Leaders of color and white allies within Mennonite Church USA met January 21-24 for a conversation about issues in the workplace.
“Equipping the Saints” was the latest conference of the Hope for the Future gathering since it was started five years ago. It began as a way for leaders of color at Mennonite institutions to meet and support one another. After two years, white allies were invited to join that conversation.
Toward the end of January, Goshen College sent a group of three students (Nahshon Lora, a first-year; Deeksha Pagar and Gabby Castanon, sophmores), five faculty and staff members (Norman Bakhit, Richard Aguirre, Gilberto Perez, Jr., Regina Shands Stoltzfus and President James Brenneman), and four board members (Calenthia Dowdy, Felipe Hinojosa, Ken Hoschstetler and Carlos Romero) to the weekend conference in Hampton, Va.
Those in attendance participated in Bible studies, listened to lectures and engaged in table discussions on how to address the lack of diversity in Mennonite institutions.
“Every year there has been a clear energy around devising strategies for our institutions to work at strengthening our anti-racism commitments,” said Shands Stoltzfus, who has been a part of the planning group each year. “People are anxious for change.”
The focus for table discussions was on creating recommendations for change, which will be given to the Mennonite Church.
“A lot of emphasis was placed on identifying strategies that would address diversifying our colleges and church institutions,” said Perez. “I appreciated sitting with other Latino leaders to plan for creating a Latino Network that has more flexibility and autonomy, rather than only belonging to the Hispanic Mennonite Church.”
President James Brenneman said, “It is wonderful to be in fellowship with so many leaders of color in Mennonite Church USA who have been in major leadership roles for many years within the church and to hear their stories of success and struggle. They are wonderful role models to our younger generation of students.”
The group didn’t make any finalized recommendations, but some of the suggestions included more diversity on boards, anti-racism education and continuing to prepare leaders of color.
“Leaders emphasized the importance of extending the bridge and acknowledging our differences rather than merely focusing on our similarities,” said Castanon. She found interacting with a number of different people to be valuable.
“People in attendance were able to share openly about their frustrations with the church while brainstorming potential improvement areas,” she said. “It was also helpful to hear what people appreciated about the church and the reasons they remain invested.”
Brenneman saw a number of good things come out of the conference.
“There is a wonderful dialogue happening between white leaders and leaders of color in which the agenda is being set by the leaders of color,” he said. “The GC students of color who attended provided some exceptional input, challenged their elders to more action and hoped for a student-track or separate events for students of color across our various campuses.”
Shands Stoltzfus said, “It was a great opportunity for our students to meet people in leadership positions in a number of Mennonite institutions.”
Goshen College met with Hesston College and Eastern Mennonite University to talk about issues related to race on the college campuses.
“It was a lively discussion and a lot of good ideas were shared,” said Perez. “It was agreed that coming together more regularly as students of color and diversity staff would help in building relationships and allow us to share best practices on diversity work on a college campus.”
But while the overall feelings from the conference were good, some frustrations still remain.
“While there were strategies offered by participants, it is still unclear on the purpose or power of the gathered group of participants,” said Perez. “People offered their suggestions on strategies, but nothing concrete was finalized. It felt unsettling because it appears the main purpose of the group has shifted.”
For Shands Stoltzfus, when the group began, it was more about “an opportunity for people of color who worked for Mennonite Institutions to come together to share [their] experiences.”
Perez has seen that shift over the years.
“The participants are now being asked to offer strategies for institutional change when the group isn’t a formalized group with any type of power within the denominational structure,” he said. “As a member of the planning committee, we are working to understand what direction to take.” Even though no recommendations have been announced, Castanon points out there are still things to be done.
“We should continue to work to uphold the main goal of the church, to live in community with others and truly listen so that we may broaden the church,” she said.
The final recommendations that resulted from this conference will be known in the next few months, and will then be put into place throughout the Mennonite Church.