Telling All of Our Stories as a Movement To Peace

20806922_709505384849_918526609_oAs 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.

Mennonites, Mission and Race: The Cleveland Experiment

My Mennonite identity was born of the convergence of post-World War II urban missions and African American migration to the city of Cleveland. The Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland was one of the original 13 Black Mennonite congregations, and is perhaps one of the very few Mennonite churches in the U.S. that has had a racial consciousness to it since its very beginning. Established in 1958, this congregation emerged against a complicated background of race and politics.


Groundbreaking at Lee Heights Community Church

Before World War I, about 10,000 Black people lived in Cleveland. By 1960, that number had swelled to a quarter million, with most Black families living on the east side of the city. The influx, especially between 1940 and 1960, greatly taxed the availability of housing and schools, and they were often inadequate and in poor condition. These conditions, replicated in cities across the country, erupted in the Hough riots in 1966. Tensions rose, as well as distrust of Cleveland’s old guard politicians, setting the stage for the election of the first Black mayor of a major U.S. City. Cleveland was attractive because jobs were available. Black men could find work, especially in the steel and auto industries. Other jobs possibilities were with the post office, and teaching and social work jobs were open for Black women, in addition to domestic positions.


Worship service during the early days of Lee Heights Community Church

As opportunities increased for Black people, so did white flight. Suburbanization and the completion of interstate highways facilitated the shift in housing patterns. As Blacks moved into previously all white neighborhoods, white families moved out. The neighborhood transitions were facilitated by the institutionalized racist policies of realtors, construction companies, banks, and mortgage and insurance companies. Riots along the east coast and throughout the Midwest accelerated the push of Black out of white neighborhoods and helped Black neighborhoods become firmly entrenched ghettos by World War II. 1

This was the climate when Mennonites began their urban missions projects in earnest.

The heightened racial unrest occurred at the same time white Mennonites were moving from isolated farming communities to major cities. As conscientious objectors to war, Mennonite men who otherwise would have been drafted into military service fulfilled their civic duties by entering into 1-W service, often in cities. Common assignments were located in hospitals and public service agencies. Denominational mission and relief agencies also helped coordinate voluntary service assignments in urban communities; through these avenues many young white Mennonites first encountered African Americans and had eyes opened to the reality of racism and Black discontent in America.


Gladstone Mennonite Church

The Mennonite church in Cleveland church began as a Bible school, run by volunteers from the nearby rural Plainview (later Aurora) Mennonite Church in the 1940s. This ministry was located in the Gladstone area near East 55th Street, and housed in an elementary school. By 1948, over 400 children had attended the summer Bible school, and that year, the program was extended into the fall. A house was purchased and renovated in 1951 for the Voluntary Service (VS) unit, which housed men who were doing 1-W service in Cleveland. In 1952, Vern Miller, a recent Goshen College graduate, and his wife Helen moved into the area.2


Vern Miller, pastor of Lee heights Community Church, with parishioners

Gladstone’s first church council was organized in the spring of 1953 when the church had 35 members, most of whom lived in the neighborhood. The congregation quickly outgrew the original building, and the VS unit was eventually phased out. In 1955, plans for an urban renewal project signaled the end of the Mennonite ministry at Gladstone.3

The Housing Act of 1949, part of president Harry Truman’s Fair Deal [Thank you Linda Rosenblum for that correction], expanded the role of the federal government in housing, and chief element of the plan provided federal funds for “slum clearance” with the promise to build new public housing developments. Entire neighborhoods were razed in order to make room for non-residential public works, and in some cases rebuilt housing that was too expensive for the current inhabitants. Poor people, usually people of color, were pushed out of their neighborhoods, inspiring the pithy saying “urban renewal equals Negro removal.” 4

With the mission board’s backing, the Millers decided to move southeast of the first church into the Lee Heights area where there was only one other church. The area had recently been annexed by the city; the land was not desired by industry because it was partially wooded and had ravines running through it. When the congregation formally organized in 1957, they were first known as the Protestant Inter-Racial Parish. These dynamics were the DNA for the new church – a ministry of the Mennonite Church, but interdenominational and community based. The doctrinal statement of the church included a statement of the church’s stance against racial segregation and discrimination.

In 1959, the General Conference Mennonite Church issued a statement called “The Christian and Race Relations” that confessed Mennonites were complicit in “discrimination against racial and minority groups (Mexicans, Negroes, Jews, American Indians, Oriental peoples, and others),” weakening mission outreach. Because “in Christ all barriers of race and nation have been destroyed,” the statement urged congregations to “welcome all persons as brothers and members despite their color” and called on all church institutions to examine their policies and programs. 5

The 1963 General Conference Confession of Faith called the church to be a witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice, and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation. 6

At a conference on race relations in 1964, Vincent Harding challenged Mennonites, arguing they had come late to the issue even though their very theology and history compelled their response. 7

Mennonites in America were no longer as socially isolated, and the fruits of mission efforts meant that people of different racial and cultural backgrounds were now part of the Mennonite family; this diversity necessitated an expansion of Mennonite’s peace position.

Guy Hershberger’s 1941 (revised 1953) War, Peace and Nonresistance articulated the Mennonite stance on non-resistance for the 20th century church. Written in part to explain Mennonites to outsiders, but mostly to help that generation of American Mennonites understand their theology, the book outlined the biblical basis for Mennonite non-resistance, and went beyond military involvement to address issues like responses to labor union tactics as part of a peace witness. Hershberger was clear that a faithful biblical response to violence was to not resist; one did not pick up the sword, and tactics like demonstrations, boycotts and strikes were to be avoided because these were coercive; that is, not nonresistance. 8

For this reason, Hershberger could not support Gandhian (and subsequently Civil Rights Movement) tactics of boycotting and demonstrating. Yet he did call Mennonites to a response to racial injustice and racial unrest.

Challenges also came directly from the African American community. In 1945, the Mennonite Biblical Seminary moved to Chicago. While working on a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, Vincent Harding was called to co-pastor the integrated Woodlawn Mennonite Church, where his spouse, Rosemarie Harding, also served as a lay counselor. The Hardings pressed Mennonites to use their peace and justice theology as a response to systemic racism. This call is certainly relevant for Mennonites today.

  1. Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long as they Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, (Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 31. 
  2. Willard Helmuth, “The History of the Lee Heights Community Church,” Unpublished paper, January 11, 1962, 2. 
  3. Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, ed., 1956 Report of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (Elkhart, Ind.: 1956): 79. 
  4. James Baldwin, interviewed by Kenneth Clark, “The Negro and The American Promise,” Boston Public Television, 1963. 
  5. “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism (General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, 1989).” Anabaptistwiki, Accessed February 13, 2016. 
  6. “Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963.” – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, (Accessed February 13, 2016). 
  7. Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 49. 
  8. Guy Hershberger, “Biblical Nonresistance and Modern Pacifism,” in War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 222-223.