The growth of congregations of color is changing the face of Mennonite churches in the United States. These congregations represent 18 percent of Mennonite Church USA and their members comprise 11 percent of the denomination’s membership. According to the latest membership profile, African-American members make up 52 percent of that block. One of the largest (and fastest growing) congregations in the denomination is African-American.1
Records indicate Mennonites and African Americans likely first encountered one another in at the close of the 19th century. By the 1940s, at least 13 Mennonite churches had been established in African-American communities (six in the East, six in the Midwest and one on the West Coast). Summer Bible school programs, led by white volunteers and directed towards children, marked the beginning of many of the churches. Because of these encounters, mothers in particular were often the adults who came in contact with white Mennonites and in many cases were the ones to decide that their families would attend the Mennonite church. In African-American worshipping communities, women often make up the majority of adults in attendance and thus are the decision-makers regarding family church attendance. The importance of women’s roles and participation in the African-American church has been ignored and underplayed, as men have held the majority of recognized church leadership roles. Women, however, contribute in vital ways to the establishment and maintenance of social and cultural patterns that become embedded in structures in institutions such as the local church. Women also (especially in the era considered) are responsible for determining children’s activities.
The history of Black Christianity in America cannot be untangled from the correlating history of white racism and oppression. From the beginning, African Americans have had to search for and lift up liberatory aspects of biblical texts and accompanying theologies, even as these texts were simultaneously used by some to justify slavery and segregation. African-American women’s stories and experiences give texture to the story of Mennonites in the United States and African-American religious history. These stories provide a glimpse of how faith identity, racialized and gendered identities and Black/white race relations interplayed during a critical time in U.S. history.
For Black Christians, the church became one place they could say, in defiance of a white dominant culture,
We are human and we are created in the image of God. This declaration is deeper than simple self-esteem or the creation of a Black island of comfort and refuge. It is also where the crafting of a profoundly political space takes place – one that addresses not just spiritual needs, but physical and emotional ones as well. Black people needed decent places to live, jobs that paid a living wage and ways to keep their bodies and the bodies of the people they loved safe. Racial violence, job discrimination, housing discrimination and more were threats to the survival of the Black community and part of the day-to-day reality of Black people’s lives. Why might a white denomination, particularly one with such a marked cultural identity as Mennonites, be attractive to Black Christians?
Part of the attraction was the ability to continue participating as shapers of sacred Black space that honored Black lives, while also being able to form authentic relationships with white Christians who seemed to want to create and be involved in new ways of living in a deeply segregated America. The beginning of the 20th century saw a huge migration of Blacks to the industrial North, due to a combination of failed crops that destroyed the possibility of work for Black sharecroppers, decreased immigration from Europe and white American men going off to fight in World War I. Northern factories recruited African Americans from the South to keep production up. By 1930, more than a million African Americans had migrated and most cities that had a significant Black population had established boundaries designating where they could live. Although sought after as workers, they were not welcome as neighbors. Racial segregation became a marker of Northern neighborhoods as Black migration continued.2
Although often behind the scenes and unrecognized, Black women held key roles in sustaining the local church and helping it become what has been called the most powerful institution of racial self-help in the African-American community. Church is not just a Sunday morning gathering place, but an avenue where cultural identity and behavior is shaped and nurtured. This includes shaping a people who are able to resist white racism and celebrate Blackness. Black women also financially supported this institution by raising funds so that these spaces could be independent and self-sufficient and contribute in meaningful ways to the community at large by providing services. Within this framework, Black women in Mennonite churches have helped shape unique understandings of Mennonite Christian identity that are meaningful for a denomination that claims an anti-racist identity in the 21st century.
Chicago in the 1940s was a significant place to foment ideas about race and faith for white Mennonites. The community of Mennonites in the Woodlawn neighborhood (where Mennonite Biblical Seminary was located) was also the location of an integrated Mennonite congregation. A number of seminary students who would go on to church leadership were influenced by their time in Chicago and the challenge issued by the Mennonite Board of Missions.
After World War II, home missions interest was kindled, and a lifting of an embargo on missions meant there were funds available. Mission Board Secretary J.D. Graber recognized a new political and social era dawning and the need for the church to respond appropriately. He promoted the concept of each Mennonite congregation having a local outpost of its own:
Within 10 or 15 miles of every Mennonite community you will find an unchurched area where people are without the Gospel.3 Missionaries began to connect the implications Anabaptist/Mennonite heritage had for the way they answered their callings to serve in marginalized communities. The mission board called home missionaries to a new church model of indigenous partnership – people who lived in the host communities would have a say in the structure and culture of the new church. This would be the model the Lee Heights church committed itself to.4
Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland sits on a corner in a residential neighborhood on the city’s southeast edge. In 1951, Gladstone Mennonite Church in Cleveland was the precursor to Lee Heights. Gladstone itself developed from a summer Bible school project held in two large city schools. By the end of the ’50s, urban renewal had caused the Gladstone church to move from its original site to the Lee Heights neighborhood and adopt the new name.
The founders of Lee Heights had a vision for a multiracial ministry and church that remains, although today the church is primarily African-American. Early days found members going door-to-door to invite people to visit this new interracial community church – a notion largely unheard of in 1950s America. Blacks and whites worshipping together? Every week? Yet this became a critical facet of identity for this congregation, so much so that it was written into the church constitution.
Joyce migrated to Cleveland from Florida in the late 1950s to find work. In Cleveland, she met her husband who, like thousands of other Black men from the South, ended up in places like Cleveland and Detroit, working in the auto plants. Along with steel manufacturing jobs, auto jobs were among the first good ones – union jobs, too – that opened up to Blacks. Joyce had family in Cleveland already – an uncle from the same small town in Florida she had come from.
Once married, the couple moved to an apartment in a densely populated inner-city area. Eventually an opportunity came to move into a newly built Black neighborhood on the east side of the city, adjacent to the Lee Heights neighborhood. Soon Joyce was invited to attend Lee Heights Community Church by neighbors who had early on joined in the multiracial church experiment. Joyce went, and was attracted by a number of things: the small size of the congregation, the minister’s quiet but impassioned sermons, activities for her young children and involvement in neighborhood concerns. She particularly liked that everyone in the congregation was encouraged to serve, even the young children.
Joyce remembers Lee Heights being involved in the struggle for affordable, decent housing, and also participating in voter education. At the time, Carl Stokes, the first Black mayor of a major city, was in office. Joyce worked for the city’s Black newspaper, The Call and Post.
One of our jobs was to buy all the major [white] newspapers on the way in to the office in the morning; our reporters would rewrite [the stories] from the Black perspective.5
Joyce felt a direct connection between the way her church taught and modeled engagement in the world and her Christian faith. Although she missed some aspects of her earlier church experience – such as the call-and-response gospel music – their absence was tolerable. And eventually, she recalls, these things came. The partnership model the church was engaged in allowed the congregation to develop a hybrid identity between Black church and Mennonite church.
Rehoboth Mennonite Church is located in rural Pembroke Township, Ill., home to an African-American community. As it did in the 1950s, Rehoboth hosts children’s ministries, now supervised by Rose Covington. Rose grew up at Rehoboth and has served as an elder for a number of years.
Rose and her family began attending Rehoboth when she was about 10. She had already been baptized as an infant in the Baptist church. She describes herself as
growing up Mennonite the whole way, including the wearing of
plain dress of Mennonite girls and women.
I used to wear the long dresses and the covering. Once you become a member, that’s what you were expected to do.6
Rose’s mother decided her family would join Rehoboth in the late ’40s. Twenty years earlier, Rowena Lark had made the same decision for her family. James and Rowena Lark had made their first contact with Mennonites in Pennsylvania in 1927. After members of the Rocky Ridge Mission Church invited the Lark children to Sunday school, Rowena also attended and was the first person in the family to become a member. Later her husband and three of their children followed suit. Rowena Lark said it was the way the Mennonites literally fulfilled the mandates of Scripture that attracted her.
I saw these faithful Christians coming eight or more miles from their homes and gathering up in their cars Italians, Poles, Dutch, American Negroes and Germans, to take them to the house of the Lord. I was made to feel that here is a group of Christians who are really making their religion practical.7
For Rowena, the Mennonites she encountered represented Christians who took their faith seriously. Evidence of this was their willingness to traverse racial and cultural boundaries to bring the word of God into the lives of all people, to rub shoulders and to share possessions. By 1945, Rowena and James Lark (the first ordained Black pastor and the first Black bishop in the Mennonite Church) were leaders in Chicago’s Bethel Mennonite Church congregation. The Bethel church’s children’s ministries eventually led to the development of Rehoboth.
During the Depression years, Rose Covington remembers her mother sharing the family’s food with other families –
She was a social worker before we even knew what social work was. Rose’s father was a rail worker. Born in Chicago, Rose moved with her family to Pembroke Township after her parents were able to purchase a plot of land.
Brother and Sister Lark would invite us to church and eventually Rose’s family came over from the Baptist church.8 The Mennonite ethic of hard work and living simply was familiar to her family. She says that part always felt right – it is an ethic she has valued her whole life.
As an adult, Rose has had significant involvement in the wider Mennonite Church, sitting on church boards and bringing representation and an African-American perspective that was still quite rare. Her reflection on the perspective she brought was that it was new, unfamiliar and not often understood. Sometimes representatives of what used to be called
associate groups in the (old) Mennonite Church system (African-American, Hispanic, Native American and Asian) felt pitted against one another. She sees value in and is grateful for what she and other African-American women have brought to the denomination. As one who experienced systemic racism, she has not hesitated to name it in church systems, even when such naming has not been welcomed.
What was highly impressive was the willingness of the early volunteers, and later the pastors and their families, to move into the neighborhoods the churches were in.
The leaders … had a chance to live in the neighborhood. They didn’t drive in and drive out. They lived and breathed the same kind of thing we did. While church planters and other volunteers made the decision to venture into Black neighborhoods for ministry, attention must be given to the people already living in the host neighborhoods who presented themselves as partners and extended hospitality to the newcomers. Women attending these churches are subjects themselves of the story.
These stories demonstrate the articulation of Mennonite identity beyond culture and race, a willingness to transgress boundaries as a marker of Christian faith, and demonstrations of radical hospitality. On both sides, these were counter-cultural acts, acts of resistance.