I first met Neftali Torres in the early 2000s when he came to deliver a series of talks for churches on the South Texas/Northern Mexican border. He came to talk about Mennonites in Latin America. Neftali, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, was introduced to Anabaptist theology as a young man and shortly thereafter became a Mennonite pastor in Chicago together with his wife, Gracie. It’s a longer, and much more beautiful story, that unfortunately I don’t have enough space to tell here, though I tell it in Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Suffice to say that I was thoroughly impressed with Neftali the first time I met him. So you can imagine how excited I was after his morning talk that he pulled me aside to ask if there was a place to get something to drink. I said, “Sure, lots of spots around here.” “Great,” Neftali said, “it will give us a chance to talk, I have a story to share with you.”
I had no idea that the entire academic trajectory of my life would change during that conversation. Neftali went on to share with me the story of the Minority Ministries Council (MMC), a group of Black and Brown leaders that in the late 1960s and 1970s organized a multiethnic movement to challenge white supremacy in the Mennonite Church. I was hooked. A few years later, in a graduate course on comparative race and ethnicity at the University of Houston, I set out to write the history of the MMC, the politics of multiethnic spaces, and the limits and possibilities of Black/Brown coalition building. That first essay would later become my book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.
Between 1968 and 1973, the MMC worked in African American and Latino Mennonite communities. They organized a K-12 educational program called “High Aim” that created a pathway for Black and Latino youth to attend Mennonite schools; they provided grants for community development in places like St. Louis and South Texas; and they organized a number of theological consultations and church leadership conferences that focused on race and culture in the church. The MMC did important work across multiple constituencies in Anabaptist/Mennonite churches and communities as they organized a social justice movement that was firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. The work of the MMC was cutting edge, and in many ways ahead of the rest of the denomination during the civil rights era. For leaders of color, racism in America was a problem that plagued churches and a problem that touched every aspect of congregants’ lives.
As important as this group is to Mennonite and Civil Rights history, they were far from perfect. They were an exclusive group of Black and Brown men that prided themselves on being hyper-masculine, and by extension rarely saw a need to include women in their movement. There also existed deep tensions within the group across race/ethnicity as Latinos and African Americans sometimes struggled to understand how racism affected each group differently. When the group dissolved in 1973, it was at least in part due to the Council’s inability to reconcile some of the tensions that existed within the group.
But internal tensions were only a small part of the group’s demise. White Mennonite leaders developed and put in place the plans that would eventually dismantle the Minority Ministries Council as a way to move beyond conversations on race and to separate a group of Black and Brown men that some white Mennonite leaders felt had risen to prominence too quickly in the mostly white Mennonite church. The Minority Ministries Council posed a significant threat to the white Mennonite leadership—they were bold, smart, articulate theologians in their own right—and in the early 1970s, white Mennonites started to slowly chip away at the group’s increasing power. It worked, and by 1973 Latinos and African Americans went their separate ways.
Why don’t we hear more about this group? Why is their story, for the most part, not taught on Mennonite college campuses? And why does there remain a fixation on sixteenth century Anabaptist history at the expense of modern movements that have shaped the church in the last 150 years? To be fair, in recent years several books have reoriented our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist history: Perry Bush’s work, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (1998), Tobin Miller Shearer’s work, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (2010), my work Latino Mennonites (2014), and the newly published work by Janis Thiessen, Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour (2016). While not exclusively focused on the Minority Ministries Council, these works do push us to think more deliberately about Mennonites in the twentieth century navigated modernization, war, civil rights, and shifting notions of identity.
When I first started working on my book, most of the members of the Minority Ministries Council that I met were shocked that anyone would care about their movement more than forty years after the fact. For many of them, the church had treated them badly, ignored their concerns, and played them off as irresponsible radicals. Many left the Mennonite church in the years since 1973. Some returned, but many remain outside of the Mennonite church, frustrated by their experiences after they had given everything to the church they loved.
As I learned to know many of them over the years, the one thing that bothered me most was that the church—first the (Old) Mennonite Church and now Mennonite Church USA—had never honored this group. There had never been a ceremony where the church offered these elders their space in church history as a tribute to the work and sacrifice they gave to build and diversify the church. Knowing that the church leadership might never recognize this group in the right way, I started to talk with some folks about organizing a reunion of the Minority Ministries Council leaders. About a year ago Gilberto Perez and Chris Kennel (Goshen College), Marty Lehman (College Mennonite Church), John Powell (Goshen College Board Member), and I gathered to talk possibilities. It was a lot of work, but a year later, during the week of March 29 to April 1, 2017, we made it happen. Over twenty former members of the Minority Ministries Council and their spouses came together in Goshen, Indiana, to reminisce, tell their stories, and share some of their lessons learned from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.
This was a time of celebration, reunion (many had not seen each other since the 1970s), oral history, and most importantly, an opportunity for us to commemorate the work and sacrifices they made for the church. As a group we cried, we laughed, and we listened as Black, Brown, and White elders in the Mennonite Church shared their frustrations, the good times and the bad times, and their sadness over how their involvement in the church hurt their families. These were holy moments. I don’t have much more to say because I am still processing it all, but I will say that I was inspired by the freedom dreams that these elders shared with those of us lucky enough to be there. The only thing I can say is that these elders left us with a lasting legacy and a vision of the kind of freedom work we must engage. Were there lessons on the evils of white supremacy, institutional racism, and white power? Yes. All of that.
But even more important, the Minority Ministries Council passed along to us the dreams, the possibilities, the hopes, and the will to continue to fight for justice. They pass along to us the necessity of inter-ethnic anti-racism work, of coalition building across lines of race, gender, and sexuality, and of the need to believe that another church is possible. Coming together is not some false utopian vision. It is the revolutionary idea that we need each other. Don’t misunderstand this as naiveté or as coalition politics without struggle. On the contrary, just like the movement of the MMC—with all its contradictions and silences—today’s work of coalition building is necessary if we are to understand the ways power and oppression operate in the church and society. Doing this kind of political work never comes out of a false sense of history. Rather, it is in understanding our story– and in knowing that our history is not perfect and neither are our movements for justice–that we see the powerful legacy of the Minority Ministries Council.