The Christmas pageant at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, was always a treat. The brick walls festooned with greenery. The eager anticipation of young children bursting into chatter and antics and no small bit of mayhem. Christmas carols. Advent wreaths. Food and friends and beauty. For the six years we worshipped with that congregation between 2002 and 2008, I don’t think we ever missed a pageant.
One of those years my partner played the part of Mary. A young man from the youth group played Joseph. Another year, I played Joseph, and the partner of one of our pastors played Mary. In both instances, as was the case most every year, the holy couple was interracial.
Not such a big deal, that. Not in 2018. Although commercials featuring interracial couples still ignite the ire of white supremacists and interracial couples report instances of social ostracism and harassment, interracial marriages have grown more commonplace and socially acceptable – at least as compared to 1963.
I mention 1963 because that was the year when the depiction of an interracial holy couple in Community Mennonite’s Christmas pageant did cause a hullabaloo. A big one. They had to call in the denominational heavyweights. It was not, apparently, very pleasant.
This is how it went down.
By December 1963, Community had been experimenting with integration for a little over two years. One Sunday in 1961, three African-American women attended a Sunday morning worship service at the previously all-white congregation. In 1956 when charter members had purchased property on which to construct a sanctuary, they had signed off on a restrictive covenant excluding “‘any one who is not a Caucasian’ from the premises.”1 The congregation, nonetheless, welcomed the African-American women. Despite a few bumps along the way, a core of both white and black members continued to attend. And, by all accounts, they enjoyed each other as they worshipped.2
Yet, tensions built below the surface. From the onset, some white members had raised concerns that an integrated congregation would lead, inevitably, to intermarriage. In keeping with the history of black-white racial unions, the white community has been less supportive of interracial unions than has the black community, a pattern especially true in the 1940s and 50s.3 Although white attitudes had begun to liberalize by the 1960s, the issue remained fraught in a community like Markham that was at that time in the midst of white flight. Black families had started to relocate to the community in search of a bit of suburban safety and security.4
In that context of rapidly changing racial demographics, a long history of white fear of interracial marriage, and a still fledgling congregation, the organizers of the 1963 Christmas pageant cast a black Joseph and a white Mary.5 The service ensued. Christmas came and went. All apparently without incident.
Then the church board met on January 17. With the start of the new year came reports on attendance (it was up), heating of the church building (it had started), and offering envelopes (they should be numbered). Then the pastor at the time, Larry Voth, invited the field secretary for city churches from the national-level home Missions Commission of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Peter Ediger, to speak. Ediger noted that the rest of the denomination was very interested in what was happening in Markham as this small, formerly all-white congregation found itself on a journey toward racial integration. He offered a word of encouragement by noting that when a congregation is “having a struggle for existance [sic] it is a living church.”6
All seemed in order.
And then it wasn’t.
Church board chair Al Levreau read Genesis 11:1-9, the description of the tower of Babel in which “the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”7 The notes from the meeting on January 17 don’t explain what message Mr. Levreau meant to send by reading that passage. Perhaps he saw in the story of Babel’s chaos a case study to be avoided as Community Mennonite embarked on racial integration.
What was clear was that he did not approve of mixed race marriages. Not at all. Not even the hint of one in a Christmas play. With a generous dose of understatement bordering on cheekiness, the unidentified keeper of the minutes observed, “there was quite a discussion regarding inter-marriage.”8
It must have been quite a discussion. At the end of it Levreau has resigned from his position a board chair and declared that he would not return to worship services at CMC. After a unanimous vote to close the meeting, Ediger offered “a word of prayer.”9
I’ve often wondered what the conversations went like in the church parking lot after this meeting. I imagine that there was some venting. Perhaps even a bit of invective and opprobrium directed at the departing chairperson. A bit of self-righteous indignation even? Or, there could as easily have been mourning and expressed concern for the sudden separation. After all, when the congregation had weathered a previous racial controversy, Levreau had been the one to lobby for an open-door policy that set the path toward the integrated nativity scene.10 The record doesn’t say.
