Martin and the Mennonites: Lessons From King’s Legacy for Today

Tobin Miller Shearer

Marie Regier wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., a little over six months after his death. She recalled a conversation in which yet another acquaintance had suggested that King’s efforts had gone “too fast.” In response, this long-time white missionary to China said she grew so angry that she saw “red.”1

Rezmerski, John C. “For Martin L. King, Jr.” Mennonite Life, July 1968, 99.

Regier was hardly the first Mennonite to have written about King. In the space of the twelve years between 1956 and King’s death in 1968, at least ninety articles appeared in the Mennonite press that either mentioned King or were written by him. Following his assassination, Mennonites eulogized him in the pages of Christian Living, The Mennonite, Gospel Herald, Mennonite Life, Mennonite Weekly Review, and – perhaps most surprisingly – the conservative publication The Sword and Trumpet. Representatives from Mennonite Central Committee and the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Committee on Peace and Social Concerns attended King’s funeral and submitted reports about the event. In the year of his death, thirty-one articles appeared, almost all penned by Mennonite authors who claimed some kind of direct, personal connection with King.

In the dozen years that Mennonites engaged with King – indeed for the decade that followed and beyond – no single individual from outside the Mennonite community had more impact on the Mennonite peace position than did King. In comparison to other historically white denominations, Mennonites referred to, discussed, and connected with King to a greater and far more influential degree. Despite some who voiced concerns about King’s purported connections with communism, King loomed large among Mennonites at mid-century and served as a catalyst to substantive re-evaluation of white Mennonites’ commitment to nonresistance.

King’s Mennonite Connections

Mennonites’ connection with King was already well developed by 1956. In the pages of Christian Living readers encountered a report on the Montgomery bus boycott that emphasized the values of “love and nonviolence” at “the heart of their protest.”2 The following year readers encountered additional reporting emphasized his ongoing commitment to nonviolence, and Mennonite Paul Peachey called for Mennonite to act as “consultants” to ministers who were for the first time considering nonviolence after listening to King discuss the theology of repudiating “all force, war included” as part of their Christian witness.3

The connection between Martin and the Mennonites only solidified in the years that followed. In 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1960 tour groups sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee traveled through the South and often met with King. Following one such trip, minister Delton Franz, who later served as director of MCC’s Washington Office, couldn’t stop thinking about King’s challenge to eschew religion devoid of action, “the kind the Marxists like to see – an opiate of the people.”4 At the 1959 Race Relations Conference in Chicago attended by Mennonite leaders from across the country, participants referenced King’s writings, his activism, and his witness.5 By 1960, African-American Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding had developed a relationship with both Martin and Coretta King and put plans in motion to relocate to Atlanta to found an integrated community of black and white Mennonites – Mennonite House – that was realized the following year.6 In the subsequent months, the Hardings reported on Mennonite Houses’ close proximity to the King residence, frequent consultations with King, and special assignments from King asking them to meet behind the scenes and negotiate with white moderates and segregationists alike at conflict sites such as Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama.7

Franz, Delton. “King Comes to Woodlawn.” The Mennonite, September 28 1965, 607-608.

King and Guy Hershberger

College professor and peace advocate Guy Hershberger particularly promoted King to the Mennonite world. He not only wrote about him in the church press on numerous occasions, but also hosted him at Goshen College in 1960 and attended meetings of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.8 In response to a request from Mennonite Stanley Kreider for clarification as to whether King exemplified “good Biblical nonresistance,” Hershberger revealed the high regard in which he held King and how central he felt he was to the church’s peace witness. Hershberger wrote, “However short King’s nonviolence may be of what the New Testament requires, I would need to say that as far as public figures are concerned, King was closer to it than anyone which American history has so far produced.”9 But a statement by Hershberger just prior to his assessment of King’s historic witness drives home the point of King’s relevance specifically to the Mennonite community. Hershberger wrote, “One thing which King should cause us Mennonites to do is to take a thorough look at what we mean by nonresistance.” He also relayed an anecdote passed on to him by long-time civil rights activist and educator Septima Clark about a time that King refused to strike back at an attacker who had just hit him in the face and asked his associates to also refrain from retaliating, saying, “Don’t hurt him; he doesn’t know what he is doing; we must overcome with love.”10

Mennonites understood such stories. They were the very stock in trade of many a sermon and household morality tale that formed Anabaptist youth and adults alike. While marching in the street gave most white Mennonites pause, turning the other cheek was familiar.

Of course, Hershberger wasn’t always so sanguine about King. Back in 1959, he and MCC representative Elmer Neufeld – who would go on to serve as president of Bluffton College – attended the First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation in Atlanta. In their report, the two men compared the Atlanta conference to one run by King and his lieutenant Ralph Abernathy, noting that the two men were “not strong in administration” and therefore vulnerable to take over by stronger administrators who were “secular and no more Christian than the N.A.A.C.P.”11 Hershberger expressed wariness about anyone who engaged in nonviolence for purely tactical reasons. He wanted King to succeed as a civil rights leader because, as Hershberger wrote a year later, King was “a Christian pacifist who sincerely seeks to follow Christ.”12

Many others from the Mennonite community joined Hershberger in seeking out positive connections with King. Lancaster Conference bishop Paul Landis reported that one of the first things King said to him was, “Where have you Mennonites been?” adding, “I’ve read your Anabaptist history and theology… at the time when we needed you most you weren’t there.” Landis said King concluded by saying, “I believe a lot of what you believe … you’ve showed us the way hundreds of years ago but we need your help now.”13 Those kinds of conversations helped pave the way for the Hardings’ eventual work in Atlanta. King also took time to meet with urban Mennonite church leaders in Chicago and Cleveland, visits that stayed with those involved for years to come.14

Some Mennonites made more negative connections. The white leaders of Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in New York City took exception to King’s methods in a 1965 self-study. They stated, “A church of largely white members located in a Negro community in contemporary America offers potentially greater gains for the claims of Christ than does ten civil-rights marches led by Rev. M. L. King, Jr.”15 Likewise, that same year, Pamela Mueller, a Mennonite from Arizona, wrote a letter to the editor in the pages of the Mennonite Weekly Review in which she berated the “so-called reverend or doctor,” found his actions “inexcusable,” and claimed that he was “well-known in communist circles.”16 Like the Seventh Avenue congregants, Mueller also found King’s street marching the most objectionable. In a letter written two years later, she continued to rail against King, this time calling him an “agitator.”17

King’s Legacy for Mennonites and Beyond

It was exactly this kind of reaction that had caused Marie Regier to grow so frustrated. By 1968, she followed the news. She knew that, in her words, “angry black men” had grown tired of waiting for change in the aftermath of King’s assassination.18 She most certainly would have read Vincent Harding’s essay describing the wall of racial separation in the U.S. behind which African Americans had asked King, “Why? Why do we have to love, even after beatings and rejections and deaths? Why?”19 She might have recalled the article by black Mennonite pastor Curtis Burrell who criticized King for failing to “offer the black man an identity.”20 Her writing indicates that she knew just how profound an impact King had had on the black community, the country as a whole, and Mennonites in particular. She cautioned, “It may be too late even now to stem the tide” of racial rebellion.21 King had called for action much earlier.

In the decades that followed, King continued to prove influential. Mennonite Minority Ministries Council leader John Powell wrote that King’s death prompted him to enter the pastorate and go on to serve the church.22 In 1978, a group of black Mennonites in Philadelphia marked their reflections on their experience with racism in the church by referring to the time before and after King’s death.23 During oral history interviews conducted in the first decade of the twenty-first century, numerous Mennonite leaders brought up King’s influence about their work on racism in the church.24

The story I have described here of Martin Luther King’s involvement with the Mennonites offers three insights for those seeking to bear witness to King’s legacy today.

First, this history reminds us that King was controversial because he challenged the status quo. Both those who praised and those who pilloried him in the Mennonite community did so for essentially the same reason: he asked the community to do things differently. He was not satisfied with a society – or a church, whether Mennonite or otherwise – that supported and maintained white supremacy. Those involved in challenging those racist systems today should expect to encounter similar controversy.

Secondly, King found both strategic and ethical reasons to pursue nonviolence. Although new scholarship has emphasized that armed self-defense was an equally important element of the mid-century black freedom struggle, King worked hard to hold those around him to high standards of nonviolence.25 Even though he held far less virtuous values around other matters of ethical conduct such as marital fidelity and gender equity, on the point of nonviolence he had integrity worth modeling.

Finally, Mennonites found in King an example of the cherished narrative of selfless martyrdom. The eulogies that poured out after his death make that evident. But I don’t offer this element of King’s engagement with Mennonites as a historical exemplar. Although King was exhausted and depressed at the time of his death, he didn’t actively seek out martyrdom. At the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968, he was getting ready for an evening of feasting and fellowship with his friends and co-workers. On this last point, we can remind ourselves that the work of anti-racism is demanding and calls not only for persistence but also for all the practices of self-care and celebration along the way that we can muster.

Taking time to remember the full breadth of King’s legacy within and without the Mennonite community offers one place to begin that process of resistance and reflection.


  1. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” The Mennonite, November 26, 1968, 732.
  2. Glenn E. Smiley, “They Do Not Walk Alone,” Christian Living, November 1956, 13.
  3. Leo Driedger, “Faith Creates Colorblindness,” The Mennonite, November 5, 1957, 697; Levi C. Hartzler, “Looking at Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, December 31, 1957, 1145; Martin Luther King, Jr., “We Are Still Walking,” The Mennonite, January 29, 1957, 71; Paul Peachey, “On January 8-10, 1957, I Attended …,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Peace Problems Committee, 1957), 1-2.
  4. Delton Franz, “Notes on a Southern Journey,” The Mennonite, January 6, 1959, 6.
  5. Guy F. Hershberger, “Report of the Chicago Race Relations Seminar,” (Goshen, Indiana: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1959), 15.
  6. Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, December 1961.
  7. Vincent Harding, “The Christian and the Race Question,” (Kitchener, Ontario: Mennonite World Conference, 1962); Rosemarie Harding and Vincent Harding, “Pilgrimage to Albany,” The Mennonite, January 22, 1963; Vincent Harding, “Birmingham, Alabama,” (Atlanta, Ga.: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section Executive Committee, 1963).
  8. Paul Toews, Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970: Modernity and the Persistence of Religious Community, ed. Theron F. Schlabach, 4 vols., vol. 4, The Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1996), 256; Guy F. Hershberger, “Nonresistance, the Mennonite Church, and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, June 28, 1960; “A Mennonite Analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” (Goshen, Indiana: Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship, 1962).
  9. Stanley Kreider, Letter, April 25 1968; Guy F. Hershberger, Letter, May 24 1968.
  10. Hershberger to Kreider, 1968.
  11. Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger, “First Southwide Institute on Non-Violent Resistance to Segregation, Atlanta, Georgia, July 22-24, 1959: A Report with Recommendations by Elmer Neufeld and Guy F. Hershberger,” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1959), 3.
  12. Hershberger, “Nonresistance, the Mennonite Church, and the Race Question,” 578.
  13. Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill., 2005).
  14. Delton Franz, “King Comes to Woodlawn,” The Mennonite, September 28 1965. My mother and father, Vel and John and Shearer, often told me the story of the time King met with church leaders in Cleveland while they served with a Voluntary Service Unit there.
  15. “Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church: Self-Analysis of Congregation in Response to Questionnaire Titled ‘Some Questions to Ask When Describing a Church’,” (New York, N.Y.: Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church, 1965), 10.
  16. Pamela Mueller, “Tears and Lumps,” The Mennonite, May 18, 1965, 336.
  17. Pam Mueller, “Shook up but Different,” ibid., November 7, 1967.
  18. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” ibid., November 26, 1968.
  19. Vincent Harding, “Wall of Bitterness,” ibid., June 18, 1968, 426.
  20. Curtis Burrell, “Response to Black Power,” ibid., October 11, 1966.
  21. Marie J. Regier, “Bitter Harvest of Hate,” ibid., November 26, 1968.
  22. John Powell, “Among Chaos, a Place to Belong,” ibid., September 25, 1973.
  23. Katie Funk Wiebe, “Mennonites Like Me,” Gospel Herald, August 22, 1978.
  24. Ron Kennel, “Interview with Ron Kennel,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Goshen, Ind./Evanston, Ill., 2004); Calvin Redekop, “Interview with Calvin Redekop,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va./Evanston, Ill., 2004); Samuel Horst, “Interview with Samuel Horst,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Harold Huber and Vida Huber, “Interview with Harold and Vida Huber,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Landis; Paul Peachey and Ellen Peachey, “Interview with Ellen and Paul Peachey,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005); Harold Regier and Rosella Wiens Regier, “Interview with Harold Regier and Rosella Wiens Regier,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Newton, Kans./Evanston, Ill., 2005).
  25. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Akinyele Omowale Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2013); Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

State of the Race: A Short History of Mennonite Racial Statements, 1940-1979

Tobin Miller Shearer

In 1955, white Mennonite church periodical editor Paul Erb wrote, “Perhaps in nothing have our Mennonite people so completely conformed themselves to a worldly idea as in this.”1 He was not referring to dancing, watching movies, cutting hair (women’s! – not men’s), wearing wedding rings, or any of the other worldly pursuits deemed anathema by Mennonite church leaders at the time. He was referring to racial discrimination and segregation.

He did so on the occasion of the release of the 1955 Mennonite uber race relations statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” That carefully vetted document, largely a result of the wordsmithing provided by Guy F. Hershberger and Grant M. Stoltzfus, called the Mennonite Church community to repent of the sin of racism and embark on a “ministry of reconciliation” by working “against the evils of prejudice and discrimination wherever they may be found.”2

The 1955 document was one in a series of twenty-two race-focused statements that Mennonite bodies in the United States released between 1940 and 1976.3 By far the most high-profile of any of those statements, it was not the boldest, the most challenging, or the most theologically sophisticated of that set of twenty-two pronouncements. It was, however, the touchstone that statements for the next twenty-years – and beyond – referred back to and built upon.

Yet I am less interested in the impact of that particular statement than I am in the context of all but two of the twenty-two statements issued by Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren. For the three and half decades here examined, written statements about race by U.S. Mennonites were prompted by external political forces and almost exclusively a project of white men. Not once in any of those twenty-two statements did the white male authors identify, name, or evaluate their own racial identity. As a result, I will argue that, with one exception, these statements failed to address the underlying problem of white domination and supremacy in the church.

The story that I am focusing on begins not with the oft-touted 1688 Germantown anti-slavery statement because, as I have argued elsewhere, it was a document written to a Quaker assembly by practicing Quakers. It simply wasn’t a Mennonite document in terms of audience, sensibility, or authorship.4 Instead the story begins with the 1940 Virginia Conference statement that mandated racial segregation in church sacraments such as communion, footwashing, and the Holy Kiss.5

That 1940 statement – like only one other of the twenty-two I have documented – was released primarily in response to dynamics internal to the Mennonite community. In essence, the workers at Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had in their bishops’ eyes become too racially progressive. As a result, the Virginia bishops reigned them in by segregating the sacraments.6 When Broad Street leaders Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber resisted that racist doctrine, the bishops dismissed the couple from their posts.7

To be certain, the Virginia bishops also passed the segregation mandate in hopes of placating the critics who called into question their patriotism as a result of the Mennonites’ refusal to bear arms in the midst of World War II. By making the decision to conform to segregationist practices, Virginia Mennonites could at least demonstrate they were willing to cooperate with the dictates of a racially segregated and white supremacist society.

The first record I can find of a Mennonite group issuing a statement challenging racism – as opposed to instituting segregation – was a 1948 statement by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference in which they declared their opposition to “prejudices and discrimination against minority groups.”8 In keeping with broader national trends, few white majority Protestant groups issued any statements against racism until after the Federal Council of Churches issued their declaration of the same in 1946. In that year the FCC declared that “the pattern of segregation in race relations is unnecessary and undesirable and a violation of the Gospel of love and human brotherhood.”9

Prior to the 1955 Mennonite church statement issued in the immediate aftermath of the previous year’s Supreme Court Brown v. Board desegregation ruling, a study group meeting at Laurelville Mennonite retreat center in 1951 had released a general statement on Christian Community Relations that included a short section calling for action against “racial discrimination.”10 That same year, Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishops C. K. Lehman, J. Paul Graybill, and Amos Horst were tasked with drafting a statement on “racialism,” but the Bishop board failed to act upon or promote the “tentative statements” developed by the three bishops.11

The 1955 statement deserves its reputation as the principal document that defined the parameters of Mennonite theology and practice in response to – employing the language of the day – “race relations.” In addition to reviewing the biblical texts supporting racial unity, the statement declared racial prejudice and discrimination a sin, confessed complicity in that sin, and called for full integration of all congregations and church institutions, robust teaching on the evils of racial discrimination, and a “ministry of reconciliation” focused on correcting “the evils of racial intolerance within our society.”12

That same year Bluffton College in Ohio released a statement encouraging racial integration and advising students to carefully consider the “potential richness” and “painful consequences” of interracial marriage, a topic that received frequent and near universal attention by white people at that time.13

List of Twenty-Two Race-Focused Statements by Mennonites – 1940-1979

  1. 1940 Virginia Conference segregation statement
  2. 1948 Southwestern Pennsylvania Conference statement on race
  3. 1951 Laurelville Study Conference on Christian Community Relations
  4. 1951 Lancaster Conference Bishop board statement on race (limited action)
  5. 1955 Mennonite Church statement on race – The Way of Christian love in Race Relations
  6. 1955 Bluffton College Statement on race
  7. 1959 General Conference Mennonites: A Christian Declaration on Race Relations
  8. 1960 Lancaster Conference Statement on Race Relations
  9. 1961 The Christian In Race Relations Statement/Paper
  10. 1963 Mennonite General Conference statement on Reconciliation
  11. 1963 Mennonite Brethren Statement on Race and Baptism
  12. 1963 IN-MI statement on race Relations
  13. 1964 MCC Statement from Words to Deeds in Race Relations
  14. 1964 EMC Faculty Statement on Race Relations
  15. 1964 MCC Peace Section statement on race discrimination and human rights
  16. 1964 Virginia Conference Statement on Race Relations
  17. 1967 Virginia Conference statement overturning segregation
  18. 1969 Mennonite Church General Conference Statement on Urban-Racial Concerns
  19. 1969 Lancaster Conference Statement on the Black Manifesto
  20. 1971 Minority Ministries Council Statement to the Mennonite Church
  21. 1971 Lancaster Conference Statement on Racism
  22. 1976 Liberty and Justice Workshop statement

The 1960s then erupted with a host of statements – more than half of the total examined here – in response to national events and presidential prompting. In keeping with the efforts spearheaded by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to gain passage of a civil rights bill and President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963, civil rights address, white church leaders across the country – not just white Mennonites – issued race-focused statements and developed new race relations programs.14 In 1963 and 1964 alone, Mennonites generated seven official statements including denomination-level pronouncements by the General Conferences of the Mennonite and the Mennonite Brethren churches. In addition the faculty at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, released a statement against the “evils of racial discrimination” in 1964, the same year that Virginia Conference called for full integration of all their institutions.15 Yet they did not at that time address their existing mandate to segregate the sacraments. They would not overturn those segregationist dictates until three later when they did so in 1967.16

Through the end of the 1960s, all of the statements generated by Mennonites had been in direct response to national events or political promptings. Although the correspondence around those statements and the articles and letters to the editor that filled that pages of church periodicals in those years of racial tumult and unrest pointed to much hand wringing and genuine discomfort on the part of the white Mennonites who wanted to do better, this set of race-focused declarations consistently shied away from naming the racial make-up of the church itself. In short, none of the statements up through the 1960s specifically talked about the problem of racism as a white issue for which white people needed to take responsibility.

In contrast to the relative silence of Mennonites about white involvement in racism, others outside the church did name white responsibility for racism. White civil rights leaders and activists like Anne Braden, Juliette Morgan, Will Campbell, Clarence Jordan, and many others had long been calling white people to recognize the particular role they played in perpetuating a racist society. In the Mennonite community, African-American minister and civil rights activist Vincent Harding famously challenged white Mennonites in 1967 to confront “the power of Mennonite prestige, the power of middle-class respectability, the power of whiteness.”17 Yet, the vast majority of the statements authored and released by white Mennonites rendered their own racial identities invisible and therefore unexamined.

Members of the Minority Ministries Council

It was not until 1971 that a statement emerged directly engaging with racial identities in the church. The Minority Ministries Council, then only three years old, released a statement to the Mennonite Church in which they confronted “our white Christian brothers” for not accepting them “on their terms” but instead demanding that they deny their “cultures and backgrounds” in order to become assimilated into “the main stream of white America.” They confessed that they had “accepted a ‘false kind of integration’ in which all power remained in the hands of white brothers” (the repeated male reference is notable here as well). They concluded by committing themselves to speak honestly to their “white Mennonite brothers” while seeking to develop “indigenous congregations” in which they would be the “generals” and white people the “foot soldiers.”18

In far more specific and unapologetic ways than any of the statements up to that point, this 1971 statement named the racial dynamics of the church, called for authentic engagement across racial lines, and introduced – for the first time in an official statement – voices from communities of color writing as Mennonites to their co-religionists. Although limited by the idioms and practices of patriarchy and sexism, the document did what none of the previous statements had done before. It called attention to what Paul Erb had noted back in 1955, that white Mennonites had “completely conformed themselves” to the “worldly” identity of white people. Only a direct and unapologetic wrestling with that kind of conformity would move the church forward to a more authentic anti-racist identity.

I have documented two other statements in the 1970s. One was a new statement by Lancaster Conference also released in 1971 that echoed much of the conference’s previous position paper while introducing the language of “racism” for the first time. The second one was released in 1976 by participants at a Race and Reconciliation conference in Newark, New Jersey, sponsored by Evangelicals for Social Action. This was the only one of the twenty-two statements documented here to have included women in the development of the statement; in this case Lois Leidig of Canton, Ohio, and Bev Lord of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were two of twelve signatories. Yet, neither of these two additional statements named white people or reflected on the identities of those drafting the documents.

To date, I have been unable to locate any race-focused statements by Mennonite groups in the following decade and a half through 1988.19In 1989, a joint statement by the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church entitled “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism” did take on racism directly, but again the drafters did not see fit to focus their attention on white people or name them directly.20

This tabulation of Mennonite statements on race is not intended to suggest that the passing of statements is a futile exercise. We have many historical examples of faith-based statements igniting action, changing minds, and re-directing resources.

Rather this essay argues that Mennonites have had a particular history of putting pen to paper and declaring their position on “race relations.” At key junctures, the passage of those statements challenged racial discrimination both within and without the church community. But by failing to address white people as white people, those statements fostered more assimilation than they did anti-racism.21 By demanding that African Americans, Native Americans, Latinex, and Asian American members of the Mennonite church become like white people to become Mennonite, those statements did little to change the nature, structures, and power relations within the church itself.

I await with eagerness for the day when white people in the Mennonite church will truly reckon with our conformity to whiteness. I expect that a statement may assist in that work, but the true mark of movement forward will be lived out in the collective action of white Mennonites to dismantle racism both within and without the church.


  1. Paul Erb, “Nonconformity in Race Relations,” Gospel Herald, June 7, 1955, 531.
  2. Mennonite General Conference, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,” (Hesston, Kans.: Mennonite General Conference, 1955).
  3. I have been able to document twenty-two such statements. I invite amendments and additions from readers who are aware of additional statements other than those listed at the end of this article. If you know of other race-focused statements issued by Mennonite groups between 1940 and 19990, please contact me at tobin.shearer@umontana.edu.
  4. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 255.
  5. “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940).
  6. Shearer, 36-37.
  7. Ibid., 42-43.
  8. Ibid., 269.
  9. Ibid., 357-58.
  10. “Statement of Concerns of the Study Conference on Christian Community Relations,” (Laurelville, Pa., 1951).
  11. “Lancaster Conference Bishop Board Minutes,” (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Conference, 1951).
  12. Conference, “The Way of Christian Love.”
  13. “Attitude of Bluffton College on Relationships between Races on the Campus,” (Bluffton, Ohio: Bluffton College, 1955).
  14. “Churches Respond to Race,” The Mennonite, August 6, 1963.
  15. “E.M.C. Faculty Statement on Racial Discrimination,” Gospel Herald, January 14 1964; Guy F. Hershberger, “Executive Secretary’s Report,” (Goshen, Ind.: Committee on Economic and Social Relations, 1965).
  16. “Minutes Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting Virginia Mennonite Conference,” in Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference Including Historical Introduction, Statistical Section with Data on Conference Members and Her Official Statement of Christian Fundamentals (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1967).
  17. Vincent Harding, “Voices of Revolution,” The Mennonite, October 3, 1967.
  18. “Minority Statement to Mennonite Church,” (Elkhart, Ind.: Minority Ministries Council, 1971).
  19. As noted above, I would invite readers to alert me to any statements not named here.
  20. http://home.mennonitechurch.ca/1989-racism (accessed October 2, 2019).
  21. Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning (New York: Bold Type Books, 2016), 2.

Mennonites and the Magical African-American Friend

The Mennonite church in the United States has established a record from the middle to the end of the twentieth century of welcoming, celebrating, and then frequently discarding charismatic, provocative African-American leaders. Most – but not all – have been men. Some went on to established and well-respected careers outside the confines of the denomination. Few stayed within. Evangelist and seminary professor William E. Pannell provides one such example. I contend here that many of these figures offer striking parallels to the phenomenon of what journalist and author Christopher John Farley has called “magical African-American friends” or MAAFs.1

A MAAF, also referred to more problematically as a “magic negro,” is a well established Hollywood trope in which an African-American character plays a salvific role in the life of a White person, often through magic or supernatural means, even if it means sacrificing themselves to do so. In the 1958 crime drama, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Portier’s character sacrifices his chance at freedom to save the life of the White convict played by Tony Curtis. In The Green Mile (1999), John Coffey as played by Michael Clarke Duncan exercises his healing powers on behalf of a White inmate, White death row guard, and the White wife of the prison warden before being executed. The MAAF trope crops up in a host of other Hollywood dramas such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The list goes on. The comedy duo Key and Peele spoof the Hollywood archetype in a hilarious 2012 skit the skewers the trope’s reliance on stereotypes.

Of particular importance to the function of a MAAF in these films is that the Black figure – again most often male but not always, note the Whoopi Goldberg role in Ghost – usually comes into the life of the White protagonist from outside. In the case of Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, he literally approaches the White lead played by Matt Damon from out of the dark of the night. In few of the films does the Black savior figure stay around in the life of the White person he or she has saved.

William E. Pannell came into the White Mennonite community having spent time with Brethren Assemblies in Detroit. By the end of the 1950s, already a well known evangelist, he began to show up at Mennonite sponsored meetings such as the 1959 round table discussion entitled “Program of Witness to and With Negroes,” held in Chicago and sponsored by the Home Missions and Evangelism Committee of the Mennonite Church.2

Although in these early meetings, his voice in the minutes comes across as reconciliatory and appeasing, that would change over time. While in 1959 he commented, “We should remember that our primary problems are the spiritual, and here we must make our basic contributions,” a year later in the pages of the Mennonite Church news outlet, the Gospel Herald, he caricatured White people as being held hostage by an insurmountable “basic fear” of Black people expressed by trembling “slightly” and mumbling “nonsense about intermarriage.”3 By 1968, an excerpt from his controversial book My Friend, The Enemy criticized White-dominated missions conferences sponsored by congregations that relocated from Black neighbors even as they claimed to minister to them.4 As of 1971, he appeared in the pages of the General Conference news magazine, The Mennonite, with a reflection on the need for the Black community to have “power, control, the sharing of power.”5 That same year he also participated in the AFRAM conference held near Nairobi, Kenya, to bring together African-American and African Mennonites.6

Pannell’s Mennonite connections were more extensive than these publications and meetings suggest. He counted White Mennonite church planer Vern Miller as a “friend and brother,” even indicating that Miller introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr.7 He recalled conversations with theologian John Howard Yoder while visiting Goshen College and referenced talks he gave at nearly every Mennonite college and high school as well as most Black Mennonite congregations in the U.S.8 Even more importantly, Pannell credited Mennonites with forming his “understanding of servanthood, of discipleship, of dimensions of faith in practice,” going so far as to exclaim in the course of an oral history interview, “Ah, boy, that was good stuff. I watched them live that stuff out in very uncomfortable circumstances. It helped me enormously.”9

And the exchange between Pannell and the Mennonite community wasn’t just one way. His invitation to participate in the 1973 AFRAM conference was only one indication of the trust that Black Mennonites placed in him. Already in 1968, leaders of the racially integrated Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had invited him to consult with them to discern their role as a church in their immediate neighborhood.10 White Mennonites also found Pannell’s contributions helpful. One reader praised Pannell for “Telling it as it is and honestly facing” racism present within the Mennonite community.11

The connection I make between Pannell and the trope of the Magical African-American Friend has less to do with the nature of Pannell’s specific interactions with both Black and White Mennonites than it does with a larger pattern into which his interaction with Mennonites fits.

Consider the following list: Hubert Brown, Curtis Burrell, Rosemarie Harding, Vincent Harding, Warner Jackson, James Lark, Rowena Lark, Joy Lovett, Stan Maclin, Charles McDowell, Dwight McFadden, John Powell, Ed Riddick. Every one of these high-profile African-American individuals appeared on a national Mennonite platform between 1950 and 2000 either as a speaker, author, evangelist, or church official. Every one of them then left the church for at least a stretch of time or disappeared from national attention.12 In the case of Pannell, he had never officially become Mennonite.

So this is my question. What does this pattern tell us about the White Mennonite church during the second half of the twentieth century? Each one of the individuals listed here is worthy of much fuller attention than what this column can offer. The reasons for their specific departures from the Mennonite world range from the most problematic of personal failings to decisions to pursue alternate career paths. But what troubles me as I review this list and ponder the tenure of William Pannell in the Mennonite world is that, like MAAFs, high-profile Black Mennonite leaders have rarely found a long-term home in the church.

And, the historical record would suggest, there is a through line in the personal narratives behind these names that speaks of White Mennonites being willing to be challenged for a period of time but only, in the words of Pannell, in “relationship to a suitcase.”13 Here is what Pannell wrote back in 1968. His words are worth quoting in full:

It took considerable time, several years in fact, before I began to realize that there were any number of people whose acceptance of me was conditioned by my relationship to a suitcase. A singing Negro has always been welcome as long as he is a vagabond, and has no intention to settle with his family. Again this is an overstatement since many would have been delighted if I would have stayed. But they too disappoint me when I discover their unwillingness to fight for my right to stay against those entrenched local forces of bigotry. They handcuffed me to my suitcase by their silence.14

He wrote these words now more than fifty years ago. The Mennonite community today counts a host of African-American leaders who have stayed and are leading the church: Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, Glen Guyton, Cyneatha Millsapps, Regina Shands Stoltfzus. There are many others.

Yet, for those of us who are White and Mennonite, the history of Black Mennonite leaders who have left after performing important leadership roles in the church – often at significant psychological and spiritual costs to themselves – is a cautionary tale, one that points to how easily even the best of intentions to welcome and embrace can all too quickly fall into the same traps of paternalism, exclusion, and stereotyping that are at the root of the highly problematic and ultimately racist portrayal of Magical African-American Friends.

In a community that continues to find it far easier to speak of and respond to racism in interpersonal rather than systemic terms, the trap of the MAAF will be one that we will have to work hard to avoid.


  1. Gayle R. Baldwin, “What a Difference a Gay Makes: Queering the Magic Negro,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 5, no. Fall (2003), http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art5-whatagay.html.
  2. Linden M. Wenger and Virgil Brenneman, “Program of Witness to and with Negroes,” (Chicago: Home Missions and Evangelism Committee Round Table, 1959), 1.
  3. Ibid.; William Pannell, “The Evangelical and Minority Groups,” Gospel Herald, March 8, 1960, 205.
  4. William E. Pannell, “Somewhere in the Middle,” Christian Living, September 1968, 24.
  5. William Pannell, “Little Black Sambo Still Lives,” The Mennonite, February 16, 1971, 100.
  6. John Powell, “AFRAM to Bring Blacks Together,” Gospel Herald, July 31, 1973.
  7. William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, April 21, 1998, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 3, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Ne5q4L7G/view.
  8. William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, February 28, 2000, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 5, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Dz2e8FCa/view.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John S. Weber, “The History of Broad Street Mennonite Church 1936 – 1971” (Senior Thesis, Eastern Mennonite College, 1971), 46.
  11. John E. Fretz, “Hard to Face It as It Is,” The Mennonite, March 2, 1971, 150.
  12. John Powell, for example, returned to the church, fulfilled a variety of leadership roles, and continues to write a column for Mennonite World Review. James and Rowena Lark started a church in Fresno, California, in the mid-1960s that did not have a Mennonite affiliation.
  13. William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 55.
  14. Ibid.

Christmas Controversy: Community Mennonite, Interracial Marriage, and a Hope from a Half-Century Ago

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

Community Mennonite Church, Markham, Illinois, circa mid-1960s and featuring Pastor Larry Voth

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.

  1. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 166.
  2. 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).
  3. Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 45.
  4. Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century, Historical Studies of Urban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  5. 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.
  6. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill.: Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  7. Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version.
  8. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. Shearer, 167.
  11. “Community Mennonite Church Church Board Meeting.”
  12. M. Carr, “Community Mennonite Church Board Meeting,” (Markham, Ill. : Community Mennonite Church, 1964).
  13. Ibid.
  14. 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).

Fear and the Black Manifesto

I have been thinking a lot about fear as of late. Two events prompt me.

The first is the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the Black Manifesto. The second, a statement released in early September 2018 by a group of evangelicals entitled a “Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.” The two documents—and the responses to them—suggest to me that white evangelicals, and the Mennonites sometimes counted among their number, have a legacy of fear to confront.

intelligencer-journal-1969-05-26.jpeg

*  *  *  *  *

The story of Mennonite engagement with the Black Manifesto is an unexpected one. It begins in New York City.

On May 4, 1969, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee staffer James Forman took over the service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan. From the front of the sanctuary, he read the Black Manifesto, a document demanding $500 million in reparations for the church’s participation in slavery and ongoing racism. Forman’s act sent shock waves through the Christian community not so much due to the amount of the request but because it came with the threat of ecclesial takeovers. Newspaper reporters from across the country described his original intervention and the subsequent occupancies that followed. In Mennonite-intensive Lancaster County, the Intelligencer Journal ran more than twenty articles about the Black Manifesto in the space of just over two months.

Those articles told the story of Black Manifesto activists disrupting churches and religious organizations. In some cases, congregational leaders arranged for police to be present if disruptions took place.1 Riverside Church obtained a restraining order to keep Forman from hijacking their services a second time.2 In Philadelphia, police arrested a group of Black Manifesto activists who had occupied a Methodist congregation.3 On three separate occasions, Forman and his followers took over denominational headquarters in major cities.4 One group of activists threatened to spit into the communion cup during Catholic mass.5 Reporting on these events focused far more on the takeover actions than on the full list of demands included in the Manifesto.

As those reports continued to proliferate in the popular press, Mennonite church officials started to weigh in. Given that former Mennonite pastor and church agency worker Vincent Harding appeared on a roster of the Manifesto’s steering committee, church leaders paid close attention from the beginning. Two weeks after Forman’s appearance at Riverside, Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section executive secretary Walton Hackman sent a cover memo and copy of the Manifesto to every member of his executive committee and each department head in the entire organization informing them of Harding’s involvement.6 One week later, General Conference voluntary service workers in nine cities received a copy of the Manifesto.7 By June, an appeal to fund summer programming at urban Mennonite churches made a brief reference to the Manifesto in the pages of the General Conference magazine The Mennonite.8 That same month, Orlando Kaufman, the director of the southern voluntary service unit known as Camp Landon, floated the idea of an act of repentance on the part of white Christians but did not feel that most Mennonites would be ready for such a response.9

Never before had so many white Mennonites responded so quickly to a race-based challenge to the church. The passage of the 1954 Brown decision ending segregation in the U.S. had prompted a flurry of articles in the Mennonite press and precipitated the 1955 Mennonite Church statement, “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.” The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 had likewise resulted in a similar rush of public articles, but in neither of these cases was the subsequent response as sustained, vociferous, or widespread as the response to the Black Manifesto. Mennonites paid attention to the prospect of worship disruption.

Leaders of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference Peace Committee took the response one step further. After meeting on July 10, they decided to send a letter to every pastor in their conference—some three hundred ministers—instructing them what to do should a Black Manifesto emissary show up at the door of their meeting house. A copy of the Manifesto came with every letter. In their missive, the Peace Committee members expressed considerable sympathy for the Manifesto’s authors and acknowledged their own failings, noting, “we too have so often failed to care and be concerned about the needs of those who are suffering right in our own communities.”10 While stopping short of a direct call for financial reparations, the committee members did enjoin the pastors to “demonstrate Christian love and peace,” accept “Black people as equals,” make “financial resources available where it is needed, and “provide employment and housing opportunities.”11

The specific instructions, however, reveal the committee members’ underlying concern and, at root, a measure of fear. Enjoining the pastors to embody “the way of love” to any Black Manifesto emissary, the letter’s authors also instructed the ministers to allow for their services to be disrupted and to “listen to the reading of the Black Manifesto in a spirit of Christian love.”12 Such instructions appear consistent with the doctrine and expressed commitments of the Mennonite community at the time.

What follows next seems somewhat less consistent.

The third point of instruction states: We must avoid any defensive, unchristian spirit or actions such as attempting to restrain those who would enter our services or buildings or the calling of the police. This will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.

I remember the first time that I read this statement. It struck me as significant. Paul Landis and Noah Good, both highly influential members of the Lancaster Conference community, imagined that at least some of the pacifist, quietist, separatist, ordained members of their flock would get physical with black visitors to their congregation. They were afraid that they might call the authorities.

Good and Landis clearly were far more concerned about their pastors acting in ways they deemed inappropriate than with what might happen to those African-American activists if things got violent or the police showed up. In 1969, the police already had a long record of responding with violence to members of the black community. The likelihood of violence increased dramatically in settings where white lives and propriety were somehow threatened or disrupted. Yet, that threat to black life was not the primary concern emphasized in the letter.

That Good and Landis would be concerned about conflict should come as no surprise. White people’s avoidance of conflict in general and racial strife in particular during the 1960s has been well established.13 What was true for the white populace as a whole was doubly true for white Mennonites.14

Yet the chance that a Black Manifesto emissary would show up at a Lancaster Conference church was extremely low. I have yet to find a reference to a rural or suburban congregation being taken over by Forman or one of his emissaries. Some may have occurred, but they certainly did not show up in reports from the era. Congregations in Ephrata, Elizabethtown, Millport, or Masonville simply were not on the radar for those focused on the payment of half-a-billion dollars in reparations.

So why send the letter at all?

Perhaps Good and Landis wanted to educate their pastors about an issue that they deemed important. They knew that their members would have no ready access to a copy of the Manifesto, and wanted them to be informed.

Perhaps the Conference leaders desired to forestall the kind of ruckus that had taken place when church leaders of other denominations had shut the door on Forman and his lieutenants. Things had gone awry elsewhere.15 It is reasonable that they would not want to display public conflict at a time when Conference leaders were considering joining the larger Mennonite church denomination.16

Or perhaps Good and Landis had every reason to fear a racist response. In an interview I conducted with him in 2005, Landis recalled his “concern that people were buying the right-wing reaction to black power” and his desire to foster “more of a Christian stand.”17 But overall, his memory of the events surrounding the Black Manifesto in Lancaster Conference was vague.

Memories can fail us.

Yet I am less interested in faulty recollections than I am in reactive fears.

Because those same kinds of fears are still with us.

In early September 2018, a group of evangelical pastors—all of them men—released a Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel. Others have analyzed the racism, sexism, and hetero-sexism amply evident in the declaration.18 My interest is in the fear that seems to be underlying the authors’ intent.

It looks a lot like the fear evident back in 1969.

The parallels between the two periods, nearly fifty years apart, are striking. In both 1969 and 2018, the African-American community and their allies have organized powerful challenges to white supremacy. As in 1969, much of that criticism has been directed at the church. Womanist and mujerista theologians, anti-racism educators—many of them faith-based, and a burgeoning group of historians, sociologists, and critical race theorists have challenged the patriarchy, sexism, and racism present within the Christian church in general and the evangelical community in particular.19

No wonder that a group dominated by white men released a statement essentially saying that they did not have to pay attention to, consider, evaluate, or reflect upon their receipt of white privilege, participation in male dominance, or class dynamics. Those supported by systems of oppression have consistently been the last ones to agree to discuss that reality and have offered the most strident objections to changing the status quo. Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur and the other original signatories have much to gain by deflecting discussion about the systems that serve them. They are in particular, as noted in multiple responses, deeply reluctant to talk about racism.20

Beneath that resistance is a deep fear of exposure.

I don’t know the men who wrote the 2018 social justice gospel statement. I haven’t interviewed the pastors who received the 1969 Black Manifesto letter. But I recognize the signs: defensiveness, anger, striking out, attempting to forestall any discussion that might lead to a loss of power, a loss of face. Later in 1969, Mennonite pastor John Powell challenged the church to establish a “compassion fund,” a sort of Mennonite version of the Black Manifesto to be funded by above-budget giving at the rate of six dollars per member. Although some funds did come in to support the Minority Ministries Council’s ministries in African-American and Latinx communities, they never received even half of their $500,000 goal. In their attempts to raise the Compassion Fund monies, Powell and his colleagues encountered similar defensiveness. Powell wrote that, among many statements he had heard, white Mennonites had responded, “The Mission Board is collecting money to give to the niggers.”21

In her masterful 2013 study of white southern evangelicals and the challenges they faced to integrate their congregations, Carolyn Renée Dupont discusses at length the fear of the unknown, interracial contact, and loss of control that she found in white congregations during the civil rights movement.22 Under the guise of theological fidelity, white segregationists rejected the presence of the black body in their worship space. Their fear was evident, palpable, concrete.

*  *  *  *  *

A white pastor recently told me that she recognizes her reticence to speak up regularly about racial issues because she is afraid. Members of her congregation had invited church leadership to release a statement publicly expressing their opposition to white supremacy in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville in August 2017. Although they did organize a mid-week service of mourning and repentance, members of the church’s leadership team did not allow the statement to move forward because they were afraid that it would offend wealthy, white men in the congregation.

Although twelve months later the congregation had still not released a statement despite their location in a state with several active hate groups, she told me that she is trying to confront her fear. I respect her for it.

*  *  *  *  *

The history of Mennonites’ response to the Black Manifesto, this curious moment of warning pacifist pastors neither to pummel visitors to their congregation nor call the police to do it for them, as well as a statement issued to forestall discussion about racism and other forms of oppression, and privileging call for a similar sort of courage as that shown by the pastor who spoke to me, one that—at the very least—casts out fear. Or at least acknowledges how fear very often keeps us quiet at the very moment when we need to be speaking with our fullest voice.

 

 

 

Endnotes


  1. “Forman Lauds Pastor after Rights Sermon,” Intelligencer Journal, May 12, 1969. 
  2. “Forman Asks $200 Million from Catholics,” Intelligencer Journal, May 10, 1969. 
  3. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church,” Intelligencer Journal, July 11, 1969. 
  4. “Offices of Church Occupied,” Intelligencer Journal, June 6, 1969. 
  5. “Protesters Arrested in Churches,” Intelligencer Journal, June 16, 1969. 
  6. Walton Hackman, “Manifesto to White Christian Churches and Jewish Synogogues [Sic],” (Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1969). 
  7. Fred Unruh, May 26, 1969. 
  8. “Special Funds for Summer City Needs,” The Mennonite, June 10, 1969. 
  9. Orlo Kaufman, June 19, 1969. 
  10. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis, Letter, July 1969. 
  11. Ibid. 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (New York: BasicBooks, 1997). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “White Mennonite Peacemakers: Oxymorons, Grace, and Nearly Thirty Years of Talking About Whiteness,” Global Mennonite Peacebuilding: Exploring Theology, Culture, and Practice, 35, no. 3 (2017). 
  15. “8 Clergymen Arrested for Occupying Church.” 
  16. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lancaster_Mennonite_Conference 
  17.  Paul G. Landis, “Interview with Paul G. Landis,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Lancaster, Pa./Evanston, Ill.2005). 
  18. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2018/09/on-john-macarthurs-racist-statement-on-social-justice/ 
  19. See, for example, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011); Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson, Melinda Elizabeth Berry, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2014); Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietistic Studies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). 
  20. See, for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-impossible-to-separate-social-justice-from-the-christian-gospel/2018/09/10/26764628-b528-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html 
  21. John Powell, “The Compassion Fund Is,” Gospel Herald, March 24, 1970, 271. 
  22. Carolyn Renée Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2013). 

“Diddy In A Buggy”: A Rapper, The Amish, and The Fresh Air Fund

Tobin Miller Shearer

Hip-hop artist, rapper, and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs reminisced about his experience with the Fresh Air Fund (FAF) during an interview with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel on August 1, 2018. Combs described his time among the Plain people as a “beautiful” experience that formed his identity. He recalled milking cows, picking berries, riding buggies, and eating large Amish meals, all of which – in the absence of electronics – “taught him how to just relate with each other.” He concluded his reminiscence with a “shout-out to the Fresh Air Fund.”

Combs sounds nostalgic in the interview despite Kimmel’s repeated attempts to poke fun at the experience. Rather than a means to obtain cheap child labor – Kimmel suggested that the Amish had “somehow bamboozled this charity into sending you there to work” – Combs mentioned how often he thought about his host family and how they had contributed to his life. When Kimmel joked that Combs should hitch a horse to his Bentley to recreate the buggy rides of his youth, the rap star and actor stayed serious, emphasizing that he “truly appreciated” his summer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Combs’s memory holds only positive associations with his summer hosting venture.

The juxtaposition of a world-wise, very wealthy, hip-hop artist with the world-wary, frugal, hymn-singing Amish captured the media’s attention. In addition to dozens of accounts on entertainment portals ranging from People magazine to Billboard.com, the venerable BBC News also reported on the exchange five days after the interview appeared. Always media savvy in their fundraising efforts, the FAF tweeted out a link to the Kimmel interview within forty-eight hours.

The story told by Combs echoes the prevailing narrative about the Fresh Air Fund. It is a tale composed with nostalgia, sung without discord, resonate with racial harmony. Since its founding in 1877, the Fund has brought city children to the country for summer stays – most of them of the one- to two-week variety. Combs purported two-month stay is much rarer. Beginning in the 1940s and 50s as white flight resulted in increasingly black and brown urban centers, the Fund shifted from sending white ethnic children from the city to white rural hosts to sending African-American and Latinx children from the city to white rural hosts. As told in thousands of glowing newspaper accounts generated by the Fund for distribution to regional newspapers, happy hosts welcomed happy children to rural and suburban communities invariably happy to host them.

