Individual articles from the Summer 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog twice per week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.
It seems ironic that I would be writing about MCC’s work on racism from the mid-1990s to the first part of the decade of this century. Our nation finds itself in such troubling times of overt racism and hatred and our churches are struggling how to respond. Why is it so hard for us, as Mennonites, to find ways to address racism? I hope that sharing the story of MCC’s work on racism from within the organization and external work with other agencies can help us understand ourselves. I hope that learning our history will give us the foundation we need to respond and the good sense not to repeat our mistakes.
MCC has worked to address racism from long before the 1990s. MCC, along with other Anabaptist groups, sought to counter racism during the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, for example, Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding led MCC’s Voluntary Service house in Atlanta and became friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Other Mennonites joined, but in the end, for many Mennonites, the cost of challenging racism was too great. For Mennonites in leadership, engaging in overt activism went too far: although Mennonites at the time did not fully articulate their concern in this way, one can see white Mennonite fear of giving up white privilege. Unfortunately, Mennonite reluctance to undertake the costly work of challenging racist structures led to the loss of the Hardings, two giants in the faith, who had left the Mennonite tradition by 1967, frustrated by Mennonite and MCC hesitancy to combat racism with greater vigor.
I came to work for MCC U.S. in the fall of 1996 as Director of Peace and Justice Ministries. By then, MCC U.S.’s Damascus Road Training was underway under the direction of Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Jody (now Tobin) Miller Shearer. What came to be called Damascus Road developed over the course of a long labor process starting in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, MCC hired John Chapman part-time to work on MCC becoming more ethnically and racially inclusive, both in its staffing and in its engagement of the full racial and ethnic range of Anabaptist groups in the U.S. Staff worked to make human resources policies more inclusive. Lynette Meck, then MCC U.S. director, wrote the first draft of a paper entitled Broadening the Vision in August 1994, in which she outlined a future of MCC becoming more inclusive of people of color. These efforts sought to build on relationships with people of color while resisting systemic racism within MCC.
The Damascus Road program started to take more concrete shape in 1994. That year, Tobin Miller Shearer published Enter the River: Healing Steps from White Privilege toward Racial Reconciliation. In 1995, the MCC U.S. Racism Project hosted a conference in Chicago entitled Restoring Our Sight. Invitations went out to leaders in U.S. Anabaptist institutions and in MCC U.S. and MCC Binational. A total of 250 people attended. The invitation letter sent out on March 1, 1995, stated the conference’s purpose: “As we worship, consider the realities of racism in the Anabaptist community, and share ideas and experiences out of our attempts to resist that racism, may our sight be restored. . . . As we discuss the difficulties of power and privilege, may we be clear and compassionate.” This event birthed what we came to be called the Damascus Road process.
That same year, MCC U.S. produced a video, Free Indeed, as a resource for congregations and other groups seeking to learn about white privilege and the importance of addressing privilege in order to dismantle racism. The video became one of the most widely requested videos in the MCC resource library for many years.
When MCC U.S. established the Damascus Road training program, it set as the program’s goals the preparation of teams within all Anabaptist agencies, including MCC,to dismantle racism within our Anabaptist institutions. The focus was looking at the systemic reality of racism. This work, though promising, also became controversial and threatening. In response to our work at becoming anti-racist and in confronting “whiteness” [racialized ideology that produces white privilege], we began to receive threatening letters. Tobin Miller Shearer, director of the Anti-Racism Desk in 1996, got a death threat from a white supremacist group. He also fielded many angry and negative comments from within the church. As a person of color, I found that very frightening. We consistently received pressure from some within MCC to focus on work on interpersonal relationships rather than on systemic issues, because white people were more comfortable discussing interpersonal relationships rather than confronting their own white privilege and the systemic barriers that kept white people in control, not just in society but within church institutions as well, including Anabaptist institutions.
Despite this pushback from various segments within MCC, Damascus Road did make an impact both on MCC and within the broader Anabaptist world in the U.S. This past year, my congregation welcomed Julie Hart as a guest speaker. Julie had been a sociology professor at Bethel College in Kansas when we organized a Damascus Road training there many years ago. When we talked briefly this past summer, Julie shared how her academic training had not previously introduced her to concepts of whiteness and white privilege: the Damascus Road training equipped her with analysis that has now become standard within sociology. Damascus Road anti-racism training has had an impact not only on individuals but also institutions. For example, today we have many more people of color in leadership positions within and on the board of Mennonite Church USA than when this anti-racism work first began. People of color groups, meanwhile, have been able to find places to be heard and contribute within Mennonite Church USA in ways that did not happen twenty years ago.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Tobin Miller Shearer and I co-authored a book together, Set Free, in 2001 while working for MCC U.S. In that book, we named the reality of racism and highlighted how power is used to maintain the status quo. We repeatedly found that many white people named racism as an issue of relationships, while people of color identified the issue of racism as systemic. The truth, of course, is that racism has both relational and systemic dimensions, but it is the systemic piece that affects people of color the most, from access to resources to the toll on our physical and mental health.
The Damascus Road program found that it was imperative for white people to address their racism if the task of dismantling racism could gain traction. The MCC U.S. anti-racism program thus developed a training module entitled Fire and Clay, a workshop for white people to confront the white privilege they carry. The first Fire and Clay gathering was held in April 2003. People attended, but MCC leadership, for the most part, did not participate. Earlier in June 2002, the Damascus Road program had developed a training called Set Free for people of color to work on internalized racism. Set Free trainings helped to inspire events like the Hope for the Future gatherings sponsored by Mennonite Church USA, in which people of color began to amplify their voices and make connections to one another to work together on issues that were important to them.
By the first decade of this century, the difficulty of working both within and beyond MCC U.S. to confront racism was taking a toll on people of color, who frequently felt they had to be the bridge builders and teachers for white people. In June 2006, MCC Binational and MCC U.S. jointly hired Rick Derksen, a white man, as coordinator of MCC’s Anti-Racism Accountability Council. Rick did a lot of good work, but by then many people of color tasked with anti-racism work were exhausted. Eventually, after much internal consultation, Damascus Road trainers determined that they wanted to undertake a broader, more intersectional, approach to anti-racism work, while also reaching out beyond Anabaptist communities. These discussions led in September 2012 to Damascus Road spinning off from MCC, becoming part of the independent organization, Roots of Justice.
Anabaptist institutions continue to work with Roots of Justice to hold Damascus Road anti-racism trainings because it has proven so effective in transforming their boards and leadership structures. To be sure, the gains made by this anti-racism work has come at a cost, taking a toll on people of color and white allies. Anti-racism work often faces backlash, with the impact falling most frequently on the people whose voices are marginalized, who are silenced when what they have to say becomes uncomfortable and who are terminated when they become a threat to white institutions. The work within our institutions needs white people to take ownership. Funding must be available for the work if the church is serious about dismantling racism. I pray and hope that MCC U.S. will come forward again in a bold way in its anti-racism work to name and speak against the renewed racist nationalism and xenophobia we are experiencing in our society and in our churches and that MCC will stand with congregations and institutions that are speaking up in defense of those at the receiving end of racism and hate.
Iris deLeón-Hartshorn is associate executive director for operations of Mennonite Church USA.
DeLeón-Hartshorn, Iris, Tobin Miller Shearer and Regina Shands Stoltzfus. Set Free: A Journey toward Solidarity against Racism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001.
Shearer, Tobin Miller. Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
——. Enter the River: Healing Steps from White Privilege toward Racial Reconciliation. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.