About fhinojosa71

Associate Professor, History Dept. Texas A&M University

Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council

Felipe Hinojosa

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.

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Seferina DeLeon and Gracie Torres

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.

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John Powell, Lupe DeLeon, and Ted Chapa

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.

Hazel’s People

Felipe Hinojosa

hazels-peopleIn 1973 the motion picture Hazel’s People, an adaptation of Merle Good’s novel, Happy as the Grass Was Green, became one of the first mainstream films to depict Mennonite life in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was also the first Mennonite-made feature film. The film followed a young “hippie” named Eric from New York City who came to Lancaster for the funeral of his close Mennonite friend, John. After the funeral, Eric decides to stay in Lancaster, and forms a close relationship with the simple and quiet Mennonites portrayed in the film. But his growing admiration is tempered when he begins working for a prominent Mennonite fruit grower in the area. The grower, who in the film goes by “Rufus,” is cast as a pious businessman who has abandoned many of the traditional values that Eric has come to admire about the Mennonites.

Soon after he is hired, Eric discovers that his new boss is housing Puerto Rican farmworkers in small shacks with no heat and charging them rent at forty dollars a month. Outraged, Eric confronts Rufus’ assistant, Stanley, demanding to know “what those people are doing out in those sheds… it’s thirty-five degrees outside!” Stanley, trying to calm Eric down, discloses that “Puerto Ricans used to give us a lot of trouble drinking and that sort of stuff . . . last summer Rufus got a hold of a Spanish speaking evangelist and since then we’ve hardly had any trouble.”1 When Eric shares what he saw with a Mennonite minister and close friend named Eli, his only response is “You expect too much from us, Eric . . . we disappoint you.” A few scenes later, Eric delivers a fiery sermon at the Mennonite church where Rufus attends, challenging churchgoers to stop building cages, “no more Mennonite cages… no more Puerto Rican cages!”

Have you seen this film? You should. Of course, the film is full of problems. It perpetuates the white savior myth and there are few, if any, Latinas/os in the film. To be fair, the film is not only about the poor labor practices of Mennonite farmers. It’s also about the flaws and the beauty of one Mennonite community in Pennsylvania. But ask Latina/o Mennonite leaders from the 1970s and they will remember Hazel’s People as a film about Mennonite farmers and their mistreatment of Puerto Rican farmworkers. Many Latino/as, including members of my own family, experienced similar conditions while working on Mennonite farms across the Midwest.

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The Tijerina family (author’s family) with the Mennonite family on whose farm they worked, Archbold, Ohio (circa late 1950s)

But the film also came eerily close to portraying a real life case in Goshen, Indiana. In 1969  Rudolfo Blanco, a migrant farm worker, committed suicide at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant in Goshen, Indiana. The tragedy of Blanco’s suicide exposed the dreadful working and living conditions that many Mexican American farmworkers experienced at the Pine Manor Turkey processing plant. Owned by Mennonite businessman, Annas Miller, Pine Manor regularly attracted Mexican Americans from South Texas to work in its plant. Blanco’s suicide, however, brought to light the negligence of Pine Manor’s management with regards to the living conditions of workers at the plant. Goshen News reporter Don Klassen described the living conditions at Pine Manor as “a brooder house or a tar-paper shack hidden behind tall corn or over the hill, or a room ten by twenty with two or three beds where three to five children sleep in the same bed.”2 To make matters worse, a large open cesspool was within a few feet of the living quarters and created an “unbelievable stench” for the workers and their families living nearby.3

Local church groups in the area initiated a boycott of Pine Manor products in 1969 as the plight of migrant farmworkers in northwestern Indiana, most of whom were from Texas, took center stage for many progressive religious groups. Since at least the late 1950s, Mexican American families had been making the trip north to Indiana to work in the fields and processing plants like Pine Manor. Migrant workers were often recruited to work in the tomato cannery in Milford and the tomato fields in southern Elkhart and northern Kosciusko Counties in northwestern Indiana. In 1970 the annual report on farm labor in Indiana also counted several hundred Puerto Rican migrants from Florida who joined Mexican American workers in the fields and in the turkey processing plants. Working and living conditions for migrant farm workers in northwestern Indiana were so bad that one migrant commented how “from Utah to Wyoming, and Idaho to Kentucky, Virginia, and Alabama, THIS is the worst place… I’m sick of it here—I’ll never come back!”4

