Mennonite Church USA
A discerning woman
Carol Roth’s Mennonite/Choctaw upbringing has equipped her to build bridges within the church.
By Patricia Burdette
“Growing up in a missionary home and being a PK (preacher’s kid) have made me more sensitive to building relationships,” explains Carol Roth, Choctaw, of Clinton, Miss. Her infectious smile and bright brown eyes invite me into the conversation.
Carol is sensitive to the two cultures she grew up in as well. When she and her twin sister, Rosa Lee, were infants, their biological parents, Emma Lee and Leonard Wallace, asked missionary workers at what is now the Choctaw reservation in Neshoba County, Miss., if they would care for them for one winter so the twins could survive; the Wallaces, itinerant agricultural workers, had five children under the age of three. After that first year, the Wallaces asked the missionary workers, Ethan and Shirley Good of Harrisonburg, Va., if they would continue to take care of the twins.
“Part of the arrangement,” explains Carol, “was that my sister and I would attend funerals, family gatherings, birthday get-togethers and other events on the reservation that would keep us in touch with our family and culture.” This required the Goods to take the twins on 30-minute trips over rugged dirt roads from Mashulaville to Pearl River from time to time, but it was a commitment they kept.
In this way, Carol and her sister were raised in a Mennonite home but stayed connected to their Native American culture. This unusual bicultural upbringing seems to serve Carol well in both American culture and Choctaw culture. Yet because she was raised mainly in the dominant Anglo culture, Carol says she “has had to find people who were willing to answer my questions about Choctaw culture and traditions, such as: Are Choctaw dances the right thing to do? Do I allow my children to dance? Which dances should they be doing?” While learning to understand such things has been a significant personal challenge for her, Carol says, “I have been able to use this challenge to learn more about my culture and to serve God.”
Now a staff leader for Native Mennonite Ministries, Carol says, “My life experience has made me aware of the needs and feelings of Native Americans not raised in their own cultures, and I am sensitive to the differences among the Native American congregations I work with in my Native Mennonite Ministries role. While there are some aspects of Native American culture that are present in most tribes, each tribe does have its own distinctive qualities that need to be respected.”
Called to serve her people
Carol met her husband, Mark Roth of Tavistock, Ontario, Canada, when he came to Mississippi as a Mennonite Board of Missions (now Mennonite Mission Network) voluntary service worker in 1986. Mark returned to Canada in 1987 after his voluntary service term was completed. Two years later, in 1989, Mark and Carol were married. After their marriage, Carol and Mark lived in Canada, where Mark worked as a bookkeeper at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate in Kitchener, Ont.
“During this time, I began to discern God calling me to serve my people—the Choctaw—through the church, but I didn’t want to nag Mark about returning to the U.S.,” Carol says. “I prayed that God would put that same calling in Mark’s heart. And God did!” Carol beams. In 1990 they were on their way back to Mashulaville, Miss., to minister to the Choctaw people.
“We chose not to live on the reservation, but our home—just 10 minutes off the reservation—became a place for people of the community and the church to come, sit and talk,” she says.
Mark worked to adapt to Choctaw culture, and Carol says, “The Choctaw people accepted him into their community and tribe.”
Mark served Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Church in Preston, Miss., as a pastor with Ethan Good—who with his wife had raised Carol and her twin sister—and later became the senior pastor when Ethan retired, serving in that role for 14 years. Carol was a vital part of the ministry at Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite as the piano player and song leader as well as the adult women’s Sunday school teacher. “Mark and I were also the youth sponsors for some 20 teens in the church. We really had a good time doing that!” she says, laughing heartily.
Now a chaplain at the Baptist Hospital in Clinton, Miss.—about 90 miles away—Mark is still called upon to conduct funerals in Philadelphia, Miss., for some of the Choctaw. The Roths now attend Open Door Mennonite Church in Jackson, Miss., a Gulf States Conference congregation.
Carol, who has served the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians as tribal court administrator, believes she has been called to serve God with her gifts for administration and to minister among Native American people. “There was no lightning, but sensing the leading of the Lord through friends and in conversations with others,” she explains.
In 2007, both Carol and Mark volunteered with Native Mennonite Ministries (NMM)—a constituent group of Mennonite Church USA that includes 12 active congregations in seven states—and in 2008 they were hired as staff leaders. In 2009, Carol became the sole staff person for NMM when Mark began working as a chaplain. “Mark still volunteers for NMM,” Carol notes, “but he no longer is a staff person.”
Carol explains that when they were hired as NMM staff, “one of the key needs identified by the congregations was ‘someone to visit our congregations.’ Because Native American churches are located so remotely, the people and the leadership long for connections with the broader church.”
As she does this visiting, she looks for leaders and youth who can be paired in mentoring relationships, and for those who can serve the broader church. “One of my dreams is to be able to bring pastors of Mennonite Native churches together for a retreat so that they can connect with and be resources for one another,” she says.
When Carol goes to meetings, she always chooses to drive. She says this gives her peaceful “alone time,” and she can enjoy the scenery as she travels. She even drove to meetings in California from her home in Clinton.
