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Hope for the Future requires changing our direction

11.20. 2015 Written By: Zenebe Abebe 1,123 read

Zenebe Abebe is a member of Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis. 

I joined a group of people from Mennonite Church USA institutional leaders to attend the Hope for the Future meeting in Fort Myers, Fla., in January. I have read reflections and reports through the years and attended group discussions held after these meetings. I enjoyed the writing of others and was hoping to read more, but none is coming.

I thought it is time for me to write my own reflections as a contribution to the topic at hand.

Hope for the Future is a gathering for leaders of people of color and Mennonite Church USA leaders to work at finding adaptive solutions for culturally appropriate leadership.

Sponsors of this events were Everence, Mennonite Education Agency, Mennonite Mission Network, Goshen
(Ind.) College and Mennonite Central Committee. This year, the focus being young adults and leadership, Hesston (Kan.) College, Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., all sent students to the gathering.

Have I heard this before?

This was the fourth such gathering and the second time I attended. The focus continues to be institutional, collective power” without any plan to change what needs to change.

In the spirit of Philippians 2:2-5, I offer my reflection to stimulate discussion on this important topic.

In the name of the church, we come together to plan these meetings, songs, prayers, storytelling, small group discussion and caucuses supposedly to promote changes. However, it appears our activities only keep in place or strengthen the current power structure. The courage and the willingness of those holding a collective power to welcome people of color to the decision-making table and at the same time give up power has not happened.

I applaud those in the dominant culture for sharing their resources and time and those from the minority voice for their work, energy and not giving up on the church. Though the church and its agencies have taken some baby steps through the years, the issues we are still discussing are not designed to make any meaningful difference in the lives of people of color. The opportunity to form a fruitful partnership, encourage and request accountability can’t be reduced to an ongoing hope for the future.

At this last meeting, I ended up at a table with college and university students for my discussion sessions. I was taken aback by the concerns and issues I heard from these students. They were the same ones I and fellow students raised 35-40 years ago. Even a couple of decades ago, I and my colleagues at Mennonite institutions raised them many times over without success.

Relabeling the event

People of color are encouraged to come to these meetings and engage in discussion. Meeting expenses for such gatherings are budgeted and paid for by the establishments. People of color are also recruited to apply for possible positions at these establishments, only to see them going in and out in a short period of time through the revolving door with feelings of frustration for not being empowered to do what is
possible and right to do.

The current form of space around the table for people of color in the Mennonite power structure will only exacerbate the problem. Newcomers without any background in or basic understanding of the history of the institutions are encouraged to keep calling the same type of meetings and say to white folks, Let’s work together.

Collective culture interlocked with collective power

Let us face it, Mennonite Church USA-related organizations and their structures for the most part are made up of people who do not want to give up power. The power of collective culture and the connectedness through the network is the glue that holds the powerful in place. As a sympathizer white friend told me: “For white folks, how to be part of the power conversation is a difficult thing to do. We always want to lead, and mentally we are not ready to be led.” He further said, “This is the culture, and it’s how it has been, and I am not sure it will change soon.”

We have to find ways how to negotiate the stumbling block. Two parties, each coming from a different power base, can’t negotiate anything worthwhile. I see no capacity to articulate the problem the same way. People of color and leaders from the dominant culture do not come from the same experiences, and most of all they do not want to offend each other. They take the humble way of gathering to respect each other and not do what is important in the long-term for the church to work. This is a good example of
passive-aggressive behavior.

The capacity to understand the issue of power, oppression and pain will take more than several years, but not several decades. A true relationship for healthy networking among the two groups barley exists. When building such a relationship takes more than two or three decades, we can say, It is not working, and we may have to look for divine intervention.

John Powell in his column “Hopeful or Hopeless?” (Mennonite World Review, Feb. 2) wrote: “Engage in relationships that set things right. Refocus your sights on how to relate to the world around you.” For some of us who have been hoping for a better future for the church for a long time now, the hope has become hopeless, and the future has come and gone. It is time to find other words that unite, not divide,
that build hope, not destroy it because of inaction.

When I see these and other results from unproductive gatherings, I become discouraged and hopeless. How is it that we keep talking about a better future in church leadership without actually making the necessary changes? I am concerned about the speed with which change happens at church agencies. These meetings don’t bring changes, people do. How can we move forward without being confrontational? Both the people of color and whites have become respectful to each other without being truthful. Behavior that does not deal with the real issues aggravates the situation without any measurable outcomes. If we want to see results, maybe we should name it “leaders of the future” and watch them grow.

The hope may have been that as a result of our coming together things will happen automatically. We have become good at relabeling issues to make it look like it’s new each decade, and the new generation starts all over again. Those in power continue to bless the meeting that helps them keep the same structure. As one of my friends put it, Leaders need to be committed, flexible, self-reflective and self-aware.

John went on to say, “There is hope, but we need to push harder.” The majority, if not all leaders of the dominant culture who attended the hope for the future gathering in Florida, were also at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in July. As we were reminded by a speaker at MWC, privilege, power and wealth are dangerous to the Global North.

What are we learning from people of the world who share power yet come from different cultural backgrounds?

Made-up power and misconception

One participant shared with me, “It was good to feel at home at a Mennonite Church USA event.”

What else can one say if the establishment (sponsors) covers your cost of registration and travel? You can only be grateful for what is given you now, not for what is possible. This is the trap where young, hopeful, energetic yet uninformed people of color fall into. They emphasize what is going to happen
between now and the next meeting that will bring about changes.

Their sentiment is furthermore formally acknowledged, as expected at the end of one of these meetings, when one or two people of color, usually from the planning committee, talk about what happened at these meetings.

Some of us who have been around a long time observe that these leaders seem to get energized and empowered with this false, temporary power, gained to only keep the powerful in place with nothing to show for as meaningful, long-term change that will impact the future collective power base. Neither do they see outcomes that make space around the table of power and privilege to build each other up.

One of the risks of such of gatherings is that it’s never a good place to raise the question of acknowledgment and redistribution of power. Doing so will jeopardize one’s position, may cause one to lose friends and may subject one to be marginalized in the system. More than anything else, it appears to be a place where we indirectly and collectively encourage an apartheid system.

I call for real change in the way we do power distribution and the next step of action. It is difficult to stay optimistic when change becomes persistently hopeless to make a difference.

I challenge leaders from the dominant culture to consider a full-fledged promise to make change happen. I challenge the power brokers and the people of color to form solidarity and come up with an action plan to bring about tangible change.

It is time for more churchwide, culturally appropriate leadership, not for more feel-good meetings. As in Philippians 2:2-5, I call on all of us to be likeminded, having the same love and being of one accord, of one mind.

Finally, hope is what we desire, change is what we do.

Church agencies that wish to promote social change and peace and that advocate for equality among its members may want to consider changing the direction we are heading.

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