Moving toward Integrity: Drew Hart and the Black Anabaptist Prophetic Tradition

Tobin Miller Shearer

The Conrad Grebel Review 39, no. 3 (Fall 2021)

Drew Hart. Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.

Drew Hart. Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for Gods Justice, Love, and Deliverance. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2020.

Drew Hart writes within a tradition of Black Anabaptist activist scholars who have criticized and challenged White Mennonites in particular and broader Christendom as a whole for more than seven decades. In Trouble I’ve Seen and Who Will Be a Witness, Hart replicates that traditions scaffolding even as he integrates key elements long missing from past prophetic polemic. The result—part oratory, part tactical warehouse—offers readers practical guidance, thoughtful reflection, and a lived theology for responding with integrity to a society defined by imperialism, capitalism, and racism.

To understand and appreciate what Hart has done in these complimentary texts, a brief review of that Black Anabaptist prophetic tradition is illuminating. Although the first Black members of the Mennonite church received baptismal rites in 1897 and an article on “The Race Troubles” appeared in the Mennonite publication Herald of Truth six years previously, Black Mennonites did not receive bylines in anything but letters and testimonies until the 1950s.[1] Although white Mennonites had been writing about Black people in mission reports and discussions of our duty” to the African-American community since the 1920s, Black peoples voices delivered directly to White audiences were almost entirely absent from church publications through the first part of the twentieth century.[2] Some of the first Black authors to appear in print were Black women. In 1950, for example, early church planter Rowena Lark penned a history of Bethel Mennonite Church in Chicago.[3] But church publications otherwise continued to feature articles about the Black experience rather than voices from the Black community through the 1950s despite the passage of the 1955 (Old) Mennonite Church General Conference declaration “The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations.[4]

By 1960 that had changed, marked by The Mennonites publication of an essay by Vincent Harding—who was then serving as a Mennonite pastor—entitled Peace Witness to Racial Strife.[5] From that point forward, Black male Mennonite voices spoke directly and unequivocally to White Mennonites about their acquiescence to whiteness, acceptance of White superiority, naïve promotion of colorblindness, and hypocritical claims of separation from society in the midst of close connection to and participation in institutional racism. In addition to Harding, other Black authors like pastor and Minority Ministries Council director John Powell, pastor and church executive Hubert Brown, evangelist William Pannell, pastor and Chicago-based activist Curtis Burrell, and social worker Ed Riddick spoke directly and forcefully to White Mennonites.

They were indeed direct. Consider the following. Harding, 1967: “[W] e must admit that we aremissionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo and seekers for peace without a cross.[6] Riddick, 1967: Integration is irrelevant precisely because in integrationist politics Negroes have not been integrated. They have been swallowedup in a cellophane cavern.[7] Pannell, 1968: Our brothers have been using us for years.[8] Powell, 1970: We say that we dont believe in power, yet we possess power and refuse to give it up or share it with those who have none. We revel in our thriftiness and refuse to understand why the disadvantaged cant be like us.[9] Brown, 1976: Unfortunately, the Mennonite Church has failed miserably in being a radical manifestation of God at work in the world.[10]

However, the force of that critique had it limits. Womens voices were muted and rarely lifted up to similar levels of public prophecy. Issues of sexism, colonialism, or colorism received next to no attention. Means of applying and addressing the trenchant critique offered were general and underdeveloped. In the 1960s and 1970s, the primary emphasis seemed to be on just getting White Mennonites to acknowledge that they had a problem with racism. That took enough energy as it was. Those early authors focused on asking for funds for the Minority Ministries Council, advocating for hiring of Black folk in church-wide leadership positions, and, perhaps, encouraging White Mennonites to do something other than feel sorry for the Black community and offer them handouts. They had little bandwidth left for specific, considered tactical instruction.