There was no room for another narrative in the Fund’s accounts. Nostalgia from public figures like tennis champion Arthur Ashe, crooner Bing Crosby, comedian Jimmy Durante, actor Lauren Bacall, and singer Ethel Merman only offered positive testimonies.

Photo 1 - Eastern Mennonite Missions Train Station Pick-up

Eastern Mennonite Missions Train Station Pick-up (circa late 1950s): Edith and John Boll with unidentified Fresh Air participant at Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, train station. Used by permission of Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, PA (EMM – Record Room, File Cabinets middle isle, Drawer marked, Information Services Picture File, File: Archives – Home Ministries, Children’s Visitation Program).

And the Amish and Mennonites frequently starred in those accounts. A 1958 press release praised the Mennonite family who hosted a family of five fresh air boys from New York City for an off-season Christmas visit replete with a feast of turkey and stuffing, sweet pickles, peas, carrots, cranberry sauce, plum pudding, fruit cake and ice cream for dessert. Summer’s Children, a 1964 promotional film produced by the Fund, featured Mennonite and Amish families. In 1976, the Fund’s executive director Lisa Pulling noted that Mennonites made Pennsylvania the “most popular place to go” other than New York itself. That same year, newspapers across the country featured a column by popular writer George Will in which he praised the Amish for their Fresh Air hosting in glowing terms every bit as nostalgic as those offered by Combs. After describing the “creak and jingle of harnesses, and the clippity-clop of hooves on pavement,” Will described the family of Benuel Smucker in Ronks, Pennsylvania, who “have no truck with modernity, including electricity, a fact which does not bother their guests from the Big Apple — twin eight-year-old black boys.” Combs was far from the only African-American child to have discovered the appeal of rustic, rural havens.

As the burst of interest in Combs’s story makes evident, the prospect of placing urban children of color with pristine symbols of the nation’s agrarian past – scholar and poet Julia Kasdorf refers to the Amish as “whiter than white:  innocent, pure, plain—Puritans but without their unhappy edge” – has mass appeal. When placing innocents with innocents, everybody wins. There is no racial loser; no antagonist; only the celebration of borders crossed and friendships won.

However, that formula of doubled innocence did not always balance. Children grew homesick and begged to return to the city. Busloads cheered upon crossing back over into New York City. Neighbors, townspeople, and sometimes hosts used racial epithets to refer to their charges. Accusations of theft abounded. Administrators had to remind the hosts that they were not just getting free labor. Assured that they were getting a vacation, some guests balked at the demands of chores and refused to toil without compensation. Up until the mid-1980s, the Fresh Air Fund paid little attention to screening hosts for a history of sexual abuse even while intensively screening the children for STDs and other communicable diseases. The narrative related by Combs is, at the very least, more complex than he suggested.

As much as I was fascinated to hear Combs talk about his Fresh Air experience, it was not the content of the narrative itself that drew my attention. While my research suggests a far more problematic story than the one he told – particularly when the model itself continues to be one-way, short-term, urban-negative, and racially paternalistic – it was the nostalgic way he told the story that I found most gripping.

No matter how hard Kimmel tried to make light of Combs’s reminiscences, he stayed sincere and focused on the positive memories that he held of his time with the Amish. Here was a highly successful entrepreneur whose personal worth tops $800 million, a man who lavishes expensive gifts on his children, a philanthropist who has founded his own program to assist urban youth – one that includes a summer camp each year – and who has given generously to both victims of Hurricane Katrina and students at Howard University. Amid that material success, he harkened back to his time with the Plain people, a group whose lifestyle and commitments seem light years from his own.

But through nostalgia – an emotion defined by sentimental longing and a wistful yearning for better times gone by – Combs made a connection. He saw in his life some measure of charity, hard-work, care for children, and simplicity. He claimed to have learned those values, at least in part, from the Amish; the experience “helped to make me what I am,” he explained in his interview with Kimmel.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. Our current president used its appeal to great effect in his most recent campaign. Yet, as was the case with Combs and the Fresh Air Fund, nostalgic appeals often cover over the complexities and underside of history and, in so doing, create a past that never really existed. That’s why the writing and research of history are so critical at this moment. Without a grounding in as much evidence as can be mustered, we risk basing our decisions on fanciful and false presentations of the past.

Combs said in the interview that he would love to know if his host family realized what he grew up to become. Apparently they do, since his sister, who also stayed with the same Amish family in eastern Lancaster County, recently contacted them.

Should Combs talk with his former hosts, I wonder what they would discuss. As is the case in the vast majority of Fresh Air exchanges, long-term relationships are rare, difficult to sustain, and often end when the children enter adolescence. A great deal of evidence shows that white host families are much more reluctant to host teenagers due to the possibility of interracial romance blossoming. Nonetheless, perhaps they would discuss Combs’s efforts to better the lives of other children from the city. Perhaps they would chat about additional memories Combs carries from his sojourn. They might even talk over the ways in which Combs life remains so far from their own.

But, if I had to guess, I would venture that they would spend at least some small measure of their time simply reminiscing about, in the words of Kimmel, the now incongruous image of “Diddy in a buggy.”

Works Cited

Crandell, Richard F., ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children. New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962.

“Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children.” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976, 51.

Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War.  Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

Kasdorf, Julia Spicher. “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry.” In The Amish and the Media, edited by Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher, 67-90. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.

“Lancaster Holds Film Premier.” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964, 1-2.

Shearer, Tobin Miller. Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.

Will, George F. “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children.” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976, A-4.

 

[^1]: Richard F. Crandell, ed. The Frog Log and Other Stories About Children (New York: Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund, 1962).

[^2]: “Lancaster Holds Film Premier,” What’s In the Air, Fall 1964.

[^3]: “Fresh Idea in ’77 Becomes Fun Fund for City Children,” New York Times, Sunday, May 23, 1976.

[^4]: George F. Will, “Amish Able Hosts to New York Children,” The Post-Crescent, Saturday, August 7, 1976.

[^5]: Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “‘Why We Fear the Amish’: Whiter Than White Figures in Contemporary American Poetry,” in The Amish and the Media, ed. Diane Zimmerman Umble and David Weaver-Zercher (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008), 69.

[^6]: David Hechler, The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988), 29-54.

[^7]: I explore all these themes in my recent book: Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

[^8]: “Sean Combs, “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Combs#Charity_work_and_honors, Wikipedia, accessed August 7, 2018.

[^9]: Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs wants to find the Lancaster Amish couple he spent summers with as a Fresh Air Kid” LNP Monday, August 7, 2018 https://lancasteronline.com/features/entertainment/sean-diddy-combs-wants-to-find-the-lancaster-amish-couple/article_cd3b8412-9973-11e8-8892-4be24b7102d6.html

[^10]: Shearer, 79.

Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of “Race Criminals”

Sixty years after he penned “Race Criminals,” David A. Shank’s anger at his co-believers still jumps off the page. Writing in February 1945 as the editor of The Vanguard, the newsletter of Civilian Public Service conscientious objectors assigned to camp 18 in Denison, Iowa, Shank aimed to awaken white Christians in general and white Mennonites in particular to their complicity in racism.

