Revisiting a Mennonite Church Bombing, 50 Years Later
Simon G. Gingerich, 92, now lives in a small apartment at the Greencroft retirement community in Goshen, Indiana. He spent a career in Mennonite church work as a pastor and an administrator for Mennonite Board of Missions, as it was called in the
Old Mennonite Church. For most of the time he worked for MBM, Simon lived with his first wife, Dorothy, and later, after Dorothy’s death, his second wife, Mary, in a house in a racially mixed neighborhood in south central Elkhart, not far from what was then MBM headquarters in downtown Elkhart.
Simon and Dorothy never had any children of their own. He was the next to youngest of 10 children of Amos and Nannie Gingerich. Many of his nieces and nephews, and then their children, ended up in the Goshen-Elkhart area to attend Goshen College and/or the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart (some remained residents in the area), and were often guests for a meal in Simon and Dorothy’s home. One of those was me – my mother is Simon’s niece. I studied at both Goshen College and Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
I became aware of the story detailed below through three of his nieces: my mother, Joyce G. Zuercher, and her sisters, Elizabeth G. Yoder and Ruth Penner. They learned about it after Simon told the story to a great-nephew, Luke Hartman, at the funeral of another of Simon’s nieces, Luke’s aunt, Leabell Troyer Miller, a couple of years ago.
The three sisters decided to ask me if I would interview Uncle Simon and make something of this story for Mennonite Life and possibly other outlets. I met with him at his Greencroft apartment in July 2014.
When I heard this story, I was surprised to learn that a Mennonite church was targeted in the church burnings in the early 1960s and about the part our uncle played in these events. I hope that this story … might stimulate others to ask their elders to recall their stories from the civil rights era. And maybe someday our nieces and nephews will ask us what we were doing during our era.
She also noted that one of my cousins, Justin Gingerich, had overheard Elizabeth and me talking about this at a family get-together right after Christmas 2014, and that although Justin didn’t grow up in
the Mennonite bubble, he still thought this was an interesting story, worth wider sharing.
My aunt Ruth was present for the interviews, and had these comments a few months later:
I think you captured the essence of the story very well as it flows through the events. … I could almost smell the tires in the back room when [Simon] had the conversation with the sheriff. No conferencing over a nice table or office. … The 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement and the cultural issues of today’s race relations make this story very important to report. …
Additional context [should] be added at some point about the unique place of Simon’s personality. He is viewed as very caring, thoughtful and dignified, but quietly diplomatic and non-confrontational.
My memories of Uncle Simon and Aunt Dorothy have mostly to do with their legendary hospitality, Dorothy’s gift for good cooking, and how much they cared about their nieces, nephews and great-nieces and -nephews. It is quite provocative to juxtapose those memories with an imagined picture of Simon meeting with the notorious sheriff Lawrence Rainey in Neshoba County, Mississippi, in 1967.
Over the last several years, people in the United States have been celebrating 50-year anniversaries of milestones along the road to civil rights – for example, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his
I have a dream speech (Aug. 27, 1963); the 1964
Freedom Summer voter registration drives in the South; the March 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama (as recently depicted in the 2015 feature film Selma).
In the midst of all that, some 50th anniversaries with direct connection to Mennonite mission work in the South and indirect ties to events making national news have passed or are upcoming
Sept. 20, 1964, a little Mennonite mission church in Neshoba County, Mississippi, was dynamited and virtually destroyed. The Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Church was the fruit of several years of ministry with Choctaw people in that part of the country. The incident happened in the middle of the night, so no one was in the building at the time, and it made few ripples outside the Mennonite world.
Neshoba County had already been in the middle of national and international headlines, however. June 21, 1964, Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price stopped James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three Freedom Summer volunteers, just inside the Philadelphia city limits and charged them with speeding. After about seven hours in the Neshoba County Jail, and well after dark, the three were released on bail. They drove away and were never seen alive again. Their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam Aug. 4, 1964. All three had been shot at close range.
In that same summer, scores of black churches burned in Mississippi and the South, virtually all as a result of arson, nor was Nanih Waiya the first church in Neshoba County to have been deliberately destroyed. In fact, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had been there to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia on the night of June 16, 1964.
