As a young Mennonite girl in Harlem, Melody Pannell didn’t see urban settings orAfrican Americans represented in church media. She didn’t see validation of her lived reality—the good and some of the social ills. This fueled her passion to work with African American youth. She has thrown herself into this work, noting “it has been my calling since the very beginning, since growing up in Harlem.”
Pannell’s Mennonite story begins with her parents. Her African American father, Richard W. Pannell, was invited, and subsequently attracted to the Mennonite Church when he was young. He and Pannell’s white Mennonite mother, Ethel Pannell, met in New York during the Civil Rights Movement.
Reared at Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem, Melody Pannell’s Anabaptist theology was infused with Black liberation theology. Her church fostered the belief that Mennonite faith should demonstrate the love of God and be the love of God by tending to the realities of social, psychological, cultural, educational and economic issues. To do this adequately, historical gaps in Mennonite stories must be tended to.
Pannell often talked to her peers about struggles in their neighborhoods, including drug abuse, sexual assault, poverty, and self-esteem. She says social work has been her calling since she was a child. As a middle child, she was a natural counselor. Yet she cautions, “The title ‘social worker’ in my community had a bad connotation. The social worker was often the white woman who came and took away the black children. I would have never named it that, but that’s what I was doing.” But agency and empowerment, her current passions, were not things she saw in the Anabaptist congregations where people where assimilating or oppressed. Pannell learned from, and takes after her father in speaking up and speaking against injustice.
Pannell has a favorite word: empowerment. This word brings focus to her work as an assistant professor of Social Work at Eastern Mennonite University. However, years before this appointment, Pannell long celebrated the presence and gifts of African American women and girls while supporting them and seeking their empowerment. This is central to her work as a Mennonite woman of color, and as a peacemaker. She started the Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church Girls Group in the early 90’s, which has now become The Destiny’s Daughter’s Empowerment Ministry LLC.
Pannell’s focus on the lives and experiences of adolescent girls is influenced by current research into the effects of historical trauma on the mental health of black girls. Interdisciplinary approaches, including history and theology, are important parts of the “empowerment” package Pannell seeks to employ in her important work.
As an adult, she is concerned about what happens to African American Mennonites when they do engage and contribute—what happens to them as people. “What I saw was a lot of assimilation and not empowerment—this is something my father fought against.” Many were pushed to assimilate into “traditional” Mennonite culture. This makes it difficult for young people to know who their role models should be.
And this, she says, is part of why there are gaps in our historical record. She gives the example of Eastern Mennonite University, her alma mater and current employer, as it prepares for its centennial. Celebrations such as these often leave the stories of African American out, or they are told in ways that do not share the depth of their stories, struggles and contributions.
“I think sometimes the stories are not told because they are not always success stories. There have been many who have come into the church and have left. Sometimes it is for personal reasons, and sometimes it is because of some things that we as a church need to address.” This is one of the reasons, she says, African Americans are not adequately represented in the denomination’s history. Additionally, “People sometimes don’t want to stay around and tell the story, and sometimes those who would be the documenters don’t want to tell the full story, because that means we will have to talk about race. These are the things that don’t make us look like the church we say we are.”
Pannell believes a fuller accounting of the history of Mennonites in North America would also facilitate the denomination moving beyond a ‘mission mentality.’ “A power shift has to take place. When you get into these spaces and places where you are the one, or one of a few, you have to guard against being a token.” Being a token, she explains, is a precarious position. “I have seen African American leaders hit that concrete wall and just were . . . destroyed. Their leadership trajectory was cut off and diminished. And then the blame gets put on the person, and not the culture of the church.”
The opportunity to teach and mentor young adult energizes Pannell, but it is her passion for the church as an instrument of justice that drives her to continue to push for change. From never seeing faces that reflected her own in denominational publications, Melody Pannell has no problem making waves so that the Mennonite narrative continues to be broadened.