The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born

Tobin Miller Shearer

J. Lester Brubaker taught me a lesson. He did so back in 1950, fifteen years before I entered this world. That is the wonder of history.

Brubaker wrote an article beneath the headline “Colored Missions.” In it, he used his position as editor of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Conference’s Missionary Messenger to suggest ten ways to “win the Negro of America to Christ.”1 Starting from the assumption that it was easier to help the “dark-skinned American” than the “dark-skinned African” because it was less expensive and did not require learning a “difficult language,” Brubaker carefully enumerated his motivations and methods for reaching across the color line.2

j-brubaker

J.  Lester Brubaker, 1952 Lancaster Mennonite High School Laurel Wreath

His was a daunting task. Two years after he penned his essay, there were still only twelve African-American congregations listed in the Mennonite Yearbook, and they were lumped together with “Spanish speaking” missions and ministries focused on “Jewish People” under the category “Missions Among Different Peoples.”3 What was segregated in print was also segregated in practice. Many retirement and children’s homes run by Mennonites would not accept African Americans. Nearby Virginia Conference continued to enforce its 1940 bishop-approved segregation guidelines for all church sacraments from communion to the Holy Kiss.4 And the numbers were small: by 1953 mission worker Leroy Bechler reported only 282 black members of the Mennonite Church in the United States.5

To be certain, some African-American leaders pushed back against these walls of racial segregation. James and Rowena Lark had been actively ministering within the African-American community for several years, with James being ordained as a minister on October 6, 1946.6 Both Larks had gained notice of the church at large, and in 1951 James would come to serve on the church-wide Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR), a group that would, concurrent with Lark’s involvement and the leadership of Guy F. Hershberger, focus on race relations for many years.7 Over in Chicago, James and Rowena had started Bethel Mennonite church where they lead an integrated congregation and advocated for full inclusion of African Americans. In a 1950 article, Rowena noted that a “worker” in their congregation, originally from Virginia, became “the first Colored girl ever to attend E. M.C. as a registered student.”8

But despite these efforts, segregation in 1950 was, in the Mennonite community, the norm. Integration, however halting, was the anomaly.

In that historical context, Brubaker wrote his editorial. Having studied at Franklin and Marshall College and taught English at Lancaster Mennonite School, Brubaker knew how to wield a pen. He also knew his audience.

And this is where the lesson that I learned fifteen years from before I was born enters in.

Among the many suggestions that he had to offer [see sidebar/image], Brubaker focused brubaker-mm-1950on two themes: becoming involved in changing institutions and being nice to black people. As a thoughtful writer, Brubaker was of course more nuanced in his recommendations. He seems to have realized that the problem of racism was not just a matter of individual prejudice, so he called for changes in “church-administered institutions” and for more involvement in efforts to improve economic, labor, and social conditions for black Americans. He likewise recognized that white Mennonites were prone to patronizing behaviors and superiority and so enjoined his readers to “[n]ever show a patronizing or ‘better-than-thou’ attitude.”9

But the lesson that Brubaker taught me is just how long the Mennonite Church has been struggling to overcome this dichotomy between advocating for institutional change and fostering interpersonal relationship. When Brubaker encouraged parents to “not teach children to be color conscious” because “they likely will not notice the difference unless adults emphasize it,” he could not have been more distant from the African Americans who in 1950—and for decades previously—had been asking for more attention to the realities of racism, not less. Even for his relative sophistication and nuance, as a white Mennonite from Lancaster County, Brubaker and his co-believers stood at a far remove from African-American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Mcleod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett who had long been advocating for forthright, nuanced, and informed approaches to racism. Likewise, Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma noted the deep-seated patterns of white racism and prejudice that could not be overcome by avoiding discussion about race.

Brubaker and his contemporaries knew how to encourage each other to be nice, to host black and brown children from the city, and to sponsor children of color at their summer camps. But those actions, regardless of how well meaning, lovingly offered, and challenging they were to implement, missed the mark of the standards set by African-American leaders of the day.

What is so striking is that this same dichotomy is present in the contemporary church. White Mennonites continue to find relationally based solutions far more attractive than the kind of activism promoted by groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. The problem now, as it was in 1950, is that the solutions white Mennonites are most familiar with have not been called for by the black community and have not proven effective over time. Addressing violence against black communities, paying reparations for slavery, and instituting community controlled policing have proven historically much more difficult for white Mennonites to support.

Our way forward as a church community will turn in part on how well we come to grips with the very dichotomy that J. Lester Brubaker helped me understand has been part of the Mennonite zeitgeist for sixty-five years and counting.

 

Works Cited

Bechler, Le Roy. The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986.

———. Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955. Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955.

Brubaker, J. Lester. “Colored Missions.” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11.

Lark, Rowena. “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church.” Our Journal, May 1950, 1-3.

“Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization.” 1. Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940.

Shetler, Jan Bender. “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries.” Paper, Goshen College, 1977.

Zook, Ellrose D., ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. Vol. 43. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952.


  1.  J. Lester Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11. 
  2.  Ibid. 
  3.  Ellrose D. Zook, ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory, vol. 43 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952), 42. 
  4.  “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,”  (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940). 
  5. Le Roy Bechler, Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955 (Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955), 1. 
  6.  Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986), 49-54. 
  7.  Jan Bender Shetler, “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries” (Paper, Goshen College, 1977), 18. 
  8.  Rowena Lark, “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church,” Our Journal, May 1950, 3. 
  9.  Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” 11. 

3 thoughts on “The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born

  1. My comment is maybe somewhat tangential to the main point of your post. The way that the way the issue of race has been talked about in US Mennonite history, it seems to me, is very Old Mennonite-centered–I might even say Virginia-centered. If one would look at the General Conference story, at least west of the Mississippi, one would see a more complicated picture. At Bethel College, for example, (in contrast to EMU), there were Native American students already at Bethel’s predecessor school the Halstead Seminary in the 1880s, and African-American students at Bethel at least as early as the 1920s. And interestingly, the Native Americans at Halstead were baptized members of the local Mennonite congregation (one of the flagship Gen Conf congregations at that time) and listed along with everyone else in the handwritten German-language church membership book. I’m not as familiar with Mennonite Brethren stories, but I think there might be some similar cases there.

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    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. On the issue of Native American relations, I think you are correct. However, my study of GC race relations with the African-American community in places like Gulfport and Newton, KS, as well as MB African-American race relations throughout the West Coast reveal the very same dynamics and dichotomy that I describe in this entry. I explicate those themes at length in my book Daily Demonstrators. Thanks much for taking the time to read and respond.

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