After the Nanih Waiya church was dynamited, Mennonite Disaster Service workers from several states came to Neshoba County and rebuilt it with help from the congregation and other locals. The congregation grew in the wake of the attack and even built an addition onto the church.
On Feb. 19, 1966, someone dynamited the church again. Again, the congregation rebuilt. Ten months later, Dec. 23, the church was blown up a third time. At this point, Simon G. Gingerich, secretary for home mission for Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) of what was then the Mennonite Church, knew he had to become more directly involved.
Gingerich had assumed his position in 1964, not long before the church was dynamited the first time, and had gone to visit Nevin and Esther Bender, the Nanih Waiya church’s pastor couple, and congregation members in its aftermath. He had not gone to Neshoba County after the second attack, but the third time,
I needed to go down to assure the Mennonite community in Mississippi that we knew what was happening and we needed to do more than we did, Gingerich said.
We knew that the people in Mississippi, the Benders and others, would not take much of a position with community leaders. They were called to establish the church and to support their people in the mission field.
Before Gingerich made his trip to Mississippi, in early 1967, he met with MBM executive secretary Ernest Bennett and another administrator, Ray Horst, who was over the Voluntary Service (VS) program. Horst
had done a lot of very good work with community leaders where [we] had VS workers, Gingerich said.
He had been called to Washington, D.C., to be a consultant in designing the Peace Corps.
Horst encouraged Gingerich to set up meetings with community leaders such as the newspaper editor, the pastor of an influential church, the CEO of the lumber company (Neshoba County’s primary industry) and the county sheriff, though Horst also expressed his doubts that the latter meeting would actually happen or bear any fruit if it did.
Two years earlier, in January 1965, Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Deputy Price and 16 other men had been indicted for the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. The trial had yet to take place.
In Philadelphia, Nevin Bender took Gingerich to meet with a number of community leaders, but when it came time to visit the sheriff, Gingerich decided to go on his own, without making an appointment. He did meet with Sheriff Rainey. The ensuing conversation is detailed in the following interview.
No arrests were ever made in connection with any of the dynamiting incidents involving the Nanih Waiya Indian Mennonite Church. The suspicion in the Nanih Waiya community – never proven – was that a nearby farmer, known to have had sexual liaisons with local Choctaw women, was angry when some of them became Christians and would have no further contact with him, and that he had expressed his feelings with dynamite.
After Gingerich’s visit with Sheriff Rainey, the Nanih Waiya church was never bombed again. In the October 1967 federal trial of the 18 men accused in the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, Sheriff Rainey claimed that on the night of the killings, he had been in Meridian visiting his sick wife. He was eventually acquitted, while Deputy Price was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served about four-and-a-half.
I was secretary for home missions for MBM. I began in 1964 and the trip that we want to talk about was in 1966 or 1967. The middle ’60s were [the] civil rights [era], when one of the big issues was voter registration in the South. That was in the public news – almost every newscast talked about what was happening, because this was one of the most tangible items in the whole agenda of the civil rights program, to make it possible for the blacks to express themselves.
In the initial years, people marched, sat in at lunch counters and restaurants, drank at the
wrong water fountains and used restrooms and went to swimming pools that were segregated, but eventually voter registration became the big issue. That was resisted in the South very strongly. I think it was the summer of 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
See the movie Mississippi Burning – if I were writing the story, I’d want to get that presentation for background. The Freedom Summer was in 1964, and a lot of churches burned then, too. The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in 1963.
Before I came on the Mission Board, a Mennonite mission church was established at Nanih Waiya, Mississippi. There is a big mound there, the Nanih Waiya. That’s where God made the first Choctaw. The mission was with the Choctaw [who] were sharecroppers on the farms of Neshoba County, Mississippi. Neshoba County wasn’t a big plantation area but it was mostly rural, a farm culture. Philadelphia was the county seat. It had the law officers and the jail and the biggest business. An area that had been largely cotton but at some point, much of the acreage was planted in pine. So cutting these pine forests and processing the telephone poles and posts and various other products [such as] plywood – that local processing industry was the biggest in the area. Farmers did subsistence farming, with patches of cotton, soybeans. Many had woodlands, or woodlots. Philadelphia itself had mostly fundamentalist or evangelical churches. There was a weekly newspaper. There was nothing very notable about the town.
