Latino Mennonites and Interethnic Religious Activism

Guest post by Felipe Hinojosa

In 1973 La Luz magazine, one of the first national magazines for U.S. Latinos, featured an article about an important social movement that had developed within a relatively unknown religious group. The article, “The Minority Ministries Council: Mexicanos, Puerto Ricans, Blacks, and American Indians Working Together,” focused on the interethnic coalition that formed in 1968 in the Mennonite Church. Calling themselves the “Minority Ministries Council” (MMC), the group caught the attention of La Luz writers not only because they were a multiethnic organization but because they worked within the religious structures of a small, ethno-religious community in the Midwest—the Mennonite Church. Firmly situated in Midwestern places like Elkhart, Indiana, Hesston, Kansas, and Kalona, Iowa, the Mennonite Church was a denomination that in the 1970s counted only six percent of its total membership as nonwhite.

Out of their Mennonite Board of Missions offices in Elkhart, Indiana, where MMC leaders hung their “Black Power” and “Chicano Power” poster art, this relatively small and unknown group managed to organize an impressive movement for social change between 1968 and 1973. They planned Cross-Cultural Youth Conferences, developed a K-12 educational program for Latino and African American youth, funded programs in churches of color across the country, and challenged the mostly white Mennonite Church to be more responsive to the needs of black and brown communities. Their activities and programs helped usher in substantive change in the Mennonite Church. White pastors left their leadership positions in Latino and black congregations; white missionaries began to rethink their role in minority communities; and the assumption that being Mennonite was tied solely to ethnicity became a point of contention. Mennonite identity in the 1970s was shifting away from its foundation in ethnic kinship to a belief system that appealed to a much broader audience, and Latinos and African Americans were at the center of this shift.

The coalition of black and brown Mennonites that emerged in 1968, however, was part of a longer history that dated back to the 1930s and 1940s when white Mennonites first organized churches, vacation Bible schools, and social service programs for Mexican American and Puerto Rican families in Chicago’s Near West Side, the farming towns of South Texas, and in rural Puerto Rico. In those days how one dressed, whether women should wear make-up, and what one believed about non-violence sparked debates about what Latinos needed to do in order to be welcomed into the Mennonite family. Many Latinos believed that full belonging would come only if you dressed like a Mennonite, or if you worshipped like a Mennonite (you know, quietly), or if you signed up as a conscientious objector.

In some cases, Mexican American and Puerto Rican women wore the traditional head covering and a good number of young men signed up as conscientious objectors, even as many of their neighbors and family members served in Vietnam. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s it was clear to many that no matter how you dressed or what you believed about peace theology, full inclusion into the Mennonite Church seemed out of reach. For many Latino pastors and church leaders the civil rights movement changed this. No longer worried if white Mennonite missionaries would allow “Mexican music” to be played in church and much more comfortable incorporating their own Pentecostal-infused worship styles into their churches, Latinos asserted their cultural identities in their quest to redefine Mennonite identity on their own terms. And they did not do this alone. In 1968 Latina and Latino Mennonites from Chicago, Denver, and South Texas joined African American Mennonites who since the 1940s and 1950s had been engaged in discussions on race and racism in the Mennonite Church.

This new interethnic coalition redefined racial politics in the Mennonite Church during the era of black and brown power in the late 1960s. More importantly, it was also one of the few religious interethnic movements in the country. For most Christian denominations (mostly mainline Protestants) in the 1960s and 1970s, “interracial councils” focused on black and white racial politics in the church, with Latino movements not totally invisible but certainly marginal. I say this with some caution, however, because for the most part these movements remain understudied. And the studies that do exist have focused on either Latino politics or black politics without considering the possible collaborations and organizing that I believe were happening behind the scenes between progressive whites, blacks, and Latinos. It’s hard to dismiss the connections between the “Black Manifesto” and Latino activist takeovers of mainline churches in 1969 and 1970. Or the relationships and political alliances that formed between multiple groups around issues of poverty, migrant labor, and antiracist activism in the church.

Across the evangelical spectrum, and especially in the Mennonite Church, interethnic coalitions introduced the politics and discourses of the black, Chicano, and Puerto Rican freedom struggles into white evangelical and mainline Protestant churches. And this is why the case of Latinos in the Mennonite Church is so important. Because it forces us to move away from a single ethnic group approach to one that considers the intersections of multiple groups and recognizes the power of interethnic coalitions within religious contexts. These coalitions, after all, are why many Latinos and African Americans remained in the Mennonite Church rather than jettisoning it for a religious group reflective of their cultural traditions. Telling the stories of interethnic coalitions—the relationships, the struggles, the hopes, and the possibilities—that Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and progressive Anglos formed together promises to reorient our long-held assumptions about religious activism during the civil rights era. But more importantly, these new and for the most part untold stories of interethnic religious activism can perhaps show us a way forward as we imagine and work towards a better future in our churches and in our communities.

hinojosaFelipe Hinojosa is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University. He is the author of Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture.