Mennonite Church USA
Racial Healing Task Group continues work toward transformation of the church
By Jessica Farmwald
Storytelling is an ancient and universal art, common to all cultures and peoples. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that the intentional journey toward racial healing and wholeness in Mennonite Church USA is moving forward with the sharing of stories.
It has been two years since the formation of the Racial Healing Task Group (RHTG), the idea for which came from a Constituency Leaders Council meeting in October 2008. The idea received the blessing of Racial/Ethnic church leaders and the affirmation of delegates at Columbus 2009.
The members of the RHTG, selected for their knowledge about restorative justice approaches to reconciliation, are all white, in order to ensure that people of the dominant culture take ownership of the work of racial healing—rather than depending on persons of color to educate the church about racism. However, the group has chosen to form a unique relationship with Racial/Ethnic church leaders by making itself accountable to the Intercultural Relations Reference Committee (IRRC), in addition to the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board.
Charged with helping the dominant white culture of Mennonite Church USA articulate and take ownership of ongoing systemic and personal racism within the church, the members of the RHTG, in a series of meetings with the IRRC, started by confronting racism on an individual level.
“People of color who are Mennonite Church USA members have shared racism stories relating to church, community and daily life,” says chairperson Sharon Waltner, former moderator of Mennonite Church USA. “Listening to these stories helped me comprehend how racism exists in today’s culture. Most of us from the dominant culture don’t realize how racist we really are.”
But it’s not just about listening to stories, says Iris de León-Hartshorn, who helps oversee the RHTG as director for transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA; dominant culture members need to share their own stories and reflect on the ways they have been taught to think about racism. “Part of sharing our own present narratives is being able to look at the good, the bad and the ugly of those narratives. I’ve been a Mennonite long enough to know that power is very difficult for Mennonites to talk about. That’s why I think being honest about our narratives is very important for this healing.”
It is sometimes the Mennonite Church’s own story—the Anabaptist-Mennonite history of persecution—that makes it hard for the Anglo majority to acknowledge that its narrative is now that of the dominant, privileged culture.
“We continue to act like the martyrdom story of 500 years ago is our current story, and that has kept us from confronting the fact that we’re now part of the problem,” says Lloyd Miller, RHTG member and mutual aid minister and director of denominational relations for Mutual Aid eXchange. “And it has kept other parts of our church—whether they be our Native American, Latino, African-American, Asian, African brothers and sisters—at arm’s length.”
In order to be more inclusive, says de Leon-Hartshorn, the church needs to differentiate between core theological values and what might be more malleable cultural practices; for example, the expression of worship through music. “That’s a very difficult issue because music informs our worship, and we don’t all agree on what kind of music that is,” she says. “For me it cannot be either/or; it has to be about how we can use all our music together in a way that meets the needs of everybody, not just one group.”
The RHTG is now focused on inviting dominant-culture Mennonites to acknowledge racial problems facing the church and to take steps toward healing and transformation in their own lives and congregations.
“The only way that we as a church we will be transformed in these ways is with a heart change, not just with a head change,” Miller says, noting that a one-size-fits-all program or a one-time event is not the answer. “That really invites us to think about strategies for and ways of offering opportunities to the church to take a look at ourselves.”
The RHTG is offering support to area conferences—three of which have already declared their intention to actively address the issue of racism with the help of the RHTG.
“Each conference is unique, and each has its own culture of working with congregations,” Waltner says. “The RHTG does not have a ‘cookie-cutter’ program to undo racism. Rather, we have assembled an extensive toolkit of resources to assist conferences and others, wherever they may be on their journey of racial healing.”
RHTG resources include a PowerPoint Toolkit, Racial Healing Vignettes, the “‘I’s of Oppression” diagram, a Nested Model for Restorative Justice, and suggested reading materials. Joanna Shenk is the contact person for these materials: firstname.lastname@example.org or 866-866-2872 ext. 23055.
More information about the RHTG is available at: http://mennoniteusa.org/executive-board/racial-healing/
Sharon Waltner, chair, Salem Mennonite Church, Freeman, S.D.
Elaine Enns, Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church
Lloyd Miller, Southside Fellowship, Elkhart, Ind.
Samuel Voth Schrag, St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship, University City, Mo.
Ruth Yoder Wenger, North Bronx Mennonite Church, New York City
Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind.
Iris de Leon-Hartshorn (staff), Portland (Ore.) Mennonite Church
Joanna Shenk (staff), Fellowship of Hope Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind.