Question: The Slap Felt Around the World

I needed a bit to sit with my thoughts. I was horrified Sunday night during the Oscars, watching actor Will Smith slap actor and comedian Chris Rock on national (international) television. The incident was disturbing to my spirit. It made me feel sick inside. I was even more disturbed, after the break, when I saw that Will Smith was allowed to remain in his seat and keep participating in the show. What? At the very least, he should have been removed from the premises.

Violent communication is a big problem in our society. I am fully aware that the work of comedians involves pushing things to their limits—but humor doesn’t give them, or anyone, the right to resort to violence.

I was wondering what’s involved in producing humor and who decides the line to approach but not cross. That equilibrium is more important than ever these days because our sensibilities are fragile. I hope social scientists, psychologists, and human behaviorists are working overtime to explain what our world is going through now. They need to speak up as they discover the patterns and roots of our current problems, and everyone else needs to listen.

Many of us feel like we are facing one traumatic event after another. As we digest what happened at the Oscars, yet another incident of violence, we struggle with the news of a senseless war in Ukraine, and ongoing tragedies continue to assault our senses. A record number of people (nearly 100 million) have left their homes fearing for their lives, bullying and suicide rates have reached all-time highs, huge populations in Africa face starvation, and our climate is crashing before our very eyes. It’s exhausting!

A friend told me her church decided to do a month of no talking in worship. They are sitting together in silence and leaving in peace. I wonder if that is what we all need. Everyone should be quiet.

What would the world sound like if humans shut up, if only for a little while? Could we hear the voice of the Lord? Would we better understand what is happening to our very existence? What would it feel like if we cut off all electronic communication? If only we were brave enough to do something to silence our pandemonium.

What about the church? Can we consider silence? My cousin, a minister in Chicago, was pondering the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments. I said I suspect we are in another one of those times when God is silent and leaving us to our own devices to see where we turn. If I am right, how will God find us? How will God find you? Can we listen to the sounds of the world around us? Can we begin to hear God anew?

Celebrate: white history?

This past week, Mennonite Women USA sent out its bi-monthly newsletter, The Grapevine. In it, we invited everyone to celebrate Black women writers as a part of Black History Month. It was a small section of the newsletter with the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Dr. Maya Angelou.

I was surprised—and, if I am honest, angry—when I received an email from one of our constituents stating, “I celebrate White History.” I wrestled with my emotions about receiving what I considered an egregious response to our invitation to participate in a national observance established more than 50 years ago. Black History Month started as Negro History Week, and in 1976 was expanded to a month-long celebration of Black contributions to our national story.

Battling my impulse to give a flippant and dismissive response to the email, I waited to talk with the Mennonite Women USA leadership circle. I wanted to know how they felt and what they thought would be the best response. When we met, I was relieved to discover that our diverse group of women felt as outraged by the email as I felt. I was thankful that my sisters would navigate the messy situation by my side.

Our leadership circle came up with various ideas on how to respond to the email. Some wanted to call out the author’s ignorant racism quickly and directly; others thought the comment should be ignored. That is the power of sisterhood. We meet each other in a shared space, where we listen to each other’s thoughts, ideas, joys, and pains. We honor the differences that emerge, then find a way to walk together. A couple of my sisters even offered to respond so I would not have to. They were not only willing to stand with me but also stand for me. That’s sisterhood.

Now, let’s get back to the need expressed in the email: to celebrate “white history.” I have thought a lot about the statement, and my anger has moved to pity. The writer of the email must not be blessed as I am to have a diverse group of friends. Or as blessed as I am to know that Black and White history are all wrapped up together. The history of this nation is one of diverse peoples, both indigenous and from around the globe.

Our country has worked to create various days and months to celebrate and learn about our nation’s diverse ethnic groups. I, for one, enjoy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with our Irish siblings. One year, one of my Mexican American sisters taught me that Cinco de Mayo was a small, regional holiday in Mexico; Mexico’s national Independence Day is September 16. That surprise prompted me to learn more about Mexico’s history and its decade-long struggle for independence from Spain. This is why we highlight each other’s history: to educate ourselves and grow in unity and understanding.