The concerns that were raised over how Mennonite farmers treated their workers emerged right at the time when Latina/os took more leadership roles throughout the church. In 1971, the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) hired Lupe De León, Jr., to work as an Associate Secretary in partnership with John Powell. De León, who grew up as a migrant farmworker in the cotton fields of West Texas, immediately raised important questions about the negligence of some Mennonite business owners. De León and other Latino leaders led the charge to get official support from Mennonite church leaders for the lettuce and grape boycotts led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker movement. Like Eric in Hazel’s People, Latina/o leaders expected white Mennonites to share in their outrage and openly support the farmworker movement. Sadly, white Mennonite leadership—from MCC to Mennonite Brethren, Old Mennonite, and General Conference leaders—refused to give official support to what became the most successful agricultural rights movement in U.S. history.5 Instead what did happen was that migrant farmworkers like the ones depicted in Hazel’s People found their greatest support from Mennonites in the pews—White, Black, and Brown—ordinary folks who marched, boycotted, stood on the picket lines, and encouraged people to only buy union lettuce and union grapes. These politics, the ones where the people in the pews and the outsiders are leading the charge, make the message of Hazel’s People so relevant for us today. But I also think the film does more than remind us about the importance of grassroots politics.

In my first post, I argued for the deterritorialization of Mennonite studies by moving beyond the familiar geographical spaces that have come to define the Mennonite experience in the United States. But as several of my colleagues have rightly noted in their own posts, much work remains to be done in those familiar spaces. In other words, even as we move out of the familiar and expand the geographic and ethnoracial limits of Mennonite studies, we must also look inward and reimagine the familiar. The notion that we must expand Mennonite studies does not suggest a complete abandonment of the ethno-Mennonite story, but instead a deeper investigation of it. As Hildi Froese Tiessen argued in the book, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, the issue here is “not to abandon identity issues in Mennonite [life] altogether but to probe them more vigorously.”6 Hazel’s People does that by portraying Mennonite piety, even as it calls out the aloofness of Mennonites whose peace theology remained silent on labor injustice. Expanding the contours of Mennonite studies will require us to explore multiple forms of evidence from film, music, architecture, and especially the familiar areas that are today being changed by the demographic revolution currently underway in places like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Goshen, Indiana, where the Latino population has been the engine of demographic growth. My hope as a historian is that as we probe Mennonite life and identity more deeply—as we reimagine the familiar—that we also take a stand like Eric’s character did in Hazel’s People and call ourselves out of those Mennonite cages that have kept us from imagining a new and vibrant future for Mennonite studies.


  1. Charles Davis, Hazel’s People, 1973. 
  2. Don Klassen, “Plea for Migrants,” The Goshen News, 14 November 1969. 
  3. Ken Washington, “Protesters to Boycott Pine Manor Products,” The Goshen News, 19 November 1969. 
  4. Quoted in Ben Noll, “A Community of Brotherhood,” unpublished paper, Goshen College, 2009, 4-5, Goshen College, IN. 
  5. For more on this, see my book: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). 
  6. Hildi Froese Tiessen, After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America (Penn State University Press), 212. 

