When I preach I often reference verses in the Bible that talk about God’s intention that all nations, languages and tribes are called to worship God through Jesus. The Book of Acts is the story of the Jewish disciples relying on the power of the Holy Spirit and learning that the new church is relevant to a world much bigger than they ever imagined.
It seems to me that we need to continue to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to learn and act on what this means, that God’s intentions are for all nations, languages and tribes. We are still learning, and we have much to learn.
Most of what I’ve learned about racism and anti-racism I learned as an adult, although my parents’ work in northern Manitoba when I was a preschooler helped to set the stage.
I remember doing a social studies project on South Africa when I was in middle school. Recently I came across that project again, and I saw it said not a single thing about apartheid. How was that possible? As adults, we lived in southern Africa during the final four years of official apartheid. I learned much about the impact of systemic racism, and how much intentionality and struggle it took as a white person to not fit into the system.
I remember taking our kids and my parents to visit Gettysburg, Penn., and having one of our kids read aloud Abraham Lincoln’s words that “all men are created equal.” Powerful ideas. I also remember my disillusioned tears watching the movie Lincoln, and realizing that Lincoln brought about emancipation for some, not because it was morally right, but more because it was politically expedient. And many people voted for it—or not—because of politics.
I work for Mennonite World Conference, our global Anabaptist church. We strive to have strong representation from every continent on every committee, task force, commission and council. We believe that God’s intention is that the church is made up of every nation, language and tribe, and that we need each other to see the breadth of God’s love in the world. And yet our staff members are predominantly from the Global North, including me as the leader of a very diverse group of 12 regional representatives. There might be equal representation from around the world, but I lament our lack of diverse voices and leadership.
I belong to a local congregation that sees our mission as intercultural community, one of a small number of multiracial congregations amidst a plethora of monocultural congregations. It’s not easy! At potlucks and picnics (a distant memory now) we have to be intentional about relationship-building across these walls that so easily divide us. But every Sunday at worship, including Zoom worship, we have leaders and readers who speak with a multitude of accents. We have elders from each of the major ethnic groups in our congregation. It takes intentionality.
I am heartbroken and disillusioned once again, watching the news in Canada and the United States these past weeks with the many first-person accounts of the impact of systemic racism. I know a little bit about how this impacts the people in my own small group, our congregation, our community, our country and our world. Being heartbroken is good, because it forces me to turn back to the Holy Spirit. The church is relevant to the whole world, but in the context of systemic inequity, it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we can believe in powerful ideas and act with intentionality to overcome systemic racism.
Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont., and a staff member of Mennonite World Conference.
—Corrected June 24, 2020