As a Mennonite of color people treat me in two different ways: either people are curious about how I became a Mennonite and love that I am a part of the tradition or they are suspicious of me. To be honest, I don’t care much anymore. I am here now. I am a Mennonite. I am a Black man.
It is always an awkward moment when I tell people that I am a Mennonite. Usually, when I tell people they follow up with the question: “How did you become Mennonite?” Though I get tired of this question, I understand it. I mean how does a Black city guy become a Mennonite. I can’t speak for other people of color within the Mennonite tradition, but what I can do is speak about my experience with the Mennonite church.
I grew up in Garland, Texas where I was the son of two Baptist parents. Though my parents never went to church, they always made sure that my younger brother and I would attend. We grew up having a deep reverence for the church. We prayed every night before bed. We attended every Sunday dressed sharp. We even made sure to take at least $1 so that we could put it into the offering plate. My family and I moved around a lot within the area, so at times we would have to change churches regularly. When I got to high school, I had begun to become more devoted to the church. I would attend the midweek youth group events. I would go to youth camp every summer. I even got to the point where I decided to become a pastor one day.
Upon graduating high school, I received a football scholarship to attend Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. Bethel College is a Mennonite affiliated college. I remember telling my friends at my Baptist church about Bethel and they would always look at me shocked. Some of them had never heard of Mennonites and wanted to know who or what they were. Other folks would show concern about me going to a non-baptist college. Some thought that I was becoming Amish. Even though I didn’t know much about the Mennonite tradition, I knew they were Christian and the college had a football team, so that was good enough for me.
When I got to Bethel, I decided to become a Bible and Religion major. I thought that this major would help fast track me towards my dream of becoming a pastor. I remember taking my first Bible course with Patricia Shelly, a Mennonite Bible professor at Bethel College. Within this class, and many others, she introduced me to the Mennonite tradition and theology. I was fascinated by the Mennonites’ views on nonviolence and community. The church wasn’t just a place where you went to worship, but it was also a place of community and peace.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Mennonite Church is a global community of 1.6 million believers in 57 countries on six continents. And all churches are guided by 7 principles.
Holistic Christian witness
Undoing racism and advancing intercultural transformation
If you’d like to know more, visit mennoniteusa.org.
While at Bethel, I began to attend a rural Mennonite church. It was a good place and the people there were kind. The only weird thing was that everyone there was white. In fact, most of the Mennonites that I met at Bethel were white and raised within the Mennonite tradition. See, though the Mennonite church is welcoming, it can be very insular at times. Usually in the United States, when you meet a Mennonite, they are born into the tradition. They grew up with special Mennonite traditions and foods. At my time at Bethel, I rarely heard of anyone converting to the Mennonite tradition, especially not a person of color. Though I began to love the theology, I never felt like I fit in. I felt that I knew the theology more than some of the more cultural Mennonites that I knew, but that wasn’t important. If you weren’t born within the tradition, it was harder for you to be accepted or welcomed into it.
Much of this changed for me however when I received the opportunity to attend the seventh annual “Hope For The Future” gathering in San Antonio, Texas. This conference was for Mennonites of color to come together to connect and think of a way to combat issues that Mennonites of color are facing. These issues included race, gender, immigration, and even sexuality. There I saw a new side of the Mennonite church. At Bethel, I had only seen white, rural traditional Mennonites; but here at Hope For The Future, I met other Mennonites of color. Mennonites that weren’t born into the tradition. Mennonites that had converted to the denomination like myself and were trying to find their own voice with the church. I realized here that I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one struggling with trying to fit into this tradition. This experience taught me that it wasn’t about being born into a tradition. It was about how we as people of color identified ourselves within the tradition. We held the values. We knew that the Mennonite tradition was the right one for us.
As a Mennonite of color people treat me in two different ways: either people are curious about how I became a Mennonite and love that I am a part of the tradition or they are suspicious of me. To be honest, I don’t care much anymore. I am here now. I am a Mennonite. I am a Black man. I no longer feel the need to explain my faith or my skin color to anyone else. I identify with the Mennonite tradition now, even if the tradition doesn’t want to identify with me.