One exception to the relative paucity of focused direction was a 1963 multi-authored article by a group of men including Harding and Riddick. In this instance, the group, which also counted six white men among the authors, challenged leaders of the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, to sell lots of their campus property to those who have been denied the opportunity” to purchase property “because of their race.[11] They also called for those living on rich and comfortable farms” to relocate to cities where they could be in solidarity with the poor and for others to “wage war in the suburbs against the pleasures of materialism.[12]

Other than an outpouring of shock and grief in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.s assassination in 1968, subsequent challenges by the Minority Ministries Council through the early 1970s, and periodic reports on the rural summer hosting venture for Black and Brown children from the city known as the Fresh Air program, White Mennonites attention turned away from discussions of racism in the community through the 1980s. Although Herald Press released Rafael Falcons history of the Latino/a Mennonite community in 1985, the Black prophetic tradition in the Mennonite church had been dampened and seemingly cut off from print sources.[13] Due to both the ascendancy of key conservative voices in church publishing circles and denominational decisions that had resulted in fewer Black employees at the church wide level—particularly defunding the Minority Ministries Council—fewer Black writers appeared in church publications.

The publication of Harts Trouble I’ve Seen in 2016 marked the reappearance of this Black Anabaptist prophetic tradition in book form by a Mennonite press. In so doing Hart offered several key innovations. First, and perhaps most obviously, he wrote for a broader audience than had those before him. Trouble I’ve Seen focuses on Christians rather than Mennonites. Consistent with a shift by Herald Press to focus on larger markets, Hart set his gaze beyond Anabaptist circles even while writing from a distinctly Anabaptist perspective. He incorporates the doctrine of nonconformity” (141), calls readers to be angry and yet not sin (358), and reflects the communitys commitment to nonviolence (169). But he frames those commitments as “Christian rather than Mennonite” as he analyzes racism in the church.

Hart also wields theological tools more deftly than had those before him. In Who Will be a Witness, he explicates the gospels portrayal of Barabbas in a nuanced and thoughtful manner (72), offers critical insight into orthopathy,which he defines as right internal experience (347), and dives deep into the dynamics of church polity by asking congregations to have integrity between their “ecclesial gathering” and their “social scattering” (176).

That hermeneutical sophistication is likewise matched by an intersectional approach missing in previous iterations of the Black Anabaptist prophetic tradition. In this pair of books, Hart acknowledges his sexism (Trouble, 151), lifts up the experience of Black women (Trouble, 156; Witness, 161), makes connections with colonialism (Witness, 129), and lays bare the churchs participation in capitalism (Witness, 246). While he does not take up in any substantive way the history or present practice of homophobia and heterosexism in the church, he does call out the hypocrisy of traditionalists who focus on homosexuality but rarely discuss wealth (Witness, 247-48) and makes numerous connections between and among racism, sexism, and classism (Trouble, 165-66) in both texts.

Harts primary departure from the tradition in which he writes, however, is a much more specific and careful focus on tactics. Most evident in Who Will be a Witness, the practical suggestions offered emerge from his position as a scholar/activist. Like Vincent Harding before him, Hart remains active in and committed to a variety of social justice movements. Stories from those involvements pop up throughout both books and give integrity to the suggestions he offers. His comments on “strategic revolutionary symbolism” (57) invite readers to be much more strategic about how they organize public witnesses. His discussion of speaking truthfully includes wise commentary about weighing the certainty of backlash against the need to speak to power as expressed in the church (201). He also warns against the “savior complex” (301), discusses differing perspectives on the appropriateness of participating in electoral politics (327), and features robust examinations of nonviolent resistance, social movements, community organizing” and reparations (284).

Perhaps one of the authors most important articulations of tactics is found in Trouble I’ve Seen. Although somewhat less specific than his advice on community organizing, his recognition that the racial socialization of White people is so strong that they should not trust their own gut (77, italics in original) but rather follow the lead of communities of color is consistent with the scholarship on white identity formation in particular and whiteness in general.[14]  Harts contribution is not so much that he has come up with a new idea about whiteness but rather that he has articulated the idea in an accessible format and linked it with the expression of Christian witness.

The question that Harts work raises in light of the Black Anabaptist prophetic tradition is, What has been the result of this tradition? To which end have Black Mennonite and Black Mennonite adjacent speakers and writers appearing in print challenged the white Mennonite and white Christian community? Scholarly work is never the same as activist effort. The modalities and assumptions within those fields are distinct. Or at least they can appear to be so. The field of African-American Studies, an academic discipline emerging in 1968 and thereby relatively concurrent with the most active period of the Black Anabaptist prophetic tradition, has from its inception demanded that those pursuing its academic pursuits remain in close conversation with and be accountable to the Black community.

That focus  on  accountability—a  concept  foreign  to  much  of  the White-dominated theological community—requires a different approach to scholarship and its application. Throughout these two texts, Hart demonstrates deep connection to the African-American community through personal and communal networks. He not only writes about the topics he addresses but lives out the biblical principles that he promotes. Anecdotes describing the conversations he has had, the activism in which he has engaged, and the neighborhoods where he has lived, worshipped, and developed relationships reveal that he is writing from within the Black community, not separate from it. His writing is not just that of a Black man but of a Black man held accountable by his community for what and how he writes. He notes, for example, conversations with his friend Rafik (260), the multiracial congregation that he and his family attend (209), and the Harrisburg neighborhood in which they live (208). That communal context not only gives integrity to his scholarship, it shapes it as well. This may be one of the most important contributions that Hart makes in these books.

Even without a discussion of the Black Anabaptist prophetic tradition, Trouble I’ve Seen and Who Will Be A Witness are challenging and insightful texts for the white Christian community writ large. More important, they raise essential questions for scholars who wish to speak to the church: How will we be held accountable for the words we write? Do our lives and our scholarship match? Whose voices do we listen to when evaluating our work?” Echoing and building on the voices of those who have come before him, Hart models one way to answer those questions with integrity.

Tobin Miller Shearer, Professor of History, University of Montana, Missoula, Montana

[1] Abram B. Kolb, The Race Troubles,Herald of Truth, November 15, 1889.; William Bolyer, Testimony from a Rockland Street Mission Convert,Missionary Messenger, October 16, 1938.

[2] Katie Wingard, Our Duty to the Negro,” Gospel Herald, October 5, 1922; Merle W. Eshleman, Mission for Colored, Philadelphia,Missionary Messenger, February 16, 1936. The one exception to this pattern that Ive found was a 1926 article in the Missionary Messenger written by a Black woman from outside the Anabaptist community. See Jessie Faust, A Negro View of the Color Problem,ibid., June 15, 1926.

[3] Rowena Lark, The History of Bethel Mennonite Church,Our Journal, May 1950.

[4] Mennonite General Conference, The Way of Christian Love in Race Relations,” (Hesston, KS: Mennonite General Conference, 1955).

[5] Vincent Harding, Peace Witness to Racial Strife,The Mennonite, November 8, 1960.

[6] The Beggars Are Rising . . . Where Are the Saints?,Mennonite Life, October 1967, 152

[7] George E. Riddick, Black Power in the White Perspective,ibid., January, 1967, 30.

[8] William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 54.

[9] John Powell, The Minority Ministries Council: A Call to Action,Gospel Herald, March 31, 1970, 294.

[10] Hubert Brown, Black and Mennonite: A Search for Identity (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976), 47.

[11] Vincent Harding et al., Church and Race in 6 Cities,The Mennonite, February 12, 1963, 100.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rafael Falcon, The Hispanic Mennonite Church in North America 1932-1982 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985).

[14] Matthew Hughey, “The (Dis)Similarities of White Racial Identities: The Conceptual Framework of ‘Hegemonic Whiteness,Ethnic and Racial Studies 33, no. 8 (2010); 1289-1309; Tobin Miller Shearer, Conflicting Identities: White Racial Formation among Mennonites, 1960–1985,Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 19, no. 3 (2012): 268-84; George Yancy, “Looking at Whiteness: Subverting White Academic Spaces through the Pedagogical Perspective of Bell Hooks,” in Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness (Philadplphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2012); David Evans, To Rid the Italian Soul of One Dark Blot: Recognising Race in White Christian Religion,Journal of Religious History 39, no. 3 (2015): 370-85; Tobin Miller Shearer, White Mennonite Peacemakers: Oxymorons, Grace, and Nearly Thirty Years of Talking About Whiteness,The Conrad Grebel 35, no. 3 (2017): 259-66.