Friday, March 7, 2014

#16: R4 in the Heart of a Mennonite Community

An African American-owned restaurant demolished in Harrisonburg, Va.
This is an edited version of another letter I sent to Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MCUSA. 

MCUSA, whether we like it or not, is at a crossroads, and it's difficult to be at the helm when this happens. But I'm ashamed of how the Mennonite church has dealt with issues of racism and sexism in the past (and present), and I think it's better for us to be at the forefront of change rather than waiting for it to be okay in the rest of the world and then change.

When I was a student at Eastern Mennonite University, I learned that the city of Harrisonburg demolished entire African American neighborhoods in the name of progress during segregation. I wrote a story about this for the campus paper, The Weather Vane. (I don't have a copy of my article, but Lauren McKinney wrote about Proposition R4 in Eightyone.) At one point, I interviewed professors who were around during this time, and asked them what the Mennonite church said or did about this injustice. One looked embarrassed and said they thought it was a good thing at the time. 

People were routed from their homes and the Mennonite church did nothing to stop it. It was ingrained in the Mennonites of Harrisonburg (big proponents of community) that African Americans needed to be relocated for economic progress, and that their community was not important. It has been ingrained in Mennonites of many places that people who do not fit the sexual norm are not of God's creation and at best should be celibate.

We are all racist, homophobic, sexist people at one time or another, whether we mean to be or not. Anyone who thinks they are not these things at some point in their lives is kidding themselves. I think we need to recognize these things in ourselves rather than push it away. It is only when we are honest about one's actions or feelings that we can change. 

I live in the Bronx. My neighborhood is like the UN. I am often the only white face on the bus or subway. I am aware of the different races around me. I used to be embarrassed by this awareness. But now I accept it and I know that the best way to change is to embrace my race and the races of those around me. I try to see my beauty and their beauty, and hope to see our beauty together some day. I smile at those around me, and more often than not, I receive a smile back. I think if more people who are against the official inclusion of LGBTQ members would simply smile at these members and get to know them as people, we would be on a more progressive path. 

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