(A shortened version of this book review was published by The Mennonite World Review: “Despite missteps, Latinos joined Mennonites.”)
In his book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (2014), Felipe Hinojosa describes the struggle of Latinas and Latinos to become part of the Mennonite church in the United States. Hinojosa starts the story with Mennonite missionary work in Puerto Rico, South Texas, New York City, and Chicago, from the 1930s to the 1960s.
There are stories about the conviction and sacrifice of missionaries who ventured off the family farm to preach the gospel in unfamiliar contexts, like T. K. Hershey and William G. Detweiler who left Pennsylvania in 1936 to bear witness of Christ’s salvation in the borderlands of Texas. Less than twenty years later, there in South Texas, the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities planted a Voluntary Service unit (VS) to support the growing Mexican-American Mennonite congregation in Mathis, Iglesia Menonita del Calvario. Hinojosa recounts the excitement and awkwardness of white people inviting themselves into someone else’s community, both the thrill of the exotic and the fear of the foreign. These sites of missionary work displayed the promise of the gospel, the gathering together of a people of various ethnicities, cultures, and languages, worshiping God as the inter-racial body of Christ, a people without dividing walls, a church without the hostility of segregation.
Yet, among some of the mission workers, there was also a concern for ethnic purity. “The Mennonites would preach to us and live in our community,” remembered Ted Chapa, who was a young Mexican American boy in Mathis at the time, “But if one of their sons or daughters wanted to marry a Mexicano or Mexicana, that was a no-no and they would open the Bible and explain why that should not happen” (34). It’s no surprise that the Bible can be used to justify sexual prejudices, but what is surprising is that Latinos and Latinas tolerated the racist failures of some missionaries and joined themselves to the Mennonite church. They became Mennonite because they found enough of the goodness of Jesus in the lives of white Mennonites. “For many Mexican American youth,” Hinojosa comments, “the VSers became models for how to live a Christian life” (33).
Yet, white Mennonites missionaries emptied their gospel of the parts of Jesus’ message that would challenge the oppressive social codes of the white establishment. “VSers complied with the established racial codes in South Texas,” Hinojosa explains. “For the sake of the mission, it was important for VSers and Mennonite missionaries to maintain strong relationships with the local Anglo community” (33-34). In other words, white Mennonites agreed to play by the rules, even if they were racist rules.
Hinojosa doesn’t shy away from letting us read the prejudices of Mennonite leaders from the past. “I was never strong for mixing Mexicans into our church building with our whites,” declared a leader in the Illinois Mennonite Conference in the 1930s, “the separate place for worship for the Mexicans was to my mind wise, in fact imperative” (20). The minister was concerned not to disrupt the racialized landscape of Chicago. However, Hinojosa records other voices, other white Mennonite leaders who spoke out against the sin of racism. In the 1950s, Guy F. Hershberger, professor at Goshen College, claimed that “to take part in any form of race discrimination…is a contribution to war” (60).
Despite such a mixed history of missionary activity and race relations, Latinos and Latinas became part of the Mennonite church. “Even with the racist missteps and paternalistic patterns of Mennonite missionaries,” Hinojosa explains, “they managed to organize…Latino Mennonite churches” and “managed to impart an ethic of peace, service, and simplicity in the communities where they worked” (46). Hispanics became Mennonite as a result of people giving their lives to relationships across racial barriers; our interracial denomination is sustained because of “the memories of basketball games, shared meals, and service projects” (218).
As more and more Latinas and Latinos became Mennonite, they found fellowship with African American Mennonites, and together formed a group called the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) as a way “to correlate Black and Brown concerns” within the denomination. “We want to have a say in everyday affairs of the church,” wrote Lupe De León, a member of the MMC staff, “We want to be leaders” (89) The MMC was successful in making room within the Mennonite tradition, and the denomination, for black and brown people. African American and Latino leaders were soon affirmed and trusted with positions within denominational structures.
And not just Latinos, but Latinas as well. Hinojosa’ chapter on feminism tells the story of how women and men negotiated rival currents within their faith and culture. Within their churches, Latinas were often discriminated against. “Though men were the numerical minority in many Latino Mennonite churches,” Hinojosa observes, “they held the majority of the leadership positions on committees and virtually all the pastoral positions in the church” (150). Latina women were also kept from leadership positions in broader church structures, including the all-male cohort that made up the MMC. “Like the male leadership of the black and Chicano civil rights movements,” Hinojosa remarks, “MMC leaders focused on racial injustice in the church and society and were not prepared to address the marginalization of women within their own ranks” (157). But Latinas pushed through the dividing wall of sexism, established their own organization, with their own leaders, and sponsored events for theological conversations. Under the leadership of Maria Bustos, the Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita planned annual assemblies with titles such as the 1974 gathering, La Mujer Decidida en un Ambiente Hostil (“The Confident Women in a Hostile Environment”) (154). The women were remarkable in organizing church growth. “Whereas the all-male MMC leadership struggled to build a grassroots base,” Hinojosa comments, “Latinas were quick to organize 18 church groups with a total membership of over 300 across the country” (173). Evidence of the legacy of their success, Hinojosa notes, was the recent appointment of Elizabeth Soto-Albrecht as the first Latina to serve as moderator of Mennonite Church USA (218).
The Minority Ministries Council not only sparked a movement of color within a mostly white denomination, the MMC also succeeded in developing vital relationships between brown and black people. Hinojosa recounts the Cross-Cultural Youth Convention in 1972 (CCYC), where non-white Mennonite youth gathered for worship and fellowship, and discussion of what it means to be minorities within the church and country. “The CCYC was a galvanizing event for interethnic solidarity,” Hinojosa writes (99). At the convention, in their talks, John Powell, Hubert Brown, Lawrence Hart, Neftali Torres, Lupe De León, among others, wove together testimonies and exhortations that challenged the youth to engage with issues of faith and identity, of power and solidarity. And the youth did come together, in an act of solidarity, to announce that they supported Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement. They called upon the Mennonite Church to support the work of the National Farm Worker Ministry as well as endorse the lettuce boycott. “We ask our savior Jesus Christ to be with Cesar Chavez,” they prayed (115).
There was a backlash against the youth movement and the work of the MMC. They were accused of leading the church astray with “a mixture of Christianity and Communism,” wrote a Pennsylvanian Mennonite (118). Taken aback by a gospel that had such political implications, the Lancaster Mennonite Conference soon began separating their Hispanic communities throughout the United States from the fellowship of MMC. “Under the direction of the mostly conservative Lancaster Mennonite Conference,” Hinojosa notes, “leaders advocated a separate Hispanic Concilio”—a new organization, Hinojosa writes, “whose focus would be evangelism and church planting, not political and church reform” (119).
Given this constriction of what was allowed as an authentic Latina and Latino Mennonite identity, it’s not surprising that current Hispanic Mennonite leaders have called the rest of the Mennonite church to “teach and enforce” heterosexuality as the norm, as John D. Roth observes in his recent reflection on Hinojosa’s book for The Mennonite magazine (Nov 2014). Yet Hinojosa makes clear, on the last pages of his book, that “more than half of Latinos support same-sex marriage.” In this debate, to choose one side or the other is to take the side of Latinas and Latinos. We’re on both sides, as I’ve learned from conversations with Hispanic Mennonites as well as with my own family members. Nonetheless, Hinojosa notes his surprise that “white Mennonites have supported this opposition [of LGBTQ inclusion] under the guise of remaining committed to their aspirations of being an ‘anti-racist church’” (219). A truly anti-racist church would honor the diversity among every racial group, and not use one part of us against the other.
Last week I got a flyer in the mail for a Mennonite heritage tour: Amsterdam, Zurich, Berne, Worms. All names of European cities. “Most white Mennonites know more about the origins of their religious movement in sixteenth-century Europe,” Hinojosa remarks, “than they do about the struggles of Latinos and other people of color in the twentieth century” (203). Someday, perhaps, a Mennonite heritage tour will include visits to La Plata, Puerto Rico and Moline, Illinois and Brownsville, Texas. If you don’t know why these places are important for your Mennonite identity, then you should read Felipe Hinojosa’s book.
~ Isaac S. Villegas