How We Got Here

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Photo Credit: Google, Quaker Yearly Meeting

I recently read a newsletter written by my one of my cousins regarding the “new” underground railroad network in which persons without legal documentation are physically housed by an informal community network as means of protection, and (as you can guess), it re-sparked in me a myriad of ancestral and theological questions.
My biological paternal ancestry characterizes me as the great-granddaughter of persons whom were enslaved, the granddaughter of persons both Indigenous and Black*, and the daughter of a poor, Black man born in the South in 1929. Family lore includes stories about family members whom were lynched, murdered and whom had property stolen and burned. 
My adoptive maternal ancestry characterizes me as the great-granddaughter of Mennonite persons born in poverty in Oklahoma, the granddaughter of persons engaged in peace-building and evangelism from Diakonia in Ocean City, MD to the Mennonite Rest Home in Greenwood, DE and the daughter of a chicken farmer, and spiritual director/chaplain. 
As the adopted daughter of persons with family member’s integral to the Mennonite/Anabaptist “world,” I have often wondered how the Underground Railroad has impacted my own contemporary narrative. I have considered how informal “resistance” networks fundamentally oppose oppressive and racist ideologies, political systems and institutions, and how Mennonites and Anabaptists contribute, detract and/or are complicit with institutional and systemic oppression.
As a Black Anabaptist, and as an interracially-adopted female, I am acutely aware of the ways in which my physical body creates a multicultural intersection between race, theology, politics and gender. And, these intersections both equally enrich and exhaust me.
Growing up, when I was asked to do things such as: create a family tree, or later in life – create a life timeline by highlighting critical life events and/or critical shifts in behavior – I realized that I would often rely on my adoptive stories in order to create such pieces. It never occurred to me to shift my answers in such a way that would reflect my biological family. And, perhaps this is how it should be – when a child is firmly attached and connected, these answers are, perhaps the “right” ones. And, I want to be clear – I’m not advocating that this should be different. However, part of my journey as an adult has been noticing (and asking questions about) my dual family timeline.
As a person adopted by a white family and the great-granddaughter of persons whom were enslaved, I experience the uncomfortable awareness that my physical body quite literally represents two very different familial stories and cultural experiences. 
Cognitively, I am aware that my experience as a black woman has primarily been filtered through the lenses offered and afforded to me by my adoptive white family. And yet, physically I am also aware of how my own unique experiences and realities requires my body to need access to new tools. I have learned to rely on new places of community in order to cope and learn new ways of strategy and engaging in cross-racial relationships, and this process too has also been enriching and exhausting. 
While cognitively, I have learned how to assimilate into mainstream “white” culture, my black physical body experiences the world differently. Learning how whiteness, blackness and my ancestral legacies impact and inform my daily experiences can and does create a beautiful, rich tapestry of stories which help(s) me to connect, decipher and empathize across racial and social borders. But my unique positioning also allows me, when I am centered, to be a bridge-person. And, as Mennonites we too (as suggested by my pastor friend) are uniquely positioned to be bridge-people. 

Because of this positioning, I think it behooves us to explore our own history of race-relations in order to rethink and re-strategize our contemporary cross-racial relationships as a Church body. 

So first, a quick note: Because slavery has been discussed and analyzed extensively both in academic settings and in pop contemporary settings and there are plenty of materials at ones disposal for further education, I will not go to great lengths to provide historical contexts for most of these statements (above nor in the following), instead links are provided via key words to specific documents in which I am referring.  
Traditionally, Mennonites, Quakers and Amish are credited with being some of the first religious sects to oppose slavery. In 1688, a “Germantown Protest” pamphlet was created by Quakers (though, some argue Mennonite-Quakers) arguing that 
The oppression of blacks was no more acceptable than the oppression of Quakers in Europe, that the existence of slaves in Pennsylvania deterred potential European settlers from emigration and that slave revolts posed a major threat to Quaker welfare (“We Are Against the Traffik of Men-Body:” The Germantown Quaker Protest of 1688 and the Origins of American Abolitionism”).  
It is interesting to note that some of the original reasoning to opposing slavery relied on the Quaker’s own self-interests. And, these reasons hint towards a larger implicit hierarchical system of power and privilege in which the Quakers (and Mennonites) were complicit.

While this initial pamphlet (and attempt to dismantle slavery) was ultimately rejected, it would be reasonable to think that those opposed to slavery could still dismantle their own complicit participation with slavery. And, while I am sure that some did, it is important to also note that Quakers (and Mennonites) benefited from slavery. Early Quaker sentiments did not see slaves as equals socially, spiritually, physically or economically. Many believed that slaves were dangerous, sexually corrupt and brutish. And, these sentiments became a refrain for the pro-slavery ideology. 

I find these sentiments particularly…enraging/astounding/frustrating/saddening…because these same sentiments are often applied to persons without legal citizenship status. Trump rhetoric has characterized many as rapists, drug dealers and murderers and, to me, this feels like the same rhetoric applied to many enslaved Black and Afrocentric persons. And yet, this same rhetoric has been embraced by Evangelists and Mennonites as well. (I am aware that it is bad form to label a group as holding to one ideology, so I recognize that many do not hold to this rhetoric). 

However, something dangerously cyclical is reoccurring as we think about our neighbors without legal citizenship status and I wonder if we can rethink and re-imagine and actively work to interrupt ideologies and systems and institutions of hate by radically loving our neighbors.
For me, actively interrupting these systems and institutions includes educating myself about the immigration detention centers locally and nationwide.

Locally, there is a Detention Center in Berks County. This facility has made over 7 million dollars for the county and holds women and children. And, there is also a Detention Center in York County.

I wonder what would happen if Anabaptist Mennonites would interrupt these systems and institutions by providing asylum for those whom could be deported and/or detained by ICE.

I wonder what would happen if Anabaptist Mennonites recorded and examined the alleged (and founded) human rights abuses that occur in such detainment facilities.

I wonder what would happen if Anabaptist Mennonites showed up to actively interrupt and challenge apathy and injustice. To be fair, there are many whom protest and there are many whom actively use their bodies and voices to renounce hate rhetoric and systems and institutions which perpetuate oppression.

However, particularly as a Mennonite, I wonder how long does it take for Mennonites to actively renounce such institutions? As a body, we are historically prolific in creating agreements in which we renounce or affirm certain ideologies and theological understandings. However, as a body centered on Christ, must we create a new agreement before we engage in dismantling systems and institutions which perpetuate oppression and racism?

As I reflect upon MCUSA statements and resolutions on: Immigration and the Expressions of Lament and Hope, I am increasingly angered, frustrated and saddened that our voices have not expressly and actively renounced hate and oppression in all of its forms. It saddens me that the “Expressions of Lament and Hope” opens by stating the following:


The African American Mennonite Association (AAMA) would like to express its regret and grief over the horrific fatal shooting of nine parishioners attending Bible study at Emanuel AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. We are deeply saddened by the tragic circumstances and loss of life, liberty and decency suffered by the families so deeply and irreversibly affected.
This is a sentiment in which all Mennonite Churches regardless of race should be compelled to draw into attention.

This is a sentiment in which all Mennonite Churches should feel compelled to work harder in order to stand in solidarity and learn about our current racial history.

This is a sentiment in which I wish would not have even needed to be written because the Mennonite Churches would have already been actively renouncing and using their voices and bodies to create strong relationship across racial borders. 

As a Mennonite and a Black woman in a Predominately White Mennonite Church (PWMC), I feel angry that our resolutions and statements do not simply and easily proclaim that Jesus’ call is to love all. While I understand the need for documentation, resolution, statements and scholarly documents in which connect our own larger church theological understandings with scripture, I also cringe at our need to compartmentalize.

If we believe that Jesus’ call is love, then it makes sense to believe that:
  • Black Lives Matter 
  • Persons without legal citizenship documentation deserve to be treated as people and deserve to be protected
  • Water is Life
  • Persons whom identify as LGBTQIA+ are welcome 
And, it concerns me that these statements even need to be reiterated. I am convinced that Jesus’ call was never a “safe” or “comfortable” call. Jesus’ call requires us to lay down our idols. All of them. This means laying down our idols of (to name a few): 
  • Safety
  • Materialism
  • Superiority
  • Whiteness
  • Ethnocentrism
  • Nationalism
What if part of how we got here was by forgetting that? 
What if part of how we got here was by being complicit? 
What if part of how we got here was because we didn’t listen and affirm Christ’s call in and on our lives in the first part?
Now, I am not suggesting that because everyone’s ancestors made horrible mistakes we ended up with say, Trump. Or, that we should feel responsible that the Church isn’t (fill in the blank). 
But, I am suggesting that our actions absolutely and fundamentally impact others, and usually these others start with groups which are marginalized. We are powerful people – each one of us. We are empowered to do the work of Christ, and I am convinced that we can use our voices to interrupt systems which only seek to destroy. We have this power as Christians to use our light. 
What would happen if we did? I bet something like transformation. Something that would challenge us and change and shape us. And I bet something like…Christ. 

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