Glen Guyton is the executive director of Mennonite Church USA. He is the first person of color to serve in the role. Glen has almost 30 years of leadership experience in the denomination. He joined the MC USA Executive Board staff in 2009 as the director of Intercultural Relations, and for the next serval years, held various staff roles until becoming executive director. Glen holds a bachelor’s degree in management from the United States Air Force Academy and a master’s degree in education from Regent University. He is the author of two books: “IDEAL ME: Discovering Your Call in a Cluttered World,” a cultural guidebook for youth and young adults, and “Reawakened, Activate Your Congregation to Spark Lasting Change,” which explores eight keys to developing the abilities of congregations to bring healing and hope to their communities. He is a member of San Antonio Mennonite Church in Texas.
“We grieve that:
- “People of Color have been scapegoated as the reason for discrimination against LGBTQ people.
- “LGBTQ people have been blamed for the loss of some people of color in the church.
- “Dualistic tactics fail to recognize the ways that both racism and hetero-sexism function to uphold white supremacy.
- “LGBTQ Mennonite people of color are virtually erased.
- “The losses that have occurred across the spectrum of MC USA as a result of these guidelines and our ensuing strife around them.”
This statement was borne out of a diverse group of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) members, including people of color. For many immigrant leaders and other people of color, it is an all-too-familiar pattern in our denomination: When those in power don’t get their way, they hide behind a shield of tokenization, using Black and Brown voices as pawns.
Us versus them mindset
I have become increasingly frustrated and disheartened that many of our institutional leaders are stuck in the polarization mindset instead of understanding the complex nature of race and other identity factors. Polarization is a judgmental orientation that views cultural differences in terms of “us” versus “them.” Over and over in our system, those in the dominant culture have used immigrants and other people of color as political pawns to justify their bias, insecurity and phobias. Rather than using the weight of their voices, owning their prejudices and standing firmly behind the clarity of their opinions, they deflect. They deflect by speaking for people of color. They deflect by asking, “What do people of color think about this decision? Have you talked to the immigrant churches?” In my experience as a Black leader, these questions, as often used in our church, harm people of color in MC USA in several ways.
First, these questions perpetuate the polarization mindset by inferring that one hive mentality exists in non-white communities. The opinions of people of color and immigrants are as wide and diverse as those of white people. There is no singularity of thought on issues of faith and life based on national identity or skin tone. I’ve been Black my entire life and would never be able to fully express the wide variety of opinions of other people who identify as Black. We vary based on education, experiences, socioeconomic status, age and more.
Second, it ignores the power dynamics of those posing the question. Power is the ability to control, coerce or influence people based on privileged identities. Power can be positional and provides access to social, political and economic resources. Those in the dominant culture continue to be gatekeepers to true advancement. Often, we ask people of color and immigrants what they think, but we don’t allow them to hold positions of power or have true decision-making authority. How can the resource-disadvantaged speak with honest conviction to the ones that control the aspects of their well-being?
Third, it enforces the idea that non-whites are helpless in our system and that we are an intellectual and economic burden. We need to end the idea of the white savior and the colonial aspects of ministry where we are unequal partners. If we truly cared about immigrants and people of color, we would remove ourselves as the gatekeepers of power and resources.
Instead of the slow trickle of grants and micro-ministry handouts, we would open access to wealth, information and empowered leadership. The best way to include people of color and immigrants is to empower them beforehand, not after the fact. Let’s stop the practice of throwing out Black and Brown bodies as human shields when we don’t agree with a certain decision – as if their opinions were of urgent importance in how we run our systems and programs. I have often seen immigrants and other people of color martyred for the agenda of powerful white leaders. When those leaders did not get their desired outcome, they left MC USA, either abandoning the immigrants and people of color who stood beside them or fracturing ministry partnerships, further diluting the strength in communities of color. Why did the communities fracture? These immigrant and racial minority leaders were so dependent on the dominant culture’s resources that they found it more expedient to separate, following the money and white adjacency power, rather than staying connected to others in their community. Money and access to power are the “weapons control” in colonial, polarized systems, creating a privileged, “model” class of immigrants and other people of color who are used to uphold structures of white supremacy.
Finally, often those asking questions about the opinions of immigrants and people of color discount the numerous people of color in our system that have some degree of influence and authority. It is a textbook example of white supremacy, the social, economic and political systems that collectively enable white people to maintain power over people of other races. White supremacy says, “only the opinions of people of color that we control or endorse have valid opinions.” It says, “there is no way the people of color can have complex thoughts or have influence at the highest levels of our institution.” We have people of color and immigrants involved in our processes. The Executive Board and staff have leaders of color. We often converse with our constituency group leaders and the Racial Ethnic Council. We have people of color on our denominational Resolutions Committee. There is diverse representation on the Constituency Leaders Council and other important leadership groups in MC USA.
Yes, we have a long way to go to create diverse, inclusive and truly equitable decision-making processes in MC USA. Understand that we were met with fierce resistance from the formal and informal traditional power structures during the times we attempted to widen the circle and be more transparent in our leadership: the Future Church Summit, the Membership Guidelines Advisory Group and the Special Session of the Delegate Assembly. Let’s change our thinking.
How can we truly empower people of color:
- Don’t use your wealth to fracture communities and create ministry welfare states.
- Instead of the colonial mission model where America is seen as the ideal, share resources and skills that help immigrants build capacity in their country of origin.
- Create intentional mentorship opportunities that help increase the number of Racial/Ethnic pastors and leaders in the system.
- Create simple and clear leadership structures that fit cultural paradigms.
- Spend time onboarding people of color (any newcomer to MC USA) to help them understand our structures, culture and Anabaptist theology.
- Be honest with people of color about MC USA’s polity and decision-making authority, and don’t scapegoat others by abdicating our authority and influence in the system.
- Create paid full-time positions for qualified people of color in your organization so they can add the appropriate skills to your team.
- Base ministry finances on the mutual aid and generosity articulated by the early church in the book of Acts so that we can make ministry decisions on the leading of the Holy Spirit and not fear of donor pushback.
During an Executive Board meeting in 2016, leaders of the Racial Ethnic Council noted their perception that decision-making processes in the denomination are confusing and circular, passed back and forth from Executive Board to Constituency Leaders Council to conferences and congregations. Since then, the Executive Board and staff have worked to honor the requests of these key leaders of color by defining where authority lies and allowing more voices to be heard. Unfortunately, some in our system are looking backward, seeking to change the rules to preserve their traditional power and supremacy while keeping the diverse voices of others bound.
Read the Spanish version here.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board.
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For further reading and engagement
“Reawakened. Activate Your Congregation to Spark Lasting Change” by Glen Guyton (Herald Press, 2021) See Chapter 6: Intentional Diversity and Inclusion
“Dear White Peacemakers: Dismantling Racism with Grit and Grace” by Osheta Moore (Herald Press, 2021).
“Who Will Be a Witness?” by Drew G. I. Hart (Herald Press, 2020)
“Trouble I’ve Seen” by Drew G. I. Hart (Herald Press, 2016)
Reading list on race and economic justice from Everence, an agency of MC USA
MC USA Antiracism resources for individuals, churches, white allies and BIPOC
Intercultural Development Inventory, a program tool of Mennonite Church USA for assessing and developing intercultural competence. Qualified administrators can administer the IDI and provide feedback on improving intercultural competence.