Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council

Felipe Hinojosa

I first met Neftali Torres in the early 2000s when he came to deliver a series of talks for churches on the South Texas/Northern Mexican border. He came to talk about Mennonites in Latin America. Neftali, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, was introduced to Anabaptist theology as a young man and shortly thereafter became a Mennonite pastor in Chicago together with his wife, Gracie. It’s a longer, and much more beautiful story, that unfortunately I don’t have enough space to tell here, though I tell it in Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Suffice to say that I was thoroughly impressed with Neftali the first time I met him. So you can imagine how excited I was after his morning talk that he pulled me aside to ask if there was a place to get something to drink. I said, “Sure, lots of spots around here.” “Great,” Neftali said, “it will give us a chance to talk, I have a story to share with you.”

I had no idea that the entire academic trajectory of my life would change during that conversation. Neftali went on to share with me the story of the Minority Ministries Council (MMC), a group of Black and Brown leaders that in the late 1960s and 1970s organized a multiethnic movement to challenge white supremacy in the Mennonite Church. I was hooked. A few years later, in a graduate course on comparative race and ethnicity at the University of Houston, I set out to write the history of the MMC, the politics of multiethnic spaces, and the limits and possibilities of Black/Brown coalition building. That first essay would later become my book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.

Between 1968 and 1973, the MMC worked in African American and Latino Mennonite communities. They organized a K-12 educational program called “High Aim” that created a pathway for Black and Latino youth to attend Mennonite schools; they provided grants for community development in places like St. Louis and South Texas; and they organized a number of theological consultations and church leadership conferences that focused on race and culture in the church. The MMC did important work across multiple constituencies in Anabaptist/Mennonite churches and communities as they organized a social justice movement that was firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. The work of the MMC was cutting edge, and in many ways ahead of the rest of the denomination during the civil rights era. For leaders of color, racism in America was a problem that plagued churches and a problem that touched every aspect of congregants’ lives.

Seferina.DeLeon and Gracie.Torres

Seferina DeLeon and Gracie Torres

As important as this group is to Mennonite and Civil Rights history, they were far from perfect. They were an exclusive group of Black and Brown men that prided themselves on being hyper-masculine, and by extension rarely saw a need to include women in their movement. There also existed deep tensions within the group across race/ethnicity as Latinos and African Americans sometimes struggled to understand how racism affected each group differently. When the group dissolved in 1973, it was at least in part due to the Council’s inability to reconcile some of the tensions that existed within the group.

But internal tensions were only a small part of the group’s demise. White Mennonite leaders developed and put in place the plans that would eventually dismantle the Minority Ministries Council as a way to move beyond conversations on race and to separate a group of Black and Brown men that some white Mennonite leaders felt had risen to prominence too quickly in the mostly white Mennonite church. The Minority Ministries Council posed a significant threat to the white Mennonite leadership—they were bold, smart, articulate theologians in their own right—and in the early 1970s, white Mennonites started to slowly chip away at the group’s increasing power. It worked, and by 1973 Latinos and African Americans went their separate ways.

Why don’t we hear more about this group? Why is their story, for the most part, not taught on Mennonite college campuses? And why does there remain a fixation on sixteenth century Anabaptist history at the expense of modern movements that have shaped the church in the last 150 years? To be fair, in recent years several books have reoriented our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist history: Perry Bush’s work, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (1998), Tobin Miller Shearer’s work, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (2010), my work Latino Mennonites (2014), and the newly published work by Janis Thiessen, Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour (2016). While not exclusively focused on the Minority Ministries Council, these works do push us to think more deliberately about Mennonites in the twentieth century navigated modernization, war, civil rights, and shifting notions of identity.

When I first started working on my book, most of the members of the Minority Ministries Council that I met were shocked that anyone would care about their movement more than forty years after the fact. For many of them, the church had treated them badly, ignored their concerns, and played them off as irresponsible radicals. Many left the Mennonite church in the years since 1973. Some returned, but many remain outside of the Mennonite church, frustrated by their experiences after they had given everything to the church they loved.

John.Powell-Lupe.DeLeon-Ted.Chapa

John Powell, Lupe DeLeon, and Ted Chapa

As I learned to know many of them over the years, the one thing that bothered me most was that the church—first the (Old) Mennonite Church and now Mennonite Church USA—had never honored this group. There had never been a ceremony where the church offered these elders their space in church history as a tribute to the work and sacrifice they gave to build and diversify the church. Knowing that the church leadership might never recognize this group in the right way, I started to talk with some folks about organizing a reunion of the Minority Ministries Council leaders. About a year ago Gilberto Perez and Chris Kennel (Goshen College), Marty Lehman (College Mennonite Church), John Powell (Goshen College Board Member), and I gathered to talk possibilities. It was a lot of work, but a year later, during the week of March 29 to April 1, 2017, we made it happen. Over twenty former members of the Minority Ministries Council and their spouses came together in Goshen, Indiana, to reminisce, tell their stories, and share some of their lessons learned from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

This was a time of celebration, reunion (many had not seen each other since the 1970s), oral history, and most importantly, an opportunity for us to commemorate the work and sacrifices they made for the church. As a group we cried, we laughed, and we listened as Black, Brown, and White elders in the Mennonite Church shared their frustrations, the good times and the bad times, and their sadness over how their involvement in the church hurt their families. These were holy moments. I don’t have much more to say because I am still processing it all, but I will say that I was inspired by the freedom dreams that these elders shared with those of us lucky enough to be there. The only thing I can say is that these elders left us with a lasting legacy and a vision of the kind of freedom work we must engage. Were there lessons on the evils of white supremacy, institutional racism, and white power? Yes. All of that.

But even more important, the Minority Ministries Council passed along to us the dreams, the possibilities, the hopes, and the will to continue to fight for justice. They pass along to us the necessity of inter-ethnic anti-racism work, of coalition building across lines of race, gender, and sexuality, and of the need to believe that another church is possible. Coming together is not some false utopian vision. It is the revolutionary idea that we need each other. Don’t misunderstand this as naiveté or as coalition politics without struggle. On the contrary, just like the movement of the MMC—with all its contradictions and silences—today’s work of coalition building is necessary if we are to understand the ways power and oppression operate in the church and society. Doing this kind of political work never comes out of a false sense of history. Rather, it is in understanding our story– and in knowing that our history is not perfect and neither are our movements for justice–that we see the powerful legacy of the Minority Ministries Council.

Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council

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.

MMC cross cultural cover

Brochure advertising a cross-cultural gathering sponsored by the Minority Ministries Council. “We They Coming Together: A Cross-Cultural Experience,” 1971: 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

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.


  1. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis to Lancaster Conference Mennonite Pastors, July 1969, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Box: Conference Statements. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. Lynford Hershey, “What Is the Mennonite Attitude on Race Relations.” Gospel Herald, March 23 1971, 262-264. 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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. 

Hazel’s People

Felipe Hinojosa

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

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

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

tijerina-family-oh

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

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

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

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

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


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