all opinions
Opinions posts

Hope for the Future requires changing our direction

11.20. 2015 Written By: Zenebe Abebe 1,120 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.

The Mennonite, Inc., is currently reviewing its Comments Policy. During this review, commenting on new articles is disabled; readers are encouraged to comment on new articles via The Mennonite’s Facebook page. Comments on older articles can continue to be submitted for review. Comments that were previously approved will still appear on older articles. To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments, and comments don’t appear until approved. Read our full Comments Policy before submitting a comment for approval.

8 Responses to “Hope for the Future requires changing our direction”

  1. M. South says:

    I hear what you’re saying, but I’d also like to hear specifics. The Mennonite Church has a long history of being perceived as an ethnic enclave first, a spirit based body secondarily. Those from the ethnic cohort inherit the “ownership” of the church from their relatives. It happened because anabaptist theology, particularly in refusing the sword and the matter of adult baptism, caused persecution from the Christendom of state allied Catholic or Protestant bodies. They had to become “the quiet of the land” in order to survive and look inward to their own communities to preserve themselves, since evangelism was so difficult and dangerous. This siege mentality dies hard because it is part of the culture of survival. It is true that others are welcomed on the basis of faith, but not fully integrated. If conflict arises, these outsiders are easily dispensed with in a way that doesn’t occur among the ethnic elites of the church. For instance, a number of ethnic Mennonites have been influenced by currents of society that are hostile to the original faith, but the ethnic community is traumatized by the prospect of division by belief, striving mightily to keep the ethnic family together in body if not mutual faith. Ironically, the Mennonite church in doing so practices the very thing that caused the break with the state churches, a kind of membership by birth, a de facto infant baptism, leaving it open to the same criticism levelled against the state churches which had large numbers of members who were Christian in name only.

    This same phenomenon occurred when the voice of the Latino churches was ignored and the conference went ahead anyway in Phoenix. I can’t imagine proceeding anyway when a unified voice of brethren is so firmly opposed , but that occurred anyhow. To me that is remarkably tone deaf and the financial excuses used seemed convenient, for there were ways to express integrity and still change the venue.

  2. Zenebe, what an honest essay! Thank you for putting it in the public domain.

    I think you are discouraged because you are using a faulty analysis. But then I have been a critic for 20 years of the analysis you are using, so it could be argued I’m just grinding an old ax.

    You say, “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.”

    Can we agree this might be good or bad? And that which it is depends on whether the mission of Messiah Jesus (or faithfulness to his Way, as M.South might put it) calls for those people to give up power?

  3. M. South says:

    I am reminded, that after the Last Supper, Jesus revealed to His disciples that one was among them who was to betray Him. They weren’t able to figure out just who that might be, lost interest in their potential for faithlessness and speculation quickly devolved instead to arguing about which of them would become the most powerful in God’s kingdom. I have a feeling that many of us are as equally premature, in setting up our own kingdoms, seeking to defending them, or in striving to capture them, losing sight of the message of pre-eminence of service to others in His kingdom.

    Luke 22:25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
    26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
    27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth.

  4. I greatly appreciate Zenebe’s courage to speak bluntly about race and power. One way that I have seen this very thing take shape within the conference I have been a part of for nearly 20 years (IMC) is a rather myopic definition of multi-cultural engagement. Specifically, there has been an emphasis on people of color participating in institutional gatherings as a sign of multi-cultural community. Put simply, if POC are at annual meetings, retreats, workshops, events, etc. we are doing well, if they are not we are doing poorly. Or, if we have POC in leadership positions within the structures of the conference we are doing good, of not we are doing poorly. I think Zenebe rightly challenges this definition. I prefer the definition of full inclusion advanced by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2. That definition is full access to the resources of the community. This cuts across ethnic/racial lines, but also socio/economic lines. While putting teeth into what Zenebe is suggesting will take work, it seems to me that the first move of people in power – according to Jesus, at least – is to lay down that power on behalf of the excluded. What that looks like and what form it takes is to be seen, but it seems like Zenebe’s point is a good one – this may take years, but it shouldn’t take decades! In my experience, the people invested in IMC are sincere followers of Jesus that genuinely want to include persons from every tribe, tongue and nation. The question is how… Perhaps we should take the how more seriously, recognizing that for some, making this happen will involve laying down power or using it for the benefit of others. This is hard because it is voluntary.

    • M. South says:

      What is the practical way to accomplish the laying down of power? It can’t simply be laying it down with others picking up that power, or what has changed in the dynamic except others are now wielding it. That would be like saying, as long as a person of color now is the military commander in chief, the problem of aggressive warmaking has been solved. Obviously not.

      I have been in a congregation where roles were voluntary with no paid staff. Supposedly there was no leadership based on control and thus no assumption of power, but the reality was it did not turn out that way. Without a formal structure, what emerged were ad hoc power structures which moved without active discussion or decision into the vacuum and were not well-defined. Influence then was centered on the wealthiest, those ethnicallly related who by birth “owned” the church, a clique of early members who determined how other could serve, keeping the representation to the conference and control of communications to themselves. It’s not a matter of traditionalists or conservatives taking control, for this de facto hierarchy made it clear that they consider themselves very liberal theologically. Without a thoughtful consideration of structure, the default choice is not none, but instead one that is not constrained by rules, but the strongest personalities and economic motives.

      Malcolm Muggeridge observed that human history most often consists of – “Who, whom.” Those who overthrow one power, always seem to then spend considerable effort making sure of the security of their own. As a consequence, the players change but not the play. The last act for the new power is usually Thermidor.

      • Perhaps laying down power is not the right language. I think in terms of who benefits through my use of the power I have. Most of the time it’s me. So those making decisions – especially regarding the allocation of resources – tend to decide in ways that benefit themselves (this is quite natural). We are also, often, blind to our own power and the way it is employed. So first, an acknowledgment of power within the community. How are decision made and who benefits? How are the resources of the community used and who benefits? What are the cultural assumptions embedded in the way we “do church”” What influence do those on the margins have and how? How do those with the “power to decide” give that “power to decide” to others who, otherwise, will not have that power? This next thought is off the cuff and owing to my recollection. I thought that was going to happen as MC USA prepared to gather in Phoenix. I applauded the EB commitment to take their cues from IMH. Alas, it seemed like it was too financially costly to follow the direction of IMH. That was an example of how not to do what I am talking about. In the end it actually ended up reinforcing the power hierarchy along racial lines within MC USA and gave money the biggest vote.

        Not sure if any of that is helpful.

        • “So first, an acknowledgment of power within the community.” Yes to both elements of this sentence, Michael: a specific community is identified in which power is exercised. We see this at work in the Second Testament, which speaks of power in a highly positive way, a sure sign of the Kingdom.

          We also see in the Second Testament that the exercise of power is not a zero-sum game in which rivalry sets the tone; it is not a competition. People are empowered by the gospel of Jesus, the community is dynamic (growing) and over time there is more power to be exercised with more people exercising it.

          This doesn’t eliminate the rivalry element. We see that at work in Paul’s prickliness about the Jerusalem leaders and their tradition-oriented power base. Paul’s writings accept the authority of the Jerusalem church, but clearly emphasize the power manifest on the growing edges of the church.

          Put together, we get a nuanced understanding of power that is realistic, without moralism, intensely missional, candid about the differences we bring to the community, yet always insistent that those differences are relativized within the new community called “the body of Christ.”

          It seems the “missional” aspect is the key.

  5. Stephanie Krehbiel says:

    This is one of the most insightful analyses of power I’ve ever seen in a Mennonite publication. Thanks, Zenebe Abebe.