Undoing Racism: A Conversation :: Timbrel Winter 2016

by Cyneatha Millsaps and Annette Brill Bergstresser (this conversation originally appeared in the winter 2016 issue of Timbrel magazine.

Cyneatha Millsaps (right) is lead pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois. She’s also a consultant for Illinois Mennonite Conference; coordinated Central District Conference’s 2014 women’s retreat, “Black Mennonite Women Rock”; and was a speaker for Mennonite Church USA’s KC2015 convention. Cyneatha is a graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She is married to Steven; they have seven children and 19 grandchildren. Annette Brill Bergstresser (left) serves as editorial director for Mennonite Church USA and as communications assistant for Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. She has helped organize and lead learning events on undoing racism in various settings. She has a certificate in theological studies from AMBS. Annette, her husband, Deron and their two daughters are part of Faith Mennonite Church in Goshen.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 1.38.13 PM

Cyneatha Millsaps and Annette Brill Bergstresser learned to know each other in February 2012 as partners on the Sankofa Journey, a 1,800-mile cross-racial prayer journey by bus to historic Civil Rights sites across the South. (“Sankofa” is a West African word meaning “looking backward to move forward.”)

Let’s start with the hard question. How do you want to be identified? Black? African-American? White? Caucasian? Anglo?

Cyneatha: I prefer African-American. I don’t mind if people say Black, but to me Black is a color, and African-American is an identity. I want to identify not only with my people of origin but also with who I am here in America—part of a group of people who have suffered and who continue to overcome many different challenges.

Annette: I usually identify as white or Anglo, and as German-American, since my parents emigrated from Germany and that heritage has shaped me significantly.

Many people don’t know how to talk about race. What are practical ways people can be prompted to safely discuss issues of race and racism?

Cyneatha: The Sankofa Journey leaders invited us to be open and honest with ourselves, and their approach has helped me lead conversations on race—trying to get people to a space of just being comfortable. I tell people not to worry about whether they say something the right way, but to just say what’s on their mind, and together we’ll work through their question, thought or concern. The Sankofa leaders made it clear we couldn’t keep tiptoeing around race; we’d just have to talk things through. Continue reading