Read the AW Book Forum presentationService and the Ministry of Reconciliation by Alain Epp Weaver here.

Response to Epp Weaver by Regina Shands Stoltzfus*

The questions Alain Epp-Weaver asks regarding the practice of Christian service that has “embodies colonialism’s racialized value hierarchies” have been a critical concern and foundation for presence and work in Mennonite spaces for decades. Even before that, my own home congregational context was shaped by folks, Black and White, who asked similar questions about the broader church and its agencies. While we were a predominantly Black congregation, with many members coming from Christian traditions that were other than Mennonite, our theology was solidly Anabaptist. Our context, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. demanded we be racially conscious while we lived out our commitment to being an interracial worshipping community. 

Members of our congregation, including leadership, were present in some of the denominational conversations about race in the 1950’s and 60’s. The cohort of church planters that established Mennonite congregations in Black cities were no doubt influenced and encouraged by MCC’s Voluntary Service house in Atlanta, led by Vincent Harding and Rosemary Freeney Harding. MCC’s Peace Section established the unit in response the Harding’s belief that Mennonite theology was uniquely suited to join forces with Civil Rights Movement. While the Hardings believed good work was done by the VSers at Mennonite House, they and others grew disillusioned by the unwillingness of the church and its agencies to consistently speak out against the systemic racism that has been a part of this country’s history since the beginning with as much fervor as it did against militarism. 

Yet, as the brief existence of the Atlanta Mennonite house showed, MCC and other Mennonite-related agencies have put forth efforts to resist racism and to address the ways in which racism and other systemic violence can be manifested in Christian service itself. 

In the mid 1990’s, I joined the staff of Mennonite Conciliation Services, a program of MCC US. MCC US was in the process of intentionally becoming more racially diverse. HR policies were updated, along with other policy and procedural changes. This focused attention bore fruit, and I joined several other people of color in staff and leadership roles during my tenure. Office culture changed. Programming focused on race and racism continued, much of it resources created for MCC’s constituency, including the establishment of Damascus Road (now Roots of Justice), an anti-racism education and organizing program. 

Tobin Miller Shearer, then the director of MCC US’ anti-racism program, and I collaborated on a gathering that was meant to be a weekend focus on faith based anti-racism work. We both were deeply engaged in the work from our respective desks, and it was work that often felt lonely. We planned the gathering, which was held in March 1995, and emerged from that gathering of over 250 people energized by the clear call to do more education within our denomination and its agencies. For the first years of its existence, Damascus Road was housed in MCC. We saw several organizations institutionalize the training by requiring all new staff and new hires to participate.  

The dynamics of doing that work from predominantly white spaces, knowing the risk of pushing too hard on the one hand, and not enough on the other. The unspoken and perhaps unrealized identification with whiteness and how white supremacy operates, even (perhaps especially) within Christian spaces. MCC’s unique position as an interMennonite collaboration certainly highlighted these tensions. Every organization I’ve worked with, either as staff or as a consultant, has had to walk the line of doing prophetic, liberating work than names colonialism, racism, sexism, and other oppressions over and against constituents, including donors, who would bristle at the notion as being seen as part of the problem. In the early days of Damascus Road, we felt those tensions a lot, within MCC with co-workers who actively resisted the notion that we would need to do the work of addressing racism within our own house. 

Yet the need is ever greater. Systemic racism still exists and infects our communities and our agencies. Acts of overt racism and resistance to teaching about racism have become more visible. The anti-racism/anti-oppression work that was modeled for me, and that I have been honored to be a part of has felt liberating, revolutionary, and very much in keeping with what I understand to be God’s desire for God’s people to be peace builders and justice bringers.

Indeed, Christian service must go far, far beyond being doers and givers. If our service and acts of reconciliation are not also grounded in understanding the notion of white supremacy and how it operates in settings with a racialized history, like the U.S., then our service is tainted. 

In 1995, the folks that gathered in Chicago for the Restoring our Sight conference wrote these words: Together we have noted the biblical call to reconciliation. We believe that planning for long-term intentional anti-racism holds the promise of a renewed anti-racist multicultural church. Recognizing that this will not come by individual will or personal intent, we call for a process to equip our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ institutions to do the work of anti-racism. [1] This is a commitment that we must respond to, again and again.


* Professor of Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies at Goshen College, Goshen, IN, USA.

[1] Damascus Road Anti-Racism Core Trainer Manual, Introduction to Damascus Road: History (unpublished work, 2007), 1.