Place Matters

Felipe Hinojosa

This past week I got the news that my parent’s house had sold. My parents bought the house back in the 1970s for $26,000 and sold it for $45,000. The financial returns were slim, but the house on Taylor street—located in the heart of el barrio de la 421 (the 421 neighborhood)—holds deep memories for me and my family. This was the house where Sunday afternoons were loud with people around the table eating arroz con pollo while closely following the Dallas Cowboy football game. It was where people from all over the U.S. and Latin America came to visit my parents, and where el hermano Manuelito—a Mennonite pastor from Matamoros (a border town on the Mexican side) would patiently wait for a ride to church on most Sunday mornings. It’s the neighborhood where my first bike was stolen, where the cholos and cholas decorated the streets with their fashion and art, and where we were certainly the only non-Catholic family. We were the aleluyas (a term sometimes used to identify non-Catholic, mostly Pentecostal, Mexican Americans). We had a tortilleria one house down, across the street you could buy hielitos (frozen kool-aid in styrofoam cups), Ofelia had a tiendita (small store) a short distance away, and I’ll never forget how well manicured our neighbor, Conchita, kept her plants and grass. In recent years the neighborhood has not looked very good. After Conchita passed away the subsequent owners never kept up the landscaping and the nearby Lincoln Park closed down, giving way for a new highway built to connect to a new border crossing to Mexico.

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Esther Hinojosa, the author’s mother

Of all that is quickly recognizable about my family and my neighborhood, being Mennonite is certainly not. And yet we are, and that house, and that neighborhood, has been visited by other Mennonites (mostly Mexican Americans) who came for a Bible study, for a meal, or for a place to stay. Our family was the only Mennonite family in el barrio de la 421, but all across town, Mexican-American Mennonites lived, worked, and faithfully attended Iglesia Menonita del Cordero (Mennonite Church of the Lamb) in Brownsville, Texas. For most of us, place (our neighborhoods and the border city where we lived) shaped our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist faith and theology. Place mattered to us because it compelled us to live out our Mennonite faith in distinctive ways. For example, our church started programs to help people in our church (poor people helping poor people) and we became a sanctuary church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, providing migrants and refugees from Central America and Mexico sanctuary, a warm meal, and the opportunity to make a long distance phone call.

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The house on Taylor Street

Social geographers tell us that space and place are not neutral, but in fact are vital in determining social interactions, politics, and social movements.1 Being on the border—being a border church and a Mennonite church—meant that we lived out our faith very differently than white Mennonites in the east or Midwest. Like the prairies and flat lands of the Midwest or the Pennsylvania Dutch Country that have shaped Mennonite faith and theology in America, living as a borderlands people between two nations has shaped the experiences of Mexican American Mennonites. 

The relation to place has been a critical point in much of the Mennonite and Anabaptist histories written in the twentieth century. That focus makes sense given that most of the Russian Mennonite immigrants to America settled in defined locations across the east and Midwest during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The cities and towns in which they ended up, such as Hillsboro and Newton, Kansas, and Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana, historian Paul Toews has called “holy places”. 2 

While Mennonites have historically been geographically segregated, place is additionally important in that it has also shaped the historical topics chosen for study as well as the methodologies and approaches of scholars who focus on the Mennonite experience. Consider: what places and which archives are Mennonite scholars working in and with? In 1997 Toews made it clear that most of the scholars who authored books as part of the “Mennonite Experience in America” series made “trips into the archival centers of the Mennonite universe [and] bypassed the bright lights of the nation’s metropolitan centers.”3 While the majority of the historical records for the Mennonite community are archived in the “holy places,” it is important to remember that Mennonites themselves have never been solely confined to those areas. What new information might we have gathered about the experience of Mennonites during the civil rights movement or the Sanctuary movement by looking in the National Archives, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, or even the Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, which currently has an electronic collection of over 20,000 photos of Mennonite service work on the island in the 1950s and 1960s?

For those of us working on rewriting the Mennonite story in the United States, deterritorializing Mennonite studies—moving it away from its current ethnic and place-based trappings—has the potential to open new avenues that take us to the different locations where Mennonite history occurred: in the West, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and across national borders. Doing so can help us to better understand how racism and oppression take place, how people of color have redefined the Mennonite experience, and what the range of Mennonite and Anabaptist history can teach us about religious experiences in the United States and across the globe. I know that in my corner of the world, in the barrios of the Texas/Mexico borderlands, there are many stories yet to be told.   


  1.  See the work of Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real and Imagined Places (Blackwell Publishers, 1996). 
  2.  Paul Toews, “The Quest for the Mennonite Holy Grail: Reflections on ‘the Mennonite Experience in America’ Project,” Direction Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 43. 
  3. Ibid.