At the Virginia Mennonite Conference delegate assembly last Saturday (via Zoom), one of the topics of discussion was race relations. I am again reminded that when much of our lives as white people are shaped within the confines of neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and worship settings that are mostly or entirely white, whiteness just seems normal to us—the default. Every other color of skin is…well, not normal, different, diverse. (Why is white skin not considered different?) It’s easy to assume that racism is not a pressing topic. And it’s also easy for white folks to become defensive when the subject comes up, or when words like “privilege” and “white privilege” are used—because it feels like an accusation of personal racism, an indictment on our niceness. Someone put it this way: “White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.”
When systemic and structural racism is exposed and people take to the streets to protest, people, organizations, and institutions often race to catch up to what they have often ignored. I worry a little that the statement below from Conference Council to VMC delegates may be one of those races to catch up, when it would be better if we had been more serious about this work for a long time already. But better late than never! The document tries to put some “teeth” into creating more sustained awareness of these issues, along with responses that will be helpful to all. It’s a work in process, but I think it represents a very significant contribution to the church’s vision of healing and hope for the world. May it be so!
Phil Kanagy, pastor
Statement from the Conference Council of Virginia Mennonite Conference to all VMC Delegates:
July 13, 2020
The murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and similar racist acts have made us inescapably aware of the suffering, disadvantages, and oppression experienced by non-White citizens, which have always been there, but which the White establishment has chosen to ignore or overlook. Black Lives Matter and White Supremacy are more than slogans: They are realities we have overlooked for centuries. The findings of the Kerner Commission 52 years ago were clear, but no changes were made: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White---separate and unequal. What White Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget---is that White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, White institutions maintain it, and White society condones it." Non-White persons have experienced racism through being treated as second class citizens, or non-citizens, in all areas of American life including education, housing, medical care, employment opportunities, and criminal justice. They are denied many freedoms White people take for granted, including freedom from fear.
Virginia Mennonite Conference, historically organized and led by Whites, is not free of blame. Despite a number of efforts as an organization, and some laudable individual attitudes and actions, we have too often been blind, insensitive, static and slow to act, thus contributing to racism through our policies, practices, and unwitting comments and actions. We have also been guilty of sins of omission---missed opportunities to say or do the right thing. We have failed to live out God's vision of racial reconciliation in our life together and in our witness to the world. We must name and repent of the ways we have knowingly and unknowingly contributed to racism.
As leaders of Virginia Mennonite Conference who want to embody the Gospel vision of reconciliation, our hope needs to move beyond vision to specific anti-racist actions. We therefore pledge to work both institutionally and as individuals to right wrongs, commit to equality, and fulfill the Biblical mandate expressed in the words of the hymn based on Amos 5:24, "Let justice roll like a river, and wash all oppression away". Our actions build upon and implement Goal 4 of the Strategic Plan in the process of being adopted by the Conference, which reads in part, "To hear the voices and welcome the leadership of people of color..."
The following actions were passed unanimously by Conference Council at its meeting on July 6, 2020. We were guided in our decision-making by input from a group of non-White leaders who had shared their concerns and suggestions during a meeting with three VMC leaders on 6/19/20.
We are appointing a multi-racial Task Force, majority non-White, whose work will be facilitated by a consultant/expert experienced in racial sensitivity, racial consciousness, and anti-racism and inclusion. This group shall be tasked with the following:
1. Assess VMC’s history concerning race relationships and provide a written report of their findings to Conference Council and the Delegate Assembly. There are stories of positive and negative actions by leaders and members concerning race relationships. These need to be heard. This may be where deep listening occurs by a group of people, but these stories can also be recorded and shared with our constituency.
2. Make specific recommendations to Conference Council to eliminate racist language from Conference documents and policies at all levels of the organization.
3. Provide advocacy to include non-White members on Conference planning committees on personnel selection for all committee appointments.
4. Make recommendations concerning governance practice within VMC to incorporate non-White leaders.
5. Facilitate training programs in racial sensitivity, racial consciousness, and anti-racism and inclusion for Conference Staff, Conference Council members, and members of the Congregational Life and Faith and Life Commissions.
6. Require all key leaders of Conference, Conference Staff, and credentialed leaders to take the Intercultural Cultural Development Inventory - http://mennoniteusa.org/what-we-do/undoing-racism/intercultural-development-inventory/
7. Facilitate the development of a mandatory training program for all credentialed leaders in racial sensitivity, racial consciousness, and anti-racism and inclusion.
8. Ask each congregation to provide training on racial sensitivity, racial consciousness, anti-racism, and inclusion, using materials and training programs recommended by the Task Force.
A target date of September 30, 2020 is set to receive specific plans to carry out these activities.