Stop using the term 'ethnic Mennonite'By Naomi Yoder Harris
A recent blog by Robert Martin and Chris Lenshyn, “Mennonites or ‘Ethnonites’?” spurred much conversation. Naomi Yoder Harris gave Martin her own take on the topic and they agreed to share it here. Yoder Harris describes herself as “an atypical ’ethnic Mennonite’ raised in (and still active in) a culturally diverse, mostly black, Mennonite church in New York City.”
Recently I’ve been thinking about my experience as an atypical “ethnic Mennonite.” I’m uncomfortable with that label; it’s not like “New Yorker” or “used-to-be-brunette-now-streaked-with-grey,” which describe me in concrete ways. But “ethnic Mennonite?” That’s something that other people — who don’t know me or my church experience — call me. Because I’m white. Because of (the first half of) my last name. Because I know what “the Mennonite Game” is and sometimes I can play.
But “ethnic Mennonite” is not something I’ve ever called myself. Because although I’m white, I identify with the expressive, joyous, openness of the black/urban church. Because of (the last half of) my last name, which I happily carry as a visible connection to my Virginia-born husband of African- and Native-American descent. Because sometimes I’m not able to make the mental moves required by the Mennonite Game — and even when I can, I sometimes choose not to play.
When someone identifies me an ethnic Mennonite, does that person imagine my lifelong connection to a culturally-mixed, predominantIy black, church? I highly doubt it. Or imagine that I consider my spiritual godmother to be my first and second grade Sunday school teacher — a warm, outspoken, African-American single mother, now in her 80s, whose father was the pastor of a large Baptist congregation in Charleston, S.C.? Again, highly unlikely.
My parents, both originally from an Amish-Mennonite enclave in western Maryland, moved to New York City in 1965 so my dad could attend grad school. Knowing they wanted to be connected to a local Mennonite congregation for as long as we’d be in the City — which, as it turned out, became our permanent home — found a possibility listed in the telephone directory (no Internet then!), and we headed to Harlem to check out Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.
I liked the children’s Sunday school and my parents appreciated the warmth of the group and the Bible-based teaching and preaching. We had found our church home. And I was raised in — and by — a Mennonite congregation that looked and sounded, worshipped, preached, reached consensus and argued, in ways that were very different from the majority of the broader U.S.-American Mennonite church.
But I didn’t know all of that as I was growing up. I knew that I was loved by my church family, and that it was good to ask questions, speak up, be honest about struggles and doubts, shout from the rooftop to share good news. I knew that people came from different places — ”down South,” Jamaica, Pennsylvania — and cooked different food — collard greens and macaroni and cheese; curried goat and rice and peas; homemade bread and graham cracker pudding.
I heard, sang, internalized, the songs of the ancestors: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Gott Ist Die Liebe,” “Precious Lord.” And I came to understand that every person and every group has a personal and collective journey that matters; that God leads his dear children along; that it is up to each one of us to decide to follow the call of Jesus. And then the real work happens, because we have to continuously figure out what that means for our lives. And then we really need the church family! Because it is in this community, where discernment and encouragement and prayer and laughter and action and conflict and continually looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, all comes together, and moves us along the way.
It is this merging of so many people’s lives, perspectives and experiences that have shaped my way of seeing the world, my way of experiencing God, my way of expressing what Jesus means to me — and what it means to be an Anabaptist Mennonite Christian. When my parents first brought me to Harlem as a pig-tailed little girl, our church met in a storefront on Seventh Avenue. Since then, a lot has changed. Now the church is located three buildings down from its original site, which was destroyed by fire in 1974. The gut renovation of our new church/apartment building (on the original site, plus an adjacent building), is finally almost completed. Years ago, our street address changed even though our location did not, when the City renamed Seventh Avenue north of Central Park in honor of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. In 2008, at a time of pastoral transition, we changed the name of our congregation to Infinity Mennonite Church.
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