Confessions of a white anti-racist

I arrived in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the week of convention, eager to take it all in.  I couldn’t wait to run into old friends in the hallway, participate in thought-provoking seminars, and, close to the top of the list, add my voice to the community of voices as we sang familiar hymns.  I even announced (pre-emptively) in my Facebook status that “nothing says happy 4th [of July] like thousands of peace church members singing their theology together in four part harmony!”

So when I arrived in the hall for the opening worship service on Monday evening, I was surprised to discover that hymns did not form the backbone of the singing.  As the week progressed, it appeared that in fact hymns would take a backseat in the adult worship services for the duration.  I was disappointed, a little confused, and as Betsy Headrick McCrae noted in her story Wednesday afternoon, thrown off-balance.  I didn’t know the songs the worship band led.  I missed the hymns I had grown up singing and come to love.  Wasn’t this the Mennonite convention, after all?  Weren’t hymns and four part harmony our bread and butter?  I heard a similar sentiment echoed frequently throughout the week.  Where had the hymns gone?

But one day during the adult worship, as the band from Calvary Community Church led us in song, I noticed a middle-aged black woman standing a few rows ahead of me.  She had her head tilted back, face raised, and was swaying and clapping along with the music.  I wondered how many conventions and how many church services she had previously sat through, feeling as I now did– disconnected and a bit out of my element.  But today it was her turn to worship in a style familiar and nurturing to her.  So this music IS Mennonite music.  The middle-aged woman, a Mennonite, sings and worships to music that feeds her.  It’s not familiar territory to me, but I do not have a monopoly on Mennonite culture.  Being a multi-cultural church means, for white “ethnic” Mennonites, that sometimes we have to take a step back and be willing to hear and engage other expressions of worship.  Sometimes the feeling of losing our balance is a gift that teaches us to walk more gently.  And perhaps, after generations of hymns, one week of stepping outside our comfort zones in worship is not too much to ask.

Another moment of insight occurred during a seminar about a California Mennonite congregation embracing multiculturalism.  A Latino brother from Virginia who pastors a Mennonite church there asked an important question– “Are we trying to make brothers and sisters in Christ, or are we trying to make traditional Mennonites?”  Are we big enough, do we trust God’s love and grace enough, to allow our corporate body to grow and embrace new traditions and styles of worship?  Or do we make acceptance conditional, contingent upon adopting not simply Anabaptist theology but also Anglo culture?

The insidious thing about white privilege is that it’s so hard for white people to see.  For me, this week, singing hymns all week long would have been a privilege.  It was one that I expected to be granted.  I assumed that my culture’s preference in worship styles would again be the norm.  Had we sung hymns all week, I may not have even recognized it for the privilege it would have been.  But this week I was given another opportunity– the opportunity to see my own white privilege for what it was and learn more about what it feels like to be in less familiar territory.

Insight, as is so often the case, came gradually, and was aided by plenty of verbal processing with good friends.  This is not to say that my understanding is now complete, only that I’m farther along on my journey as a white anti-racist than I was one week ago.

May the God of grace bless us as we continue to learn how to love each other.

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6 Responses to “Confessions of a white anti-racist”

  1. TimN Says:

    Sarah,

    Thanks for modeling what it means to examine ourselves as white Mennonites and think seriously about our expectations for worship and other aspects of our live together.

  2. Joseph P Says:

    Good post here…very relatable for me and many people that I spoke to at Convention. Already my mind is going a hundred different directions.

    I appreciate how you’ve identified the racial element of this issue and the importance of understanding how white privilege extends into the realm of worship preferences. It’s not entirely a race issue though. In my opinion, Jeremy Kempf’s (mostly white) youth worship band is of the same worship mold as the Calvary Community Church’s (mostly black) music team.

    Perhaps I have nothing new to add to the classic “praise music” vs “hymn singing” issue, but I’m mulling over a particular way of defining the difference that is helping me think about in better ways…

    Praise music invites the worshiper to stand, clap, move, dance…in other words, engage the BODY in the spirit of worship.

    Hymn singing invites the worshiper to listen, focus, and sing…in other words, engage the MIND and VOICE in the spirit of worship.

    When I was a youth at convention (97, 99, 01) I had difficulty engaging my body in the spirit of worship and I wondered if I didn’t love God as much as other people or if I simply had some kind of personal or cultural deficiency that disabled my body from moving to the music.

    Subsequently, as I grew out of my adolescent shell I learned the joy of being with friends and dancing, or “letting loose,” releasing my inhibitions and engaging my body in a communal spirit of, dare I say, “worship.” It was rarely in response to music about God, yet it always had elements of transcendence. It did glorious spiritual things for me that hymn-singing never did. So then I wondered, does this give glory to God in some implicit or metaphorical way that is just as valid as singing praise music?

    I have rarely found myself able to engage my body in worship in a church setting, not merely because I’m a bad dancer (which I am) but because it requires greater trust and greater vulnerability (something that is hard to find within a diverse church body).

    Engaging worship with voice and mind requires more skill and attention, but it requires less vulnerability.

    I think that bridging the worship styles will require that we don’t disregard the importance of building skills (i.e. singing harmony) for worship and also that we work ceaselessly at building understanding and trust with each other until our bodies feel joyful when we are in fellowship.

  3. Daniel Freysinger Says:

    You article made me smile. I grew up in Pentecostal churches that purposely avoided songs considered Baptist. (eg. Just As I Am) When I began worshiping with Anabaptists I would sit as far back as possible so that I didn’t distract others. It took genuine effort not to raise my hands while singing and praying.

    It is so important that we understand the difference between doctrine and culture. It took years for me to understand this after embracing Anabaptism. Now I just consider myself a Mennocostal.

  4. one9 Says:

    i think it is hilarious how this is being viewed as a race issue in any way…four part harmony is white? what racial category do you put Boyz2Men? I’d also love to hear more about this supposed tight relationship between Mennonite tradition and Anglo culture….or am I just supposed to assume all lighter skinned people are originally from England?

  5. Sam Says:

    one9,
    Of course this is a race issue. Now, its not that ‘four part harmony’ is essentially white (though of course, 4 part harmony does draw from European musical traditions). It is about who is being welcomed-who finds the songs we sing at conventions comfortable and familiar and conducive to a spirit of worship, and who has to sing things that are unfamiliar. In MCUSA, this breaks down in no small way along racial lines. Most majority black and Hispanic churches do not sing 4 part harmony songs from the Mennonite Hymnal.
    Any behavior which benefits a largely white majority and disadvantages a more diverse minority by its very nature is a race issue.

    I do agree that Anglo is kinda a weird synonym with white. I’d be curious if anyone knows how it developed. I too don’t really claim English culture.

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