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Undoing racism: A conversation

1.19. 2016 Posted By: The Mennonite 252 Times read

Cyneatha Millsaps (right) is lead pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois. She’s also a consultant for Illinois Mennonite Conference; coordinated Central District Conference’s 2014 women’s retreat, “Black Mennonite Women Rock”; and was a speaker for Mennonite Church USA’s KC2015 convention. Cyneatha is a graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. She is married to Steven; they have seven children and 19 grandchildren. Annette Brill Bergstresser (left) serves as editorial director for Mennonite Church USA and as communications assistant for AMBS. She has helped organize and lead learning events on undoing racism in various settings. She has a certificate in theological studies from AMBS. Annette, her husband, Deron, and their two daughters are part of Faith Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana. 

This conversation originally appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Timbrel magazine.

Cyneatha Millsaps and Annette Brill Bergstresser learned to know each other in February 2012 as partners on the Sankofa Journey, a 1,800-mile cross-racial prayer journey by bus to historic Civil Rights sites across the South. (“Sankofa” is a West African word meaning “looking backward to move forward.”)

Let’s start with the hard question. How do you want to be identified? Black? African-American? White? Caucasian? Anglo?

Cyneatha: I prefer African-American. I don’t mind if people say Black, but to me Black is a color, and African-American is an identity. I want to identify not only with my people of origin but also with who I am here in America—part of a group of people who have suffered and who continue to overcome many different challenges.

Annette: I usually identify as white or Anglo, and as German-American, since my parents emigrated from Germany and that heritage has shaped me significantly.

Many people don’t know how to talk about race. What are practical ways people can be prompted to safely discuss issues of race and racism?

Cyneatha: The Sankofa Journey leaders invited us to be open and honest with ourselves, and their approach has helped me lead conversations on race—trying to get people to a space of just being comfortable. I tell people not to worry about whether they say something the right way, but to just say what’s on their mind, and together we’ll work through their question, thought or concern. The Sankofa leaders made it clear we couldn’t keep tiptoeing around race; we’d just have to talk things through.

Annette: For me, an important part of the Sankofa Journey was that each partner-pair consisted of an African-American person and a non-African-American person. That balance was significant in shaping the conversations we had. I think that’s a dynamic to keep in mind; when there’s not a balance in who is represented, it may feel a lot less safe to whoever is in the minority.

Cyneatha: When I work with churches around race issues, I like to use a list of questions the Sankofa leaders gave us, such as, When did you first become aware of people unlike yourself? How did your family talk about race when you were growing up? It’s a nonthreatening way to help people start thinking and talking about race.

What questions do you welcome when someone authentically wants to work to end racism?

Cyneatha: Instead of asking questions about me, it’s about people being honest with themselves and being able to ask the tough questions of themselves.

The word “reconciliation” is used a lot in the Mennonite context. What does reconciliation mean to you?

Cyneatha: I think reconciliation is an easy word that people throw around. To me, reconciliation means

Participants in the Sankofa Journey at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. (photo provided)

Participants in the Sankofa Journey at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. (photo provided)

getting involved—like a group of people leaving their comfortable surroundings to move into a community that has been abandoned, like Englewood, Illinois. Englewood needs people willing to fully engage in community, moving into the neighborhood, paying taxes, being part of the local schools’ parent-teacher conferences and so on. To me, reconciliation means sacrifice, and I think Christians let that go by the wayside. All of us need to give something up and put ourselves in uncomfortable positions for the other, but we’re not willing to do that.

Annette: I think of the campaign #MyReconciliationIncludes, where Indigenous people in Canada named social, economic and justice issues needing to be addressed. Here in the U.S., how can there be reconciliation without more efforts to right the wrongs of our past? I think of the federal housing laws that denied mortgages to African-Americans during the housing boom after World War II—contributing to the current wealth gap between Anglos and African-Americans—or about the housing and highway projects that have divided thriving African-American communities over the years. These and other injustices have left a legacy that affects us all today. As long as systems (including the church) continue to be set up to benefit Anglos in terms of power and wealth—for those lives to “matter” more—there can’t be true reconciliation.

Cyneatha: I agree. Some whites say, “Well, we gave them Affirmative Action,” but don’t really understand the systemic things that happened, such as when housing laws and practices redlined people of color to certain geographic areas. Some don’t even know that happened, let alone how it affected people’s economic wealth.

What’s being overlooked in the work of race reconciliation?

Cyneatha: We can talk about this until we’re blue in the face, but for me it comes down to being proactive and actually making changes on every level—in our laws, our understandings, in how we educate our children about our differences. As the church, we are supposed to be the examples to the world, but we are still mostly segregated on Sunday mornings. We want to be comfortable and worship with people like us and not be challenged by a message that’s different from what we’re used to hearing. But as Christ-followers, I don’t think we get to take the easy way out.

What’s your ultimate hope for the future of the race conversation in our country, among Mennonite women and in Mennonite Church USA?

Cyneatha: Personally I don’t have a lot of hope, because I don’t see people willing to sacrifice. I’m acutely aware of how very different we actually are. And because we are really different and don’t engage each other or frequent the same circles long enough, I don’t have hope that things will change. Where I do see a lining of hope is that I think my grandchildren will have a better chance of growing up with less racism than my generation and the generations before me. My children have had to deal with racism, but they move across racial lines better than my generation.

Annette: I often feel discouraged, too. Reading James Loewen’s book on sundown towns about how thousands of communities across the North intentionally excluded African-Americans in the last century, I think, it’s no wonder that we mistrust and fear each other, when we’ve removed opportunities for us to live side by side, to learn to know each other and build community together.

I’m uncomfortably aware that most of my friends are white—I want that to change. I trust God is moving us all toward healing and shalom somehow (shalom as defined by Perry Yoder in his 1987 book Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace—material, relational and moral well being), but the process is slow. I’d love to see more small groups from different backgrounds entering into long-term relationships with each other, learning to know each other and creating spaces to have these conversations without judgment.

Cyneatha: We have to be really intentional if we want to build strong race relations—about our friendships, where we choose to live, and so on. I think it takes more than one family—it takes a collective group of people who say, We’re going to be community together (regardless of how that will look), then stand.

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