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.

Question: A vaccine for COVID-19

All we hear these days is that there is a vaccine coming for the novel coronavirus. I think it’s wonderful and necessary for scientists to be working on a vaccine, but rushing the process could prove dangerous for the next generation.

It takes years to create vaccines, 10-15 years on average (https://www.ifpma.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/IFPMA-ComplexJourney-2019_FINAL.pdf). The standard procedure requires years to study their effects in the lab before even moving trials to humans. We are planning on having a vaccine for a virus that is not yet a year old, and we are trying it first on the most vulnerable in our society. Does that seem like a good idea?

Seniors, people of color, the economically poor, and those with preexisting conditions will be first to get the vaccine. Are these people in the clinical trials? An article from UC Health stated that some vulnerable populations will be in their trials, which I am thankful for (https://www.uchealth.com/press-releases/clinical-trial-for-covid-19-vaccine/). But how extensive will trials be before subjecting these populations to the vaccine?

I believe I am more skeptical because of the Tuskegee Study. In the years between 1932 and the early 1970s, African American males were placed in a study to track the long-term effects of syphilis in the body (https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/index.html). The problem with the study was that the men did not know that they were being used in the experiment. They were simply lab rats for the United States public health system. Most participants—individuals from an already oppressed and marginalized population—were exploited until their death with only the promise of free medical appointments and meals.

When we rush, we often make major mistakes even when our intentions are good. And we often look to those most vulnerable to carry the risk. As much as we want an answer to COVID-19 and to get back to our lives as usual, the most defenseless in our population should not be the first to test the vaccine on a large scale. The most vulnerable should remain in isolation as much as they can, as we all practice social distancing, wear masks, and maintain the social bubbles of those at risk. We should prepare safe spaces for them to gather and navigate our society. They deserve that kind of care.

Each of us should be prepared to do our part in the years before widespread inoculation to COVID-19. If wearing masks and social distancing helps slow the virus (whose lasting effects we have yet to learn), would it not be safer for all to continue these practices? Consider your loved ones. Consider the next generation. What if this vaccine works in the short run but over time causes other health issues? We need to not push for a vaccine fast, but a vaccine that will tackle this and many other coronaviruses if possible. 

Some people are willing to be the subjects of vaccine testing. I thank God for those who risk their health as an act of service to humankind, for the betterment of all. But a human subject of such an experiment should be fully aware of one’s choice and reasoning for doing so. No one should do this out of fear or ignorance. We will need people from all walks of life to help ensure that our world is better prepared for the next pandemic, but they should do so only in freedom and through well-informed decisions. The vulnerable must be protected and treated with the dignity they deserve.