A month later the board met again. This time the president of the entire General Conference joined the meeting on February 15. Although Levreau did not attend – and in fact had not been visited by church leadership since his abrupt departure – board member Margaret Carr also objected to the prospect of intermarriage and grilled conference executive Walter Gering on the denomination’s position on the topic. After Carr explained her objections to both integration and intermarriage, Gering backpedaled by asserting that denominational officers had never encouraged intermarriage but that he thought black and white couples could have a happy marriage. When prompted, African-American board member William Smith explained that black families in the congregation were not interested in marrying across racial lines, an assurance that black church leaders had been stating to white Mennonites for nearly a decade.11
The controversy came to an end a month later. A delegation reported that they had met with Levreau, but that he was not willing to return unless he could influence the church away from integration. Smith replied, “As well educated as we are why do these things keep coming between us?”12 His incredulity at the prospect of a Christian brother objecting to his presence in the congregation leaps off the page across a half-century.
In response the board put their collective foot down. They voted – unanimously – to discontinue discussion about whether the church would be integrated and to declare – officially – that “Community Mennonite Church of Markham, Illinois …welcomes continued growth on a racially integrated basis.”13
History could have gone in a different direction that night. Board members could have chosen to be silent, allow the controversy to spill over into the congregation as a whole, or simply decide that the bother wasn’t worth it. Other majority white churches certainly did.14 But instead they set their faces toward an uncertain future and made the decision to continue trying to figure out what it would mean for black and white to worship together.
I chose this story to write about because it is a Christmas story, and we are in the midst of the nativity season. And also because I miss CMC’s Christmas pageants. They were a fine thing. Always a bit chaotic around the edges. Sometimes the congregation’s singing was a bit flat. It wasn’t always entirely – well – polished. But the love in that room? That was unmistakable. And the holy couple – by tradition through the first decade of the twenty-first century if not longer – was always interracial. The hope and promise of that image – however simplistic it may have been – never failed to move me.
I write this blog post on the morning of a day in which I will later denounce white nationalism at a local rally. Given the resurgence of white supremacy in our country, writing about an integrated Christmas service fifty years in the past can seem irrelevant if not naïve. To a degree, that may be true. But I also know that when I speak tonight, when I call out white nationalists for being small-minded, hard-fisted, and racist through and through, I will do so carrying a little bit of that nativity scene with me, and a little bit more of a congregation that decided to say yes rather than no to the question of integration before them fifty years ago.
- Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 166.↩
- Don Burklow and Grace Burklow, “Interview with Don and Grace Burklow,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mary Ann Woods, “Interview with Mary Ann Woods,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2005); Mertis Odom, “Interview with Mertis Odom,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.2005); Gerald Mares and Dolores Mares, “Interview with Gerald and Dolores Mares,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Markham, Ill.,2006).↩
- Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 45.↩
- Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).↩
- That is at least the gender arrangement recalled by one couple. The written record doesn’t specify the gender mix, just that they were an interracial pair. Given the response by certain white members of the congregation, a black male/white female combination makes the most sense. Historically, the white community has been less threatened by white male/black female pairings, in part due to the record of white slave masters raping female enslaved Africans and denying the progeny that resulted any rights of inheritance. For reference to CMC’s casting decision, see: Mares and Mares.↩
- “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill.: Community Mennonite Church, 1964).↩
- Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version.↩
- “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”↩
- Shearer, 167.↩
- “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”↩
- M. Carr, “Community Mennonite Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill. : Community Mennonite Church, 1964).↩
- Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kip Kosek, “‘Just a Bunch of Agitators’: Kneel-Ins and the Desegregation of Southern Churches,” Religion and American Culture 23, no. 2 (2013); Douglas E. Thompson, Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017).↩
Thanks for this beautiful Christmas story. Blessings as you speak tonight.