Because Carol still has children at home (Cody, 21, at the University of Southern Mississippi; Gabriel, 15; and Jonathan, 10), she is careful not to say yes to every request to serve. “Before responding, I spend time in prayer to discern what God is calling me to do,” she says. While Carol knows that her sons and her husband can manage without her, they still miss her when she is traveling to Native Mennonite congregations and to meetings in the wider church. “I travel a good deal,” she says, but emphasizes, “I talk to each of them at least one time every day.”
Each year Carol and Mark discern a passage of Scripture or a concept to focus on for the coming year. Over the years, they have found several psalms to be especially meaningful. One year they focused on the concept of peace. Carol shared that their verse for 2011 was 2 Cor. 5:7—“For we walk by faith, not by sight.” “For me, things need to be tangible, so rather than being dependent on materialism, I want to walk by faith,” she says.
A passion for connection and healing
When she reflects on the administrative and direct ministries she is involved with, Carol says, “I—as one person—am helping the greater good.
“I want to contribute my knowledge to others and learn from them, too,” she adds. “I see myself as someone who can connect the Native American churches to one another as well as connect leaders and potential leaders from these congregations to the broader Mennonite Church.”
“My passions and visions for the church are in the area of racial reconciliation,” Carol continues. As a member of Mennonite Church USA’s Intercultural Relations Reference Committee—which has representatives from Native Mennonite Ministries, African-American Mennonite Association, Iglesia Menonita Hispana and Asian constituents—she notes, “Mennonite Church USA is striving to work with and incorporate the gifts of people in its ethnic constituency groups.”
Carol is also involved in Mennonite Church USA’s anti-racism work as a member of the Racial Healing Task Force. “This healing is slow going, and there is much more work to be done,” she says. While three area conferences have expressed a willingness to work on racial healing, “What about the other 18 conferences?” she wonders aloud. “The dominant culture can apologize, but the ethnic constituency groups have healing to do as well,” she adds.
Connecting Mennonite women
Carol also applies her passion for making connections as a member of the board of Mennonite Women USA.
“I would like to see more Native Mennonite women’s groups become active with local Mennonite Women groups,” she says. She advises choosing meeting times in the evenings or on Saturday mornings, since many women work outside the home. “They need to know that today’s women’s groups are no longer all about quilting all day.”
Carol likes to think outside the box with her Native Mennonite women’s group, helping them to come up with creative ways to bring women together for service and learning. “We have made Choctaw bead crafts to be sold to raise funds for causes such as Mennonite Central Committee, and we have held cooking classes to use commodities (non-perishable food given to Native Americans by the Federal Department of Agriculture) in healthy and delicious recipes,” she says.
Rhoda Keener of Shippensburg, Pa., co-executive director of Mennonite Women USA, who also has served with Carol on Mennonite Church USA’s Constituency Leaders Council, says, “I’ve appreciated Carol’s gifts as a bridge person, as she is able to relate authentically to different cultures. In group settings she brings a depth of thought and wisdom in her responses.”
A bridge builder
Carol grew up walking in two worlds: Mennonite and Choctaw.
“When I was young, I thought everyone grew up this way,” she says. “As an adult, I think it has been good for me. I’ve learned the Anabaptist way of doing things as well as the Choctaw way of doing things.”
“For example, for Mennonites, hospitality tends to mean cooking special foods, setting the table with your best table linens and dishes, and making things especially nice when people come to eat with you,” Carol says. “For Native Americans, the sharing of food is about the friendship, not the proper etiquette.” Therefore, Native Americans generally serve what they have and take time to visit with their guests. “These kinds of cultural differences can easily create misunderstandings, so I try to educate each culture about the other.”
In the same way, Carol says she is often asked by people in the dominant culture why cultural elements such as dances and drums are not used in Native American worship.
“Each tribe is different, and symbols mean different things to individual tribes, so it is important to be careful and discern what can be used that will not offend others,” she explains.
While Carol’s first language is English, she has learned Choctaw over the years. “I enjoy speaking Choctaw, but it has caused me to struggle with English at times,” she says.
“I am a slow thinker,” she explains. ”I am not always ready to answer questions as quickly as others are. Also, Native Americans tend to process questions and plan what they will say in response, so it takes them longer to answer. I have tried to convey this cultural characteristic to the larger church to increase understanding.”
As Carol has become more involved in leadership in the church, she says she has sensed God’s leading through others, “especially leaders in Mennonite Church USA.” Naming Glen Guyton, Rhoda Keener and LaVern Yutzy, she says, “Their lives and the example they set have been a shaping force in my life.”
Glen Guyton of San Antonio, Texas, director for constituent resources for Mennonite Church USA, says, “Carol is a true example of a servant leader who leads with her heart. She carries out her ministry with joy and enthusiasm. It’s a pleasure to work with her; she loves God and is passionate about representing the people God has entrusted her to lead.”
LaVern Yutzy of Lititz, Pa., a consulting associate with Mennonite Health Services Alliance, says of Carol, “I appreciate Carol’s commitment, her gifts and her willingness to make a difference in congregational settings and beyond.”
Carol reflects, “I am so blessed to connect with all of these people. I have gained a wealth of knowledge from one-on-one conversations with Native American people and with people in the larger church. I hope I have been able to contribute my knowledge to others, too.”
Patricia Burdette serves as editor for Mennonite Women USA, including timbrel magazine. She is married to Rob Burdette, and they have five children and nine grandchildren.