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Stop talking about “Ethnic Mennonites”

2.15. 2017 Written By: Naomi Yoder 667 Times read

Naomi Yoder, Infinity Mennonite Church, New York, is collaborating with her father to write about his life and hers.

Several years ago I began thinking about my experience as an atypical “Ethnic Mennonite.” I’m uncomfortable with that label. It’s not like “New Yorker” or “used-to-be-brunette-now-streaked-with-grey,” which describe me in concrete ways. But “Ethnic Mennonite”? That’s something that other people—who don’t know me or my church experience—call me. Because I’m white. Because of my last name. Because I know what “the Mennonite Game” is, a game of making connections based on last names and families, and sometimes I can play.

But Ethnic Mennonite is not something I’ve ever called myself. Because although I’m white, I identify with the expressive, joyous openness of the Black/urban church. Because sometimes I’m not able to make the mental moves required by the Mennonite Game—and even when I can, I sometimes choose not to play.

When someone identifies me an Ethnic Mennonite, does that person imagine my lifelong connection to a culturally-mixed, predominately Black, church? I highly doubt it. Or imagine that I consider my spiritual godmother to be my 1st and 2nd grade Sunday School teacher, a warm, outspoken, African-American single mother, now in her 80’s, whose father was the pastor of a large Baptist congregation in Charleston, South Carolina? Again, highly unlikely.

My parents, both originally from an Amish-Mennonite enclave in Western Maryland, moved to NYC in 1965 so my dad could attend graduate school. Knowing they wanted to be connected to a local Mennonite congregation for as long as we’d be in the city—which, as it turned out, became our permanent home—found a possibility listed in the telephone directory (there was no Internet access then), and we headed to Harlem to check out Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.

I liked the children’s Sunday School and my parents appreciated the warmth of the group and the Bible-based teaching and preaching. We had found our church home. And I was raised in—and by—a Mennonite congregation that looked and sounded, worshiped, preached, reached consensus and argued, in ways that were very different from the majority of the congregations in the broader Mennonite church.

But I didn’t know all of that as I was growing up. I knew that I was loved by my church family, and that it was good to ask questions, speak up, be honest about struggles and doubts, and shout from the rooftop to share good news. I knew that people came from different places—”down South,” Jamaica, Pennsylvania—and cooked different food—collard greens and macaroni and cheese; curried goat and rice and peas; homemade bread and graham cracker pudding.

I heard, sang and internalized the songs of the ancestors: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Gott Ist Die Liebe,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” And I came to understand that every person and every group has a personal and collective journey that matters; that God leads his dear children along; that it is up to each one of us to decide to follow the call of Jesus.

And then the real work happens, because we have to continuously figure out what that means for our lives. And then we really need the church family! Because it is in this community, where discernment and encouragement and prayer and laughter and action and conflict and continually looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, all comes together, and moves us along the way.

It is this merging of so many people’s lives, perspectives, and experiences that has shaped my way of seeing the world, my way of experiencing God, my way of expressing what Jesus means to me—and what it means to be an Anabaptist-Mennonite Christian.

When my parents first brought me to Harlem as a pig-tailed little girl, our church met in a storefront on Seventh Avenue. Since then, a lot has changed. Now the church is located three buildings down from its original site, which was destroyed by fire in 1974. The renovation of the building on the original site, plus an adjacent building, has been completed. Years ago, our street address changed even though our location did not, when the city renamed Seventh Avenue north of Central Park in honor of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a pastor and politician who represented Harlem in the United States House of Representatives. In 2008, at a time of pastoral transition, we changed the name of our congregation to Infinity Mennonite Church.

I am now an adult, firmly in middle age. Life has had ups and downs (see this article for an example), but the love and support from my cheerleading church family has been unwavering. Through academic, professional, and personal triumphs, through divorce, illness, disabling injury, miscarriage, the death of my mother and the sudden death of my service dog, my church is a place of hope and help. Sometimes we challenge each other. Sometimes we get frustrated. We try our best and try to do better. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is loved.

My challenge to our friends in the broader Mennonite Church is this: Stop using the term “Ethnic Mennonite.” Don’t apply it to yourself or anyone else.  And don’t try to sid-step by coining or using new terms (i.e., “Ethnonite”) or substituting softer-sounding phrases like “cradle Mennonite” that mean exactly the same thing.

Think about our theology: Our faith is not passed down. Think about our diversity: Nearly 20 percent of Mennonites in the United States are Hispanic, African-American, Native American or Asian.

The largest and fastest-growing Mennonite church in the U.S. is an African-American congregation in Hampton, Virginia, Calvary Community Church.

In the global Mennonite family of nearly 1.2 million, people of color now comprise the majority of members. And guess what? These families have children, too. And some of these families are already multigenerational! Ironically, not that they would know, care, or need to, their offspring would never “qualify” as “Ethnic”/”cradle” Mennonites, because they are not from the “Quiet in the Land” world of shoofly pie and four-part a capella harmony.

It is past time to do away with this insidious construct. The only purpose it serves is to create and separate “us” (those of us our-forebears-came-from-Europe Mennonites) and “them” (the “newcomers”-and-therefore-outsiders).

But we are all God’s children, all people are equally valuable, and everyone has a story. So let the stories be told! Without constraint. Without presuming to know anything about each other based on our appearances or our names. Without labels.

This “Opinions” section of our website provides a forum for the voices within Mennonite Church USA and related Anabaptist-Mennonite voices. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.

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