Tobin Miller Shearer
On May 4, 1969, James Forman, the former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), walked down the center aisle of the Riverside Church in New York City to deliver the Black Manifesto, a document calling for white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations for their participation in slavery and the ongoing practice of racism, an amount Forman indicated was equal to about $15 per black person in the United States. Although as a fundraising tool the Manifesto missed its mark by several orders of magnitude, the document caused a firestorm of response from the white religious community. Given Forman’s threat that he or his lieutenants would disrupt church services in those communities where reparations payments were not made, denominations and congregations made plans for what they should do if Black Manifesto delegates showed up on their doorsteps.
Some made arrangements to call the police and then did so upon the delegates’ arrival. Others made plans to simply vacate their sanctuaries if a Black Manifesto activist showed up. A few planned on entering into dialogue. Even fewer invited Black Manifesto emissaries to their congregations and offered them payment. Although disruption was the intent and purpose of Black Manifesto activists, they did not as a rule engage in any form of violence.
It is striking then, that only two months after the release of the Black Manifesto, Paul G. Landis and Noah G. Good–leaders at the time in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference–sent a letter to every pastor in their conference calling them to “repent individually and as congregations of any and all racial prejudice or class discrimination that may be present in our own hearts” after first cautioning them against calling the police or restraining “those who would enter our services or buildings” because “[t]his will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.”1 If nothing else, these cautions come across as highly unusual among a religious group known for their commitment to nonviolence and nonresistance. Under what other circumstances would pastors need to be cautioned against engaging in violence or calling the police to intervene? Good and Landis seemed to have been very afraid that uncontrollable chaos might ensue among this particular group of white Mennonite quiet in the land.
On August 16, 1969, at the (Old) Mennonite Church General Assembly in Turner, Oregon, African-American Mennonite pastor John Powell called for a fund in the amount of $500,000 to be set up “for the purpose of developing and expanding ways of serving the urban poor and other minorities in new and meaningful ways.” He challenged the church to raise that same amount for each of the following five years (for a total of $3,000,000)–an amount indicated as $0.50/member/month. The fund, later deemed the Compassion Fund, was envisioned as a way to “open the door to a new world of freedom and brotherhood.” Powell also called for “racial sensitivity education in white congregations.”2
Like the Black Manifesto that prompted it, the resulting Compassion Fund would never meet its funding goals although it would also result in a firestorm of response, much of it negative, from white members of the Mennonite church. A 1971 report would note receipts of $100,000 in 1969, and $60,000 in 1970 – amounts far below the $500,000/year goal.
Much more could be said about how the Black Manifesto helped bolster the development of what would come to be called the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, I will focus on the struggle that emerged over the MMC as its members fostered a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition intent upon supporting the black and brown freedom struggles within and without the (Old) Mennonite Church. I will also suggest what those observations might mean to the contemporary church.
Echoing the work of Richard Foster, I contend that the struggle over both the Black Manifesto and the Compassion Fund was about three things: money, sex, and power. Those three issues remain at the core of Mennonite Church USA’s current struggle to dismantle racism internal to its structure and corporate life.
Money. The MMC’s struggle to obtain funding from the Mennonite Church drove to the heart of the problem of racism at that time. Prior to the advent of the MMC, most of the church’s mission and service endeavors in communities of color – where, in fact, the majority of the work took place in both domestic and overseas settings – was typified by white mission workers leading efforts to serve communities of color or, in a few instances, partnering with communities of color. Very few of those efforts were led by people of color from within or without the Mennonite community, James and Rowena Lark being two of the most notable exceptions. MMC’s proposal to fund communities of color to lead their own work and minister in their own communities completely upset that paradigm. The list of funded projects makes the case. In 1970 alone, the MMC funded twelve different urban churches’ self-run summer programs, a new business and black farm cooperative start-up in Mississippi, a “radical black theological seminary in Philadelphia,” and a Mexican-American Advocacy group in South Bend, Indiana, among many other projects.3 The evidence makes clear that this shift to black and brown run programs–more than any other element of the MMC programming initiative–left white Mennonite constituents cold. Their dollars did not flow to support this kind of mission and service.
Sex. On March 23, 1971, the Gospel Herald, the news magazine of the Mennonite Church, ran a race relations survey carried out by MMC white anti-racism educator Lynford Hershey. Hershey had sent the survey out to 98 Mennonite churches, of which 58 responded. Of the many questions asked, one of the most striking made the statement: “There is nothing morally wrong with interracial marriage if both partners are Christian.” Of the 2694 responses to that question, 51% were uncertain or disagreed with the statement.4 Of course that also means that 49% agreed with the statement, but in 1971 it still spoke dramatically of a church community that found the issue of interracial sex to be troublesome at best, morally suspect at worse. Given that the Supreme Court had in 1967 already overruled anti-miscegenation laws in Loving vs. the State of Virginia, it remains all the more problematic that a majority of the Mennonite Church five years later continued to be afraid of the prospect of their white daughters marrying black men – which was almost without exception the gender configuration that sounded alarms. In correspondence with John Powell, former Goshen College President Ernest E. Miller accused Powell of having claimed that “unity and peace” would come through “having interracial sex relations,” a claim he objected to in light of a comment purportedly made by Martin Luther King, Jr. while at Goshen College, in which King apparently said – as he had asserted elsewhere in the sexist language of the day – that “we want to be your brothers in Christ, not your brothers in law.”5 As my research into the Fresh Air rural hosting program has made clear, white Mennonites continued to express grave concern that interracial contact would lead to interracial sex well into the 1970s and 1980s.
Power. On March 8, 1971, MMC founding member Hubert Schwartzentruber made a provocative proposal. He suggested that both the Home Missions and the Voluntary Service arms of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities come under the authority of the MMC.6 He was in essence proposing a substantive shift of power, one that would have placed the heart and soul of the Mennonite mission enterprise under the control and leadership of people of color. Just as many Black Nationalist and La Raza groups were calling for a similar shift of authority and leadership over programs in their own communities, so too was this group calling for the right to lead mission and service efforts in their own communities. Although the proposal did not move forward, if action had been taken, the church’s mission efforts would have looked very different.
I contend that these three areas remain the principle issues in need of addressing today. Who holds the purse strings and gets to decide how money is distributed continues to stay largely in white hands. We have to find ways to talk about how money too often determines who is listened to, whose voice counts, who remains unheard.
Concerns about interracial sex – discomfort with it, talking around it – continues to be an issue. Two young men of color at Goshen College shared their experience with me of being either avoided or eroticized by white women, and on a related note, being asked to instruct white men on how to “act ghetto” – at term laden with all too much of its own psychosocial baggage.
Issues surrounding power continue to serve as an additional stumbling block to furthering the work of the church. We know from long experience that white norms and standards too often stand in the way of creating a new future. At the same time we see evidence of change in this realm as leaders like Iris Deleon Hartshorn, Glen Guyton, Stanley Green, Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, and many others demonstrate that the church does indeed thrive when people of color also lead.
My comments have focused on the legacy and present practice of racism. There is, of course, so much more that could be said in this arena. But, at the same time, I want to name and be clear that our analysis and discussion of this issue must be nested in and cognizant of the interlocking arenas of class, gender, physical ability, and sexual identity. In each of these areas the provisioning of power and privilege and the ongoing dynamics of oppression continue to be relevant and need to be explored as well.
Ella Baker, the most gifted and influential organizer of the modern civil rights movement, once said, “In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.” My hope is that this brief foray into the history of the MMC and the Black Manifesto can be part of building that understanding.
- Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis to Lancaster Conference Mennonite Pastors, July 1969, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Box: Conference Statements. ↩
- John Powell, “Urban-Racial Concerns Statement,” (Turner, OR: Mennonite General Conference, 1969), Archives of the Mennonite Church, I-1-1, Mennonite General Conference, 1898-1971, 1969 Session materials, Folder 5/8. ↩
- John Powell, “Compassion Fund Report,” (Elkhart, IN: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 12: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked, Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-7. ↩
- Lynford Hershey, “What Is the Mennonite Attitude on Race Relations.” Gospel Herald, March 23 1971, 262-264. ↩
- Ernest E. Miller to John Powell, December 3, 1969, Archives of the Mennonite Church, IV-21-4 Box 1, MBM, Minority Ministries Council, Data Files #1, A-K, Folder: General Correspondence, 1969-72. ↩
- John I. Smucker,”Minutes of Minority Ministries Council Executive Committee,” (Chicago, IL: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 7: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71. ↩