mennonite ancestors and the Native Americans in colonial Pennsylvania, I am concentrating my reading in that area. Over the past year, I’ve read a number of historical novels and several scholarly works. The most recent is At the Crossroads: Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763, by Jane T. Merritt. These works have dramatically reshaped the way I view Native Americans, and how I interact with them in our church.
The next book on my reading list is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. It tells about the way that the criminal justice system discriminates against African Americans. The book was recommended by two persons on my leadership team who were moved by it.
Besides reading about white privilege, I recently took a weekend seminar sponsored by Damascus Road. This group helps both whites and people of color understand the harmful effects of racism.
I probably wouldn’t be interested in reading or attending seminars if I didn’t have regular interactions with people from various racial/ethnic groups. Just by listening to people’s stories of discrimination in our church, I am slowly being sensitized to my white privilege and the ways that I may unconsciously perpetuate the problem.
Because a Black man and a Hispanic woman serve on my senior leadership team, I have regular opportunity to examine the social reality in our church from different perspectives. This in itself is an education for me. It solidifies my conviction that in order to lead a multi-ethnic group, I need people on my team who represent some of that diversity. I have discovered that it is very difficult for an all-white group to plan programs or events that will adequately reflect the needs of a diverse community. As a part of a multi-cultural denomination, it’s important for all of us to learn about privilege and discrimination, whether or not we interact outside our cultural group on a regular basis.
The controversial immigration law (SB 1070) in Arizona has posed one of the greatest intercultural competency challenges to our church in recent years. The Executive Board made the decision to hold our 2013 convention in Phoenix only after careful listening and prayerful consideration of other options. I experienced some of the most poignant and painful moments of my leadership in Mennonite Church USA as sat at the table with the board of Iglesia Menonita Hispana, listening to them describe how the Arizona laws affects Hispanic brothers and sisters across our church.
Because I am white and was born in this country, I haven’t needed to pay much attention to immigration questions. Now I face a steep learning curve as I walk alongside brothers and sisters who are deeply affected by our nation’s laws. Our church has much to learn about immigration issues, not only for Hispanics but other immigrant groups as well. Iris de Leon-Hartshorn gives particular attention to this matter on behalf of Mennonite Church USA.
Two members of our national staff recently joined with staff from Mennonite Central Committee in a meeting with immigrant advocacy groups in Phoenix to plan for intercultural learning and public witness at the 2013 convention. To further that process, our Executive Board and staff will all participate in a learning tour with BorderLinks next January. The tour will include conversations with recently deported immigrants in Nogales, as well as conversation with representatives of Mexican Mennonite churches in that area.
I believe that the 2013 convention in Phoenix may be one of the most significant opportunities for whites to learn about white privilege in this country, and to listen to people on all sides of the controversy in Arizona. People from many of the different racial/ethnic groups in our church are deeply involved in planning for this convention. We will not try to “fix Arizona.” Rather, we hope to learn about ways to address the same issues which exist in many of our churches and home communities.
Because race and racial/ethnic concerns are a sensitive and squishy spot in our church, we will not likely all agree on the best way to address the painful immigration issue or other issues of white power and privilege. But I hope that we can agree to discuss our differences in a respectful manner and to listen deeply to each other. That could help us move beyond Racism 101 into the audacious actions that reflect God’s intent for authentic intercultural transformation in our church.