This nation has celebrated the stories and accomplishments of white Americans since they arrived on American soil. Many versions of history have twisted facts to make white Americans appear superior to the other ethnic groups. By celebrating Black History Month and other special days and months highlighting the contributions of marginalized groups, we all become stronger and wiser. We chip away at our common ignorance and discover new possibilities for us as one people and nation. We Christians learn how to unite as the people of God more faithfully.

For good or evil, there is great power in the stories we call history. This month, we celebrate Black history and its powerful testimonies to resilience, intelligence, and love. Black history is all of our history.

Ponder Silence

For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.

—Esther 4:14

As I read the book of Esther, Mordecai’s words to the Jewish queen of Persia speak to me: “For if you keep silence at a time such as this . . . you and your father’s family will perish.” (Esther 4:14). I chose to keep silent during Advent because I didn’t want my words to bring people down during the celebration of the birth of our King. The season was a time to remember that the King came into the world for all of us, bringing us hope, peace, joy, and love.

But now I can’t keep silent as Mordecai’s words echo in my being. I’m thankful that the hateful rhetoric of this nation seems to have turned down a few notches this past year, but I’m worried that the slight improvement in public discussion will lull us back into a state of passive existence. While we may be tempted to go through life without taking seriously our choices and assumptions, we must face the fact that those choices and assumptions are leading to devastation and destruction.

In November 2021 I had the opportunity to go on an Immigration Borderland Tour with MCC. We visited small towns and cities on both sides of our southern border. We learned about the inhumane conditions many sisters and brothers face traveling to the United States and the roadblocks we put in their way. I thought of Persia in the time of Ester. Like the nefarious Haman, many of our nation’s decision-makers self-centeredly seek tribal power and others’ capitulation to their supposed greatness. They stifle any indication that our country’s power and greatness have been gained on the backs of others. Since our birth as a nation, we have been taking what doesn’t belong to us, holding other people groups down while we climb up, and creating systems and policies that allow us to remain in power while others suffer.

Many still call the United States a Christian nation . . .  I’d still like to think of my country that way. But what I saw along the border, what I learned the United States has done to Mexico and Central America, is nothing short of evil. What we continue to do to those seeking asylum are acts of the devil. And our silence, our passive tolerance, makes us minions of evil maintaining the wheels of hate and destruction.

Take, for example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Approved in early 1994, NAFTA required major structural adjustments in Mexico that devastated small farmers, small business owners, and local initiative— creating dependency on multinational companies less interested in Mexican well-being than in external profit and power. I guess that should not have come as a surprise to me; U.S. history is full of such choices.

Who are we, really? How do children of God participate in a country so mired in structural evil?

Even if our silence has placed us in the camp of the unholy, Christ has given us a bridge to cross back over to the Promised Land. But we must first learn for ourselves the truth of what this nation has done and continues to do in our name. We must study, clear-eyed, U.S. history and its impact on other nations and peoples. Then we must speak as did Esther spoke to the powers in Persia. She first waited, listened, and learned; then she stood and spoke.

We can no longer sit quietly, allowing others to suffer because we live safely in the palaces of our relative wealth and power. “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise . . . from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish” (Esther 4:14). While Mordecai’s words were for a different time and place, they ring loud and true to me. I am convinced that it is past time for us to risk our privilege and stand for righteousness. Mordecai continues, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (v. 14). We, too, are granted our positions of relative power for just such a time as this, a tipping point in human history. We must stop seeing ourselves as “us versus them” and remember that those oppressed by our nation’s policies and actions are beloved fellow human beings.

You, dear reader, are my sister regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, education, religion, mental and emotional state of mind, age, or geographic location. May I, may you, may we act in the strength of knowing we are never alone.

Celebrate and Question: Spanning the Generations

A few Sundays ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in church with a 93-year-old Mennonite sister: a white former schoolteacher and the first woman to preach in her local congregation. Like so many other women, she had been leading from the shadows for decades when, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, her pastor asked her to speak on the role of women in the church. By this time, the feminist movement was well on its way.

After preaching in her own church, other churches asked her to come and share her message. She became a type of itinerant preacher despite never finishing seminary. She’d taken most of the classes she needed to graduate—not for a job but to feed her curiosity about the word of God and its good news for women. She’d felt there was little point in graduating since no one would hire a woman in ministry at the time.

Later that same Sunday, a grandfather from the local community stopped by my home with his 12-year-old granddaughter. He was deeply concerned about her and sought support and counsel from my husband and me. He couldn’t understand why his granddaughter had become angry, aggressive, and manipulative—sneaking out of the house late at night, not turning in her homework, and disrespecting her teachers. Nothing the family was doing in response seemed to improve her behavior.

I observed this young African American girl by his side. Looking scared and bewildered, she sat quietly and answered our questions with one- or two-word answers typical of a 12-year-old. I couldn’t reconcile what he said about her with the sweet, soft-spoken girl before me. We made a plan for her to visit with me; my husband would check in on her at school; and we’d both regularly update the grandfather. We tried to assure her she was not alone; she had allies if she chose to use us.

Since those Sunday encounters, I can’t get these two very different women—my elderly white sister and young black sister—out of my mind. Their lives are day and night, and the chances that the young black girl will live into her 90s are slim to none if something doesn’t change soon. And, if she manages to live anywhere close to that long, what stories will she tell about her life? She and her siblings are being raised by a single mother in an affordable housing complex where many share her difficult circumstances. She has never known healthy outlets, like church or youth programs. She has no idea what futures are possible for her.

Where has the women’s movement taken us? Throughout the decades, brave women such as my 93-year-old sister have courageously broken glass ceilings, opening the way for others to rise to places of empowerment. At the same time, scores of women—such as my young black sister—haven’t even glimpsed the sky. In one day, I can both celebrate and be heartbroken. Why have the gains of the women’s movement not been felt by more women? Far too many spend their precious lives in survival mode, picking their way through shards of shattered glass.

by Cyneatha Millsaps

Ponder – Why am I scared?

The image of the snakes illustrates my thoughts. The picture shows a snake I encountered on a hiking path at Camp Friedenswald this summer. The first image is the actual photo. The second photo illustrates what my mind saw (a big, more threatening snake). I think it is only fair to tell you, the snake did not bother me at all. It held its ground. I, on the other hand, got a running start and leaped over the snake. Silly, I know, but I fear snakes.

As I was preparing for a speaking engagement at a local Mennonite Church, I was confronted with some of those deep-seated fears and anxieties we often don’t realize we have until we are faced with them. I was to speak at the church’s family camp outing at a local State Park. The park is only 25 miles from my home, but I had never been there. I had heard of it, but never had reasons to visit. So, I thought it would be good for me to visit the State Park and sit in that space for a while to allow the Spirit to show me what direction I should go for the gathering. This is a typical way I prepare for sermons, so I thought nothing of it.

I toured the park, asked the staff questions, and admired its splendor. It is a beautiful park. I thought about maybe having my family gather there for our family reunion next summer. A very positive and uplifting experience. As I began to leave the park, I noticed some changes in my thoughts and awareness.

As I was pulling out of the park, several trucks with large campers attached were pulling in. My first thought, I wonder how long they are planning to stay? Then I pull off into the street heading back to the highway and noticed 4 or 5 pick-up trucks one right after the other. Maybe only one had a flag on it, but I noticed my anxieties rising about where I was. I quickly began to think whether my family knew where I was. I began wondering about who uses the park and how would they feel about me being there.

Camping, hiking, etc. are not typical activities for African Americans, especially here in the Midwest. I remember when Oprah tried to encourage African Americans to visit the national parks. She sparked our curiosity, but I don’t think attendance amongst my community rose much. I believe it has much to do with our anxieties about safety, welcome, and not knowing much about nature and the animals who call it home.

I know my fear and anxiety are irrational, but they have deep roots. My fears about being harmed in rural areas of our country come from a history of lynching and torture of black bodies who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. African Americans have learned over the centuries that we are not welcomed in many spaces. That our very presence in some areas invite a hatred that is deeply embedded in racism. Our community has internalized those traumas associated with that history and we find it hard to shake. This is what led to my experience of fear even when there was no immediate threat.

I relaxed when I was back in a more populated area. But the emotional experiences are still there, leaving me to ponder, why am I scared?

Ponder: Lamenting “Guilty”

I can’t celebrate. I can’t find peace in Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict because I am never happy to see anyone go to prison. Prison is a horrible place. Yes, Chauvin must pay for his horrific crime, but his conviction only reminds me of the men and women—especially those I know—tortured in our prison system.

Derek Chauvin is about to face great hardship. Prisons in the United States are not designed to rehabilitate but to punish, and they offer only a handful of outcomes. It might well be that, for his own safety, Derek will need to remain in coffin-like isolation for years. Or guards will turn their backs as other inmates inhumanely punish him. Or a hate group will suck him in, never allowing him to deal with the pain he caused. Or Derek will commit suicide. How is this something to celebrate?

These grim consequences of imprisonment have been Black people’s reality for centuries, yet most of us refuse to see our nation’s prison system for the dangerous and evil establishment that it is. There is no justice in America’s prisons—only punishment, revenge, and death.

The system that funneled George Floyd into a life of poverty and drug use is the same one that shaped Derek Chauvin into an authority abusing his power—killing another human being—while fellow officers stood by. Why do we evade responsibility for this calamity? It is our system too.

Punishing Derek Chauvin is not the only answer to the loss of George Floyd’s life. While it’s easy for us to point the finger at him and cathartic to watch his conviction, we can never forget that there are thousands of Derek’s patrolling our streets every day. There are myriad George Floyds about to suffer and die by their hands. Until we address the issues that collided on May 23, 2020, we will never truly achieve a more just justice system.

George Floyd’s death opened our eyes to the racial injustices in our country; our penal system’s violence and inhumanity should do the same. Many of the recent cases in the limelight have involved Black and Latino men logically fleeing and resisting arrest. They know that law enforcement could destroy their lives in an instant, without a fair trial. George Floyd and Daunte Wright were rightly afraid.

I wish I did not care what happens to Derek Chauvin in prison, but I do. I wish I could say he deserves what’s coming to him, but I can’t. Derek and his family will never know what George Floyd experienced before and during his arrest, but they are about to get an up-close and personal look at why people of color fear imprisonment. We who uphold the penal system must not close our eyes. We have a moral obligation to consider Derek and his family and the pain they endure.

I’ve experienced trauma with the penal system that makes me lament anyone being sent to prison. Whenever I learn of a crime, my heart and mind shift to the perpetrator because I know that our punitive response will harm or even destroy that person. We are no better than the criminal when we feed our need to punish. Why don’t we focus on enabling Derek to recognize that he made a big mistake, confess, and demonstrate that he is truly sorry? Our system doesn’t allow for this. Instead, accused individuals must minimize what they have done to protect themselves from laws, policies, and practices focused on harmful retribution. 

We must transform our way of dealing with crime to shift our focus from retribution to redemptive and restorative justice. I pray for the day when I’ll be able to celebrate a guilty verdict because of good reason to believe it will lead to shalom.

Celebrate: Women

It’s women’s history month, and the Discovery Channel is featuring a series called Genius Aretha, about the phenomenal Aretha Franklin. The story shows not only her genius but the extraordinary hurdles she overcame and the family that helped her clear them. It’s a beautiful testament to the Black family and our complicating challenges.

I talk often about growing up in a Black community where the men often caused the women more harm than good. As a child, I struggled to love my father and many other men in my life because of their blatant disrespect for women. I didn’t understand why so many women remained in torturous relationships. I vowed never to let any man have that kind of power over me. By this stage in my life, my mother had rejected my father’s philandering and was raising us children alone. She was a militant Black woman akin to Angela Davis. She spoke truth to power and strived to empower her daughters to reach high and far. I am thankful for that today.

The Aretha story reminds me of the many hills and valleys women go through in the course of one life. Though the elder women in my life struggled under many chains of oppression, they pushed the next generation to break those chains before being constrained by them too. So, when one of the younger generations stumbled, our elders felt a tremendous blow to their legacy.

I remember when I told my mother I was pregnant at 16. Disappointed and concerned, she sighed deeply and simply said, “Cyneatha.” I was the one with potential, the one who would get out from under the dark cloud of our circumstances. I was the one the family knew was going to make something of herself. Then, so close to the finish line, I got pregnant. After the initial shock, my family rallied around me, as Aretha’s family did for her, and prepared for a baby. I now see how blessed I was through it all, but my choices led to a decade of valleys.

CeCe Winans song “Alabaster Box” is my anthem. It reminds me of what I have been through and how giving all to Jesus is my only means of survival. You should listen to this powerful song about Mary and her costly jar of perfume poured out on Jesus’ head. My jar, too, is extremely expensive. It has been poured out far more times than I care to admit.

What price have you paid to be a woman, daughter, wife, mother, teacher, lover, friend? In the dark days, have you stumbled your way to Jesus? Read Mark 14:3-9 and notice how Mary forged on to Jesus despite much criticism. That is what it means to be a woman: pushing forward no matter what.

To all the women I admire—from the great Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisolm, Angela Davis, and Mother Teresa to my close and most adored friends including Pat Plude, Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, Jenny Moffett, and my big sister Vicky Scott—I am grateful for knowing even a small part of who God has created you to be. Your light and your dark places too guide me. As women, we grow stronger in the powerful cloud of sisters around us.

Affirm: Asian American Solidarity

Recent videos of people harming elderly Asian Americans break my heart. I try to make sense of them and feel ashamed as an African American. While I know that not only African Americans have been targeting Asian Americans, seeing people with my skin color harming anyone—especially senior citizens—is soul-crushing. I sense gravity in this moment that I don’t yet fully understand.

I remember being told months ago of the hate being directed at Asian Americans. I stated how sad it was to hear, said a quick prayer for the Asian community, imagined appropriate governmental responses, and then moved on. I didn’t give the issue space in my heart, soul, and mind.

My response was wrong. I did exactly what many people do when they hear about horrors being committed against African Americans: say a quick prayer and follow up with excuses to blame someone else for the problem.

The recent violence against Asian American senior citizens shows me how I too have fallen into my culture’s typical response to right and wrong. Instead of standing up for the vulnerable, I have followed our society’s pattern of viewing the issue as someone else’s problem; worrying about how it might affect me personally; and then trying not to get involved.

When I speak out about issues facing African Americans and this nation, I am quick to tell White Americans they must act; they cannot sit comfortably on the sidelines. I recognize that this holds true for me as well. Whether it’s a hate crime against Asian Americans or any other group, I am called to voice the wrong—better said, the many wrongs—that these incidents against bring to light. It is shameful that individuals are being victimized for their racial identity. It is shameful that elderly persons’ physical vulnerability is being exploited. It is shameful that so many in our society have deemed the elderly unworthy of our attention.

I, like many, want to figure out why these crimes are happening. In particular, why are African Americans targeting Asian Americans? Is it the loss of family values, poverty, hunger, unemployment, poor education, or the new coronavirus?

Any of these systemic problems may be contributing to the recent aggressions against Asian Americans, but before we continue to investigate and look for explanations, we must first and foremost condemn the wrongs committed and find ways to protect those being victimized. When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, our nation in its great diversity stood in solidarity against the wrong. That same collective response must be seen now when another group is being victimized. All of us need to stand alongside neighbors when their trials come, advocating for justice and lending a helping hand.

Today I purchased Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics: Volume 1, African Americans and Asian Americans (American Political Landscape Series) by Jeffrey D. Schultz. It’s my first honest step in trying to understand the plight and history of Asian Americans. If you have suggestions on books or movies I should read or watch, please email them to me.

To the Asian American community: We see your beauty and your strength. We stand against all hate and racism toward you.  

Question: Military Creates Peace

My niece is reenlisting in the United States Army for another 6 years. Why? Her number one reason is peace. Peace of mind and security. 

My niece tells me there is nothing in the civilian space that can provide the lifestyle she has as an officer in the army. She has a job, housing, financial resources, and travel perks. The army doesn’t afford her a lavish lifestyle, but it provide a safe, peaceful, and interesting one. Because her basic needs have been met, my niece no longer worries about food, clothing, or shelter. She is required only to do her job and stay physically fit. Beyond that, her life is her own.

During her first 7-years with the military, she has traveled to more than 10 different counties. She told me that the opportunity to travel is alone worth enlisting. Outside of the military, young people growing up in poverty rarely get to see the world beyond their immediate communities. The army opens the world to them and provides a new and expanded worldview.

My niece has never set foot in a war zone. While she can be called to any location at any time, being sent to war has not been a major concern of hers. Part of that might be because her hometown in the U.S. is more violent than anywhere she has been stationed.

The United States loses more people to homicide on our own soil than soldiers to violence abroad. In 2018 alone, the United States recorded more than 18,000 homicides. In the years 2006–2020, approximately 17,650 active-duty soldiers died while serving in the armed forces. Of those, only 26% died while serving overseas in military operations.

So how do we Mennonites—traditionally anti-military—address the fact that, for many recruits, the military is their only option for peace? If we seek to direct young people away from enlisting, we need to provide them with viable options for achieving economic and physical security at home.

Though the military has worked for her, my niece says that she would prefer civilian life. While it is changing, the military is still very much a white man’s world. It has a long way to go before people of color, women, and LGBTQ persons feel seen and valued as equals.  She would not advise them to enlist.

At the same time, the military provides stepping stones for those lacking resources to succeed otherwise. The first stepping stone is economic. To hook recruits, the military offers bonuses ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Such a financial boost is a big benefit to people living in poverty. The second stepping stone the military offers is education. Soldiers are able to receive college or other education while serving, enabling them to return home more qualified for jobs with a living wage.

The third stepping stone the military provides is discipline. When she enlisted, my niece was an angry young woman whose life wasn’t going anywhere. Largely because a Black, female officer took her under her wing, she endured the demands of the military and learned the discipline she needs to succeed.

My niece believes that the military will be many young people’s most logical road to peace until civil society offers those three stepping stones: economic security, good education, and healthy discipline. We Anabaptist Christians who oppose military service in the name of peace must consider what peace means and how to offer young adults different means of attaining it. Until we offer another way of peace for those fleeing the violence of poverty, the military will continue to attract them.

Ponder: Positive

My test results came back positive. Bummer.

The results came six days after the onset of symptoms. By then I had chest pain, fever, body ache, and what seems like a head cold.

The positive test added anxiety to my symptoms. It also meant spending a half-day being interviewed by the health department and calling my contacts. Our family had been gathering in a bubble—so when my husband, daughter-in-law, infant grandson, and I all tested positive within a week, it burst our bubble in a bad way.

We’re all worried about those of us who tested positive because everyone in our family hasn’t survived. We have already lost three family members to Covid-19, along with five others who have died this year for reasons unrelated to the pandemic. Many of our family members and friends have managed to beat the virus, but they continue to suffer lingering health problems and financial hardship caused by their illness.

With four of us Covid-positive at the same time, we’ve seen how differently this virus affects different people. We’ve each had different symptoms, and we’ve each responded to our symptoms differently. This has added up to a lot of family angst! We are nearing the end of our two-week quarantine, but none of us, besides the baby, feels as if the virus is gone. Many of our initial symptoms are still present, and new ones seem to be showing up. For me, it’s depression.

I have been remembering other positive test results that brought our family profound sadness. My husband and sister tested positive for cancer. I am happy to say that both of them survived. Another family member tested positive for HIV and is living with that diagnosis. And now four of us tested positive for Covid-19.

Right now, I just want to go on a long walk. Breathe in the cool winter air. I want to look at the trees and houses decorated for Christmas and see healthy children playing in the yard. I want to hold my grandson. I want to comb my granddaughter’s hair.

I want my life back, but I am not sure that I can walk to the end of my yard and make it back without searching for air.

I keep thinking about what our world will look like a decade or so from now. How will the virus change us? Our nation has always been known for its individualism, but my hope—and thank God I still have hope—is that this experience will help us to prioritize being with one another. That we will no longer wait until holidays and funerals to gather with extended family. That we will get back to weekly meals and games with friends. That we will stop storing up money for the end of our life. Because this virus has shown us that life can change with one word: positive.

To all the frontline workers, thank you. We would not have made it this far without you.