“You are guilty, you know,” he wrote. “You are prejudiced and you are bigoted and,” he added just to be certain that his message was clear, “you are pumping the bellows for the fires of racial discrimination and hatred.” Having accused his audience of racist attitudes, a racially superior mindset, ignorance, inactivity, and insensitivity, Shank ratcheted up his rhetoric with a condemnation specific to Mennonites that only pacifists would find convicting. Replete with an offensive and inflammatory racial epithet—presumably for the shock value—Shank declared, “It is just as unrighteous for a Christian to say ‘nigger’ as it is to be found fighting in the front lines of battle, and much more cowardly and hypocritical.”1

Vanguardv1n41945Feb 1

The Vanguard, 1 no. 4 (Feb. 1, 1945)

I know of no other examples of white Mennonites writing about racism in the World War II era—and precious few in the subsequent three decades—that approach the emotional intensity, prophetic tenor, or unabashed criticism of Shank’s editorial. Although African-American academic, activist, and pastor Vincent Harding would go on to challenge white Mennonite complicity with racism in no uncertain terms by the late 1950s, Shank’s reproof precedes Harding’s censure by more than a decade.2

The February 1945 issue of The Vanguard focused on “brotherhood.” Contributors to the mimeographed newsletter reported on a talk by Dr. A. T. DeGroot, a Drake University professor from Des Moines, who advocated social equality of the races; lauded Roi Ottley’s New World A’Coming and Richard Wright’s Native Son for their bracing racial content; and explicated the dangers of race prejudice. None of the other articles approach Shank’s righteous anger. A fellow camp member, James Harnish, also charged Mennonites with both tacit and overt racism but in much more mediated tones. Harnish wrote that participation in racism “is inconsistent with the mind and spirit of Christ.”3 A concluding ten-point program offered by Bethel College history professor Dr. Melvin Gingrich called for interracial friendships, evangelism, book reading, letter writing to elected representatives, and charitable donations to race-focused organizations but again in the mildest of tones.4

To be certain, an editorial in The Vanguard did not have the same reach as did an article in The Gospel Herald, the official Mennonite Church publication of the day. Historian Irvin B. Horst, then an undergraduate student, offered his take on “Mennonites and the Race Question” later on in 1945 for The Gospel Herald. Like Shank, he also pointed out white Mennonite involvement in racism, but the most stringent criticism he had to offer was that “we have quite a way to go in loving our Negro brethren.”5

The difference in tone may have simply been due to personality, passion, or preference, but the larger context of racism in the church raises the question why more voices like Shank’s didn’t surface. In 1945, Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber, long-time matron and superintendent of the African-American mission at Broad Street in Virginia Conference, had been summarily dismissed from their posts, ostensibly due to their opposition to the Conference’s Jim Crow policies.6 Also in Virginia, the Trustees of Eastern Mennonite School refused that same year to admit Peggy Webb, daughter of Broad Street member Roberta Webb, due to “race questions that have been long in forming and deeply set in the values of the inhabitants of this state and community of which we are a small minority.”7 In his Gospel Herald article, Horst testified that “Many Mennonites feel . . . that the Negro is all right if he ‘keeps his place,’ but must be ‘kept down,’ for if placed on the level of whites he will take advantage of this position and become ‘fresh.’”8 He added, “There are Mennonite communities where young members of the church find sport in making Negroes fearful and scare Negro pedestrians with automobiles.”9

It seems as if there was plenty to get angry about.

But white Mennonites of the era rarely expressed anger in public and especially not in written form. In the CPS context, historian Perry Bush notes that “Mennonites were truly the ‘good boys’ of the CPS system. . . . [they] obeyed its directives quite submissively.”10 So even if CPS men had begun to form a racial conscience – whether in Iowa, Mississippi, or Florida – that could lead to unusually acerbic rhetoric directed to their religious community, they did not direct the same kind of ire at CPS authorities. The anger Shank expressed at the time may have been nothing more than the outpouring of a youthful firebrand, safe in lashing out at his co-believers even as he acted the model conscientious objector.

Yet Shank’s essay raises another question, one that remains pertinent whenever a member of a community points out a problem within that community to the community. If Shank had aimed his pen at an employer—revealing racism evident in a workplace for example—there would have been no whistle-blower laws to protect him. Those didn’t gain prominence until the late 1980s. As it was, Shank focused his anger on his co-believers and so risked a measure of internal censure. Not only could he have been dismissed, but he might also have found himself shoved to the margins of the community, rendered irrelevant, or, worse yet, branded a trouble maker—no longer a good boy of the Mennonite system.

But he wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

A full year later his article was reprinted in Box 96, the newsletter of CPS camp #27 in Mulberry, Florida. Shank went on to serve with Mennonite Board of Missions in Belgium and West Africa for more than three decades, taught for three years at Goshen College in Indiana, helped start Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, and played a role in the founding and leadership of other educational and mission endeavors. Much loved and often honored, he was no pariah.

David and Wilma Shank 1974

David and Wilma Shank, 1974

Why wasn’t Shank marginalized in the aftermath of his harsh indictment? Why didn’t his anger—out of place even among the CPS men who had become awakened to societal and ecclesial racism—label him a troublemaker? Others had been censured. Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber lost their cherished posting at Broad Street for much less vocal protest. What protected Shank?

Some of the answers are obvious. White Mennonites have long been tolerant of their young people’s excesses, whether of worldly flirtation or prophetic invective. Likewise, Shank stood at a remove, lodged in Iowa, engaged fully in the work and witness of the church’s CPS service. His peers respected him. A fellow camp member wrote that Shank was gifted “with considerably more than average intellectual endowment.”11 He was also white, male, and positioned by virtue of his surname as a member of the pack, a tripartite privilege, layered and laminated from birth. And, unlike the Swartzentrubers who also bore those privileges, his position in the church did not depend on a board of conservative bishops fully accommodated to the racial segregation of the South.

But I also think he was given a pass because he expressed his anger in a theological frame that white Mennonites of the era understood: guilt, innocence, redemption. Those terms made sense and flowed into the evangelical streams then running through the church. They offered a way out. As harsh a message as Shank had to proclaim, he still concluded with “redemption follows confession and the passion to do and to give ‘to all nations whatsoever I have commanded you’.”12

It was the confessional catharsis: “I am convicted of my participation in racism; I am sorry that I have done so; I am relieved that I no longer have to concern myself with the issue.” By no means particular to Mennonites, various permutations of this theological relief valve have recurred throughout the twentieth century as white Christians found themselves accused of both complicit and active participation in racism. The emphasis on confession and repentance has been especially prominent in the white evangelical community.13 In response to racial accusations, white Christians have consistently taken advantage of the confessional catharsis to gain psychic relief and move forward.

Elsewhere I have documented the cycle of public and individual confession of participation in racism followed by a period of inactivity or inattention to racial issues within the Mennonite community.14 My point is not to draw into question the sincerity of these confessions but simply to note that white Mennonites, and I think white Christians as a whole, have too often relied on the confessional catharsis in order to avoid the more difficult and sustained work of solving what Shank called the “‘white’ problem.”15

I wonder if one possible response to Shank’s editorial, one that holds the promise of a measure of integrity, is simply to name the confessional catharsis cycle, recognize its historical recurrence, and commit ourselves to embarking on a more sustained, holistic, and ultimately more honest response.

Rather than reprising yet another round of confessions, we could—as David Shank advocated in ’45—then move from criminality to authentic mutuality. It would be a legacy worthy of the gift of Shank’s original ire.

Author’s note: Many thanks to Joe Springer, curator of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College, for scanning and sending me The Vanguard issue on “brotherhood.” He knew that I would be interested.


  1. David A. Shank, “Race Criminals,” The Vanguard, February 1945, 2. 
  2. “The Mennonite Churches and Race,” Gospel Herald, May 19, 1959. 
  3. James Harnish, “Mennonites & Race Relations,” The Vanguard, February 1945. 
  4. Gingerish Melvin, Dr., “A Ten Point Program,” ibid. 
  5. Irvin B. Horst, “Mennonites and the Race Question,” Gospel Herald, July 13, 1945, 284. 
  6. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  7. A. G. Heishman, “Annual Board Meeting Trustees Eastern Mennonite School,” (Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite School, 1945), [2]. 
  8. Horst, 284. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 114. 
  11. Albert Dietrich and Frank Dietrich, Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank Dietrich and Albert Dietrich (Fordham University Press, 2005), 292. 
  12. Shank, 2. 
  13. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005). 
  14. Tobin Miller Shearer, “Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012); “Whitening Conflicts: White Racial Identity Formation within Mennonite Central Committee, 1960-1985,” in A Table of Sharing: Mennonite Central Committee and the Expanding Networks of Mennonite Identity, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2011). 
  15. Shank, 2.