Wilma Bailey, professor, consultant and lecturer, speaks at Mennonite offices in Elkhart
By Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network/Mennonite Church USA)—Shoulder-tapping and sharing inside information will help Mennonite leadership more accurately reflect the diversity that is within the church, said Dr. Wilma Bailey, who specializes in Old Testament studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
Bailey shared her insights during a Sept. 25 visit to the six Mennonite agencies located in the denomination’s Elkhart offices. Bailey explained that true diversity and inclusion require the work of “white allies,” people of a dominant white culture who act in solidarity with people of color without assuming control of the struggle for human dignity. In doing so, white allies take responsibility to heal their own racism.
Bailey said that one of the best ways to be a white ally is to provide opportunities for people of color by affirming their gifts through shoulder-tapping and sharing the information usually only accessible to those within the inner circle of white privilege.
“When people of color come into an organization, they often don’t have the inside information to know how an organization really works. They only have what is written in the manuals,” Bailey said. “We need to make a real effort to identify young people of color who can be potential leaders, and invite them to be part of decision-making early in the process, so they can help shape the outcome.”
Because there are still very few people of color holding leadership positions in Mennonite Church USA, the advance notice that often helps people land jobs before they are publicly posted isn’t available to them, Bailey noted.
“Most leaders are white men, so when they think of a successor who can carry on their work, they think of a white male,” Bailey said. “They just can’t imagine a black female being able to fill their shoes.”
There have been exceptions in Bailey’s life, and they have helped her become a much sought-after scholar, professor, consultant and lecturer with three graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. She currently teaches at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, where she specializes in Old Testament studies like “Race and Ethnicity in the Hebrew Bible and Contemporary Interpretation.” She has also authored several books, Bible study guides and academic papers. One current project is a commentary on the book of Lamentations.
“Many times we don’t even know who our white allies are because they work behind the scenes,” Bailey said. “In my professional positions, it was usually someone who called me and asked me if I wanted a job.”
One of these times was soon after Bailey graduated with a master’s degree in divinity from what is now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. A white church leader, John Paul Wenger, called her and asked her to serve as the assistant pastor of a Mennonite church in Saginaw, Mich. When Bailey began her ministry at Grace Chapel, she became the first woman to be licensed by Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.
Another white ally, Walter Harrelson—one of the translators of the New Revised Standard Version Bible—gave Bailey a big step up in the academic world when he asked her to be his teaching assistant. She went on to help him with research.
In becoming a white ally, as in all cross-cultural communication, occasions for making mistakes and offending others are inevitable. Bailey advocates for a posture of grace and reconciliation for both white people and people of color.
“If you show anger and alienate yourself, others will shut you out. We all have the potential to change,” she said.
Rose Stutzman, curriculum editor for MennoMedia, one of the Mennonite agencies located in the Elkhart office building, said she was deeply grateful for Bailey’s presentation.
“I know that the really important work of being a white ally is to confess our racist attitudes, acknowledge our white privilege, and listen. I’m also happy to hear Wilma suggest more concrete ways I can be a white ally,” Stutzman said.
Stanley Green, executive director of Mennonite Mission Network, thanked Bailey for her generosity when a brief meet-and-greet turned into a tutorial on the peace stance of God’s people in the Old Testament.
“Wilma explained to us how the English translations of the Old Testament are bloodier and more violent than they are in the original Hebrew text,” said Rachel Stoltzfus, Mission Network’s senior executive for Human Resources. “As Anabaptists, we base our peace position on Jesus’ teaching, but there is a basis for it in the Old Testament as well.”
Nancy Kauffmann, denominational minister for leadership development for Mennonite Church USA, remembers her seminary days with Bailey. “Wilma is a totally authentic person. She is gentle, but doesn’t hesitate to go right to the point,” Kauffmann said.
Bailey also shares her knowledge and experience with Mennonite institutions. She has served on boards for the Mennonite Board of Education and Mennonite Central Committee. She is currently a member of the board of trustees of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. She attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis.
Bailey’s visit to Elkhart was organized by a volunteer interoffice team that schedules “Learning to Undo Racism Events” several times per year.
(l. to r.) Steve Hochstetler Shirk, Ann Jacobs, Wilma Bailey and Stanley Green discuss Bailey’s presentations at the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Ind. (Hochstetler Shirk, Jacobs and Green are Mennonite Mission Network staff members.) (Photo: Craig Welscott, MMN)