Discovering Anabaptism and racism in a strange land

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. —Luke 10:27


by Orlando Vasquez

I have been working in white Mennonite settings for the last 20 years, and I have met wonderful individuals whom I have learned to appreciate and look to as my mentors. Yet my journey in the Anglo Mennonite world has sometimes been very difficult

I have found myself in meetings where I am the only Brown person. I have felt the inconvenience of being in circles where culture and heritage seem to be the key to relating to each other. I have none of these connections in those circles; my last name is Vasquez, and while I can trace where my name and relatives come from, they do not conform to the white Mennonite world.

My path to Anabaptism has been a winding one.

I was born in El Salvador and raised in the Catholic tradition; I served as an altar boy in a Jesuit church. But in late 1984, I had to make a very difficult decision: either leave El Salvador or likely be killed by the death squads who terrorized the nation during a 12-year civil war.

I decided to leave without telling anyone. The persecution from the death squads had become unbearable, and I could not sustain it anymore. I was moving a lot, barely eating, and the social isolation was taking a toll on me. I arrived in Canada on November 29, 1984, as a political refugee.

Sam Gibbons, Zo Ford-Muzychka and Eve Dewing wait at the airport in Calgary, Alberta to welcome the Al Saeid family, arriving as refugees from Syria. They are with Hand over Hand, a private sponsorship group working with MCC in Calgary to bring the Al Saeids to Canada. (Photo courtesy of Hand over Hand, 2016)

Like many other displaced people, I found myself lost and disoriented as I started a new life away from home. I felt I had made the right decision to come to Canada, but life in the beginning was very difficult. A new language, a new society, new customs, new sports, the absence of community, and not knowing my neighbors—the cultural isolation took a toll on me in my early years in Canada.

ENCOUNTERING ANABAPTISM

In the middle of this despair, a Mennonite pastor in Red Deer, Alberta, was the first person to reach out to me. He had a practice of visiting newly arrived refugees, and he was very enthusiastic to share who the Mennonites are and what they believe. This was my first encounter with Mennonites, and because of this pastor, I began attending one of the local Hispanic Mennonite churches founded by Latino migrants in the 1970s and ’80s.

In 1989, I moved to Edmonton to pursue university studies and began serving as an interpreter for leaders of the Northwest Mennonite Conference. I was still attending a Hispanic Mennonite church, and because I wanted to serve the Lord with this church, I decided to pursue studies in Anabaptist theology. In 1997, I enrolled in the Anabaptist Studies program at Goshen College. I began to see connections between Anabaptism and the social gospel I had learned in El Salvador under the Jesuits. I encountered the teachings of nonresistance, the priesthood of all believers, peace theology, the upside-down kingdom, and radical Christianity. According to this gospel, everybody had a place to be and belong.

I fell in love with all this. Anabaptism was a breath of fresh air. I was confronted with the idea of not returning harm for harm. I had witnessed lots of violence in my life—lots of anger and hate toward militarism. It was during my studies at Goshen College that I began to identify as Anabaptist.

I enjoyed working with the Swiss Mennonites of the Northwest Mennonite Conference in Alberta. The conference supported the work of Latino churches. I admired the way these Swiss Mennonites related to the immigrant churches. They never forced us to conform to an Anglo view of church; they gave us space to continue with our culture, our belief system framework—even our way of staffing the church.

We enjoyed their visits and the trust they had in us. They believed in the purpose of these immigrant churches—to be places for refugees and others to come and feel at home—and religion did not get in the way. The wounded had a place to be taken care of. We all suffered together and laughed together.

A DOMINANT CULTURE CHURCH

Eventually, I was hired by Mennonite Central Committee Alberta, and soon after, my wife and I decided to take the risk of leaving the comfort we enjoyed among the Latinos and transition to an Anglo Anabaptist church. Although I had already been working professionally in dominant-culture settings for several years at that point, I was hesitant about attending an Anglo church because I had no Anabaptist cultural heritage.

(L to R) Amal Abujayyab, Shergo Ibrahim, Donna Entz and Sedra Mustafa work on a comforter together at The Great Winter Warm-up event in Edmonton, Alta. Abujayyabs family is from Gaza and are currently in Edmonton on a visitor visa, hoping for refugee status. The photo was taken prior to the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. (MCC Photo/Donita Wiebe-Neufeld, 2020)

After our first service at Lendrum Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Edmonton, we lined up in the foyer for coffee time before leaving. Someone approached us and asked about my work and our family. So we did the same. Others approached us in this natural way, and we felt comfortable among them.

This welcome helped us decide to come to Lendrum’s services more often. We found a new community, and never once was I asked about where I was from, or how I came to speak English so well—or any other microaggressions I have often experienced in other white Anabaptist circles.

We all have a starting point. When Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, do we actually acknowledge the diverse people beside us? Many times, moving in the dominant culture, I feel the need to be careful to never voice a strong opinion about anything and to never push myself forward. Very often, I have to find ways to apologize if my opinions are different or contravene the dominant culture’s way of thinking and doing things.

When I think about programs for dismantling oppression or addressing anti-racism in the church, it makes me think that we need to read the Gospels as our manual, our guide to success in living. Welcoming the afflicted, the stranger, the vulnerable, and the marginalized should be a natural progression and normal way of life for the modern church.

I don’t consider my experience to be representative of all minorities in the Mennonite church here in Alberta, but I do know that being the church requires radical individuals from different histories, cultures, and life experiences to venture into new relationships and take this risk with each other. It is needed now more than ever.

Orlando Vasquez, MCC Alberta Associate and Program Director. (Photo courtesy of Brenda Burkholder, 2012)

Orlando Vasquez is the associate and program director for Mennonite Central Committee Alberta.


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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Leader magazine, © MennoMedia. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Banner image caption: The sunset over the Zambezi River, near Victoria Falls and Livingstone, Zambia. (MCC Photo/Michelle Potts, 2014)

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