Below is an excerpt from a longer reflection by Mennonite pastor and Anabaptist Witness book reviews co-editor Isaac Villegas on the open letter he and other participants in the 2018 Hope for the Future conference sent to members of Mennonite Church USA. As the letter states, “Hope for the Future gatherings bring together leaders of color from across the church, sometimes with white allies, to explore the ways that power, privilege and racism function in our denomination.”
The letter, according to Villegas, claims that “an ecclesial hope that doesn’t ignore our various identities is vital to how we bear witness to the gospel, at home and abroad, to our neighbors near and far. Our letter testifies to our belonging in the church—and our belonging displays the breadth of the gospel’s invitation, because if we’re here, in the multiplicity of our identities, then there is room in the body of Christ for others like us.” The entire essay is available here.
As Mennonites of color, at our recent gathering we . . . produced an intersectional statement—centered on our own lives yet inviting others to join our vision for our denomination. We began with ourselves, with the world as we experience it: “We must listen to our incarnational truth,” our letter states. There’s a truth in our bodies—God speaking to us through our racialized experiences. The word incarnational draws from our Christian theological tradition while borrowing from feminism: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir. We listen to what we’ve come to know through the conditions of our lives—and we speak that truth because there is strength in our bodies, our lives bearing witness to the sustaining power of God. As we dwell in our incarnational truth, we recognize that each of our lives contains multiple identities. We cannot be reduced to our racial differences, for example. And the maneuverings of our ecclesial politics has prioritized our racial identities over other parts of us—for example, our sexualities. “For too long in our churches we’ve forced people to deny pieces of who they are for the sake of unity, rendering them invisible,” we announce in our statement. “We choose instead to see and value the imago dei in all people.” We don’t want to be fragmented for the purposes of denominational unity—as church leaders attribute value to racial difference while pretending our sexualities don’t exist, because they would prefer Mennonites of color to be committed to their established heteronomative agenda.
Audre Lorde named this reality better than anyone else: “As a Black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredients of my identity, and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression,” she wrote in her book Sister Outsider, “I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” This is a self-destructive way to live, Lorde explained, and it diminishes the strength and gifts we can bring to our communities. “My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly,” she expounded, “allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definitions.” That’s the reality we want, as Mennonites of color—a denominational structure that lets our incarnational truths and gifts empower our church’s struggle for God’s justice, the gospel of Christ’s peace, without denying our wholeness, the intersections of identities that converge in our lives. “We have a powerful peace and justice witness,” the letter declares. “But we must be willing to reach across faith, social class and ideological lines to partner with others.” The reach of our mutual belonging reveals our commitment to the reach of the gospel. Like the Combahee River Collective statement, as Mennonites of color our statement invites others to struggle with us for another world, a gospel that makes room for all of our identities. Our vision is an invitation for solidarity—to work side by side as a way to welcome God’s redemption for all of us.
Simone de Beauvior, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1947), quoted in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossings Press, 2007 ), 113.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossings Press, 2007 ), 120.