Our little church at Nanih Waiya was about 10 miles out but still in the county, very rural. On one of my first trips, the local pastor [Nevin Bender], a newly retired minister from Virginia [showed me around]. At least two of their children had followed them to Mississippi, or maybe they were there first. They were both school teachers, a part of the Mennonite community missionary force.
[One of Bender’s children, name not recalled] took me to a field where they were picking cotton. The person I met was a middle-aged woman, very rugged looking, dragging a big, long sack, maybe 10 feet long. She picked the cotton bolls and stuffed them in the bag and dragged them down the row. She was Indian. We were working with Indian families primarily. That may have been as early as 1965, and that wasn’t a particularly eventful trip. It was my first one, I was getting acquainted with the position. I visited several other Mennonite churches, I think there were three at the time, none with more than 12-15 people involved. Also in each place [where there was a church], the mission program had only been running five to 10 years.
Maybe a year later [Editor’s note: Gingerich’s own memory of particular years is not always accurate after 50-plus years], on a Christmas Eve, the Benders and the younger part of their congregation were out caroling like good Mennonite people do, and they came to the back of the church and the back wall had fallen over and the roof had come down on the end. Someone had opened the front door and thrown in some kind of bomb, or dynamite. I think dynamite was the weapon of choice at that point. Over about three years, something like 100 black churches had been destroyed in Mississippi.
I went down, I think it was a couple weeks later, to see what was going on. The Mennonite churches in Mississippi had gotten together and were rebuilding the building by the time I got there. They showed me in the cement inside the front door of the church the damage to the floor. It was a simple, small little church, probably would have seated 50 people, not many more. There might have been one cloakroom. No plumbing or anything like that.
The Mennonites repaired the building. I don’t think much was said or done except that the Benders reassured people that they would stay:
We’ll stay with you, this is our problem as much as yours. I went back [to Elkhart, Indiana] not much wiser.
No one came forward to admit doing it. I think there was a neighbor man who might have been the scapegoat, I don’t know.
Nevin Bender’s daughter was a young adult, trained as a high school English teacher. She had a position with the Choctaw Indian school, where the kids loved her. They had good facilities in a little Indian village about 10 miles from the church in a community known as Pearl River. Pearl River’s main industry was this high school.
Mildred [uncertain of name] was probably – I have no background for this – one of the leading faculty members there. She was given the responsibility to help produce the annual [i.e., yearbook]. Miss Bender took a couple of the students to the best restaurant in Philadelphia as a treat, for an evening to work on the annual. She wasn’t above doing little things that would annoy the locals. I don’t think she was gross about it, but she didn’t care [how they felt or what they thought].
The Indians were not active, as far as I know, in the civil rights history. Their civil rights problems had begun 200 years earlier. They were living through this like everyone else. They were lower on the community cultural ladder because of dark skin. Their typical appearance was notable. As sharecroppers, they were taken advantage of in very subtle ways, much like sharecroppers of previous eras, by white farmers who would keep them poor, so they were always in debt to the farmer.
About a year later, the church was dynamited a second time. As far as I know, there was very little in the way of public awareness. I don’t know whether the paper published pictures or not. I’m very sure there wasn’t any investigation from official law enforcement. For some reason, I didn’t go down at that time.
During that decade [of the 1960s], a number of Mennonite farmer families moved to Mississippi and bought up land that had been cotton-growing land, cleared away the brush that had grown up since the Civil War. There was a Mennonite church in a small city, a pastor, some school teachers, and then a couple of rural churches. One of them was where Nelson and Eunice [Histand, one of Gingerich’s sisters and her husband] were. People like Nelson were there. I knew the carpenter who was doing the rebuilding. We provided money from Elkhart. [Editor’s note: This was for rebuilding the church the second time.]
The plot thickens because of the murder of the three workers [in June 1964]. There was a big uproar in the civil rights community from New York City to San Diego. Time magazine, Newsweek, all the big publications, radio, TV followed this story of the disappearance and murders.
The workers had their home base in the town, moral support in the small Mennonite community. They knew that if they drove into Neshoba County, it was dangerous. They were committed to do what needed to be done. So they went there. People noticed, the law noticed. They were arrested, jailed and then that night let out into the hands of a mob. