Cyneatha Millsaps, (pictured above) pastor at Community Mennonite Church, Markham, IL has been around the Mennonite blocks of community life. She persists in participating in Mennonite life that sometimes is not sensitive to differences, especially racial and ethnic issues. When asked why more women of color do not attend retreats, Cyneatha responds, “Have it at a hotel. Women of color do not like to camp. They believe camp life is different from what it really is. We need to get them to the camp so they see what life really is like.”
Cyneatha capitalized upon the opportunity to implement this idea, when the rotation of planning teams for Camp Friedenswald Women’s Retreat fell upon the Chicago Mennonite churches of Central District. Cyneatha, also president of Central District Mennonite Women, knew it would take excellent programming to bring women of color to Camp Friedenswald, even though it is not a hotel. “If we get them there, they will have a great time. But we need to get them to the camp, so they see how much fun it is.”
Inspired by a show on Black Entertainment Network (BET), titled “Black Girls Rock,” whose message is empowering young black women, Cyneatha coined the phrase “Black Mennonite Women Rock” which became the theme for the 2014 women’s retreat at Camp Friedenswald. The challenge was to plan a weekend that would speak to women of color, but also make white women feel welcome and involved.
The theme caught the attention of many African-American women from the east coast to Illinois. Approximately 1/3 of the more than 150 registrants were women of color. Others were also attracted by the theme. The writers’ team of three for the MennoMedia Shine curriculum was intrigued and felt it was essential for them to attend, to learn the stories, experiences and needs first-hand from our sisters of color, so that they write Christian education materials that speak to children of all races and ethnicities. Rose Stutzman, managing editor of the Shine curriculum, said, “We knew intellectually about the needs of women of color, but this weekend allowed the stories to wash over us.”
Pastor Hyacinth Stevens, (above) Bronx, NY, and AAMA representative to the Mennonite Women USA board, preached messages of challenge and hope, using Genesis 16 and 21, and Psalm 139. She assured all in attendance that God’s promise will transform our story from confusion and illusion to one of hope and confidence.
Hyacinth preached passionately about the dilemma of Hagar and Sara, who were more intimate than owner and slave, yet when the boundaries were crossed, the intimacy turned into mistrust and jealousy. We were challenged to recognize that as women we are all grafted together, we cannot be separated, and need to learn to overcome our discomfort with differences, celebrating our need for each other.
Camp Friedenswald traditions of 7 am polar bear swims lured only a few determined women while pontoon boat and wagon rides, walks in the fen, and lots of good food provided opportunities for everyone. An unusual standing ovation for the kitchen crew emphasized everyone’s appreciation for the excellent nourishment that brought us all together in the camp dining hall. A craft room provided opportunity for each woman to decorate a square piece of fabric, depicting her identity and uniqueness. A final communion service, led by Pastor Addie Banks (above) and mother of speaker Hyacinth Stevens, brought women together around tables to share in the symbols of Christ’s body and blood.