Last month, on a weekend better suited to relaxing by a fireplace than venturing outside, nine Goshen College students, faculty members and administrators traveled to Hampton, Va., to attend “Hope for the Future V, Equipping the Saints,” a Mennonite Church USA gathering for people of color and their white allies.
Attending from Goshen College were students Gabby Castanon, Nahshon Lora and Deeksha Pagar along with Jim Brenneman, president; Regina Shands Stoltzfus, PJCS professor; Gilberto Pérez Jr., senior director of intercultural development and educational partnerships; Norm Bakhit, director of human resources; DaVonne Kramer, coordinator of retention & intercultural student support; and me (I’m the director of corporate and foundation relations).
The purpose of the gathering was to provide a safe space for leaders of color to meet and consider how Mennonite Church USA leaders could “vision the future together.” Further, attendees examined Scripture and focused on human resource issues—exploring how to provide a workplace environment where diverse people can thrive. Organizers hoped for a larger turnout of Mennonite college students and white allies than at Hope for the Future IV.
A powerful storm struck the East Coast just as the conference began and dropped heavy snow across Maryland and Virginia, keeping many people home. So there were about 40 fewer people (including students) than the 100 people at last year’s conference in Fort Myers, Florida.
Still, there was much that Goshen attendees appreciated: the opportunity to meet and connect with people in the broader Mennonite Church, the chance to renew acquaintances and make new friends, honest and lively discussions about the racial climates at Mennonite institutions and a welcoming environment. There also were opportunities for fellowship, Bible study and worship as well as to receive advice from leaders who for decades have worked for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Mennonite Church.
The Goshen College students at the conference were attending their first Hope for the Future gathering, so they had no prior expectations. However, all said they were struck by the intensity of some conversations. Administrators, who all had attended previous gatherings, were struck by the somewhat contentious group discussions, the absence of off-hours fellowship and the limited focus on precise ways to advance diversity within the Mennonite Church.
The group regretted that we didn’t have an opportunity to share what Goshen College has accomplished to create an intercultural teaching and learning community. We also didn’t have chance to present our new nine-point diversity hiring plan, even though human resource issues were supposed to have been the focus of our discussions. We also weren’t pushed about ways we could create an even more inclusive community.
While I appreciated the efforts of organizers, I was impatient and disappointed by the gathering, which I considered a missed opportunity. Having attended the first, second and fourth Hope for the Future gatherings, I expected more clarity and action. The event seemed unfocused and disorganized at times—a perception shared by others from Goshen College and other Mennonite organizations. Along with this, there were too few opportunities to meet with white allies and develop a shared agenda to advance diversity and inclusion.
Part of my disappointment stemmed from the fact that Goshen College has a history of engaging difficult issues and promoting racial reconciliation since 1960—the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on campus about “The Future of Integration.” Eight years later, GC launched its groundbreaking Study-Service Term program as a way to serve and learn from people—many of them people of color—in developing countries.
Much has been accomplished in the decades since then. Goshen’s minority student enrollment reached 36 percent last fall among traditional undergraduate students compared with 17.7 percent 10 years ago. The enrollment of Latino traditional undergraduate students has increased from 4 percent in 2005-2016 to 18 percent last fall. We’re now working to diversify the faculty and staff and to make GC a “beloved community” that respects and values all people.
While there is much more to do to ensure true diversity, equity and inclusion, Goshen’s progress reminds me of what the Rev. King used to say when asked about the state of race relations. He would quote an older black minister who declared: “Lord we ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!”
Despite my disappointment at Hope for the Future V, there will continue to be value in people of color meeting for support and brainstorming. Still, I believe there should be a stronger emphasis on developing goals and strategies. And it’s probably time to provide more focused opportunities for those from similar institutions—such as Mennonite colleges and agencies—to meet separately so they can discuss shared issues.
I also believe it’s also time for a name change for the gathering. While we always need hope, it’s time to focus on “Action for Now” and accelerate efforts to build a more open and inclusive Mennonite Church.