Leaning in: Visiting Predominately White Mennonite Churches as a POC

I really dislike visiting new churches.

As much as I like new adventures and pride myself as being adaptable, I appreciate the known. I like knowing what is “expected attire” for church. I like knowing when it is appropriate to stand and sit or how a certain song goes.

So, this past year, I found myself more than a little trepidatious when my husband and I decided to start visiting different churches.

And, as a Person of Color (POC) living in a Predominately White Area (PWA), I found myself more than a little anxious when visiting churches in “Bible Belt” areas.

Because, instead of focusing on key questions like: How does this churches understanding of Jesus impact their cultural practices? How does this particular church build relationship with the local community? How does this particular churches history contribute to or deconstruct gentrification? Or, how does this particular churches culture empower and/or welcome persons that may live in poverty? I found myself -more often than not -focusing on the following:

1.      I wonder how many people will touch my hair today?

2.      Am I emotionally equipped to withhold and/or respond to racialized comments and microaggressions couched in Christianity (ie: it’s so inspiring to see a cross-racial couple be here today because we have been praying for more of a minority attendance; it’s so good to see some more color here, having a black person here is like an answer to prayer).

3.      Are people not greeting us because we are an interracial couple or because this particular churches culture doesn’t foster a welcoming presence?

4.      White people are the only ones whom know how to make the word “exotic” sound like a four-letter word, (ie: you look so exotic, what are you mixed with? *um, I’m mixed with black).

5.      Am I mentally prepared to listen to yet another White Savior Story? (ie: I used to drive bus for the blacks that lived in the ghettos back in the 1960’s and they just loved me and God was just able to use me to build those relationships, Praise the Lord. So, I am just so glad to see another minority entering our church today, because you feel just like an answer to prayer).

6.      Does this particular churches theology rely on White Savior Community Service Events or does this particular church work alongside and empower already established minority-run non-profits?

7.      Will the “Mennonite Game” be utilized to investigate my obviously racial difference?(ie: “I had heard a couple of couples adopted some black children over at (names a Mennonite Church), are you related to them”)

And, while these examples are especially cringe-worthy, they happen a lot. Indeed, all of these examples have happened to me just within the last year. As my husband and I have visited various churches over the past year, we realized that – more often than not- we had to prepare ourselves for multiple experiences that are particularly unique for cross-racial couples and POC.

Because, even though America’s racial and ethnic demographics are steadily browning, white supremacist ideology and racial segregation still fundamentally inform and impact systems of power. And, this includes everything from religious frameworks to political ones.

Understanding how segregation and white ideology impacts and perpetuates racism is critical towards building an inclusive and diverse community. And, knowing how congregant members welcome or do not welcome POC is particularly informative when deciding how to engage cross-racial relations in religious institutions.

So, in case you find yourself reading this and thinking: wow, some of those comments sound like something people in my church have said, or maybe even, wow – some of those comments sound like me, I want to invite you to consider the following:

1.      Recognizing & Dismantling Racism & White Supremacist Ideology cannot occur from a lone 16-week Sunday School Class. As someone whom aspires to be an Inclusivity and Diversity consultant one day, I find that one of the biggest challenges with the church and racial justice is that racism is consistently approached as a short-term mission. By way of authenticity, building sustainable, cross racial relationship fundamentally requires longevity. While strategies and book recommendations and short-term discernment can result from Sunday School Classes, I believe that these strategies will remain meaningless unless they become an inherent structure within the institutional framework.

2.      Dear White People – saying the “Wrong Thing” will (more often than not) invite feedback that will reject the idea of white innocence & white tears. I will be the first to admit that when people say “the wrong thing” to me, I am not always in the right headspace or energy level to answer in ways that may create lengthy dialogue. Indeed, sometimes my answer can range from anything such as “wow, if you are able to consider an alternative – this is how that sounded to me,” to “that was really racist,” to a weak smile and quick dismissal. People aren’t going to always handle your comments the way in which you want them to. Commit to noticing how being uncomfortable is different than being unsafe. Notice if your ability to react to counter-feedback centers on your own feelings or if you have room to hear a different perspective. Commit to staying engaged.

3.      Educate One Another & Hold Each Other Accountable. If you notice that one of your fellow congregants tends to have a lot of racist ideas and/or ideologies, commit to engaging that person in dialogue. One of the best ways white people can help one another is to talk to each other about race and race-relations.

4.      Notice your questions:For the past few months, I have been wearing different hairstyles in order to keep my hair protected. A few Sunday’s ago, an elderly white woman sat down next to me and asked me if my hair was real. I really wanted to say something flippant like, why? Are your boobs real?But, I didn’t. Instead, I said “no,” and then she smiled and moved to the end of the bench. I share this story because it is important to notice what kind of questions we ask one another because they indicate underlying racialized ideologies. To me, when the woman asked about my hair, I heard the underlying microaggression. And, I could guess, that maybe the woman didn’t even know that is what I heard. I don’t know. But, highlighting this disparity is fundamentally important to realizing that racialized conversations typically involve two different experiences andtwo different privileges. Maybe she asked because it was important for her to note her own inherent authenticity. Maybe she asked because she was curious. Maybe she asked because she wanted to shame me. I’m not sure, but I found myself reeling when, at the end of the church service, another white woman approached me about my hair with this premise: “my [white] husband wanted me to ask you about your hair…” which leads me to my last point:

5.      Own your own agency & complacency.While, I will wait for another time to write about the white woman/black woman dichotomy, I will note here that a universal takeaway is that, more often than not, racism is usually portrayed as never anyone’s fault. By clarifying that she was “asking for her husband,” the white woman proclaimed her inherent white innocence. Instead of being culpable, she assumed that she was just “providing a favor.” Instead of noticing her own complacency, she assumed that she was neither perpetuating nor contributing to racialized bias and racist frameworks. Learning how to identify and own your own agency and complacency, particularly in race-relations, is critical towards deconstructing and noticing internalized and externalized racial ideology.

While, I will add that I could include additional more strategies and suggestions regarding to tokenization, power structures and institutionalized racism, I want to hear from you. What are strategies you are incorporating into your own practices? Who do you rely on to help keep you accountable? Where are institutions and/or businesses that you rely on to model D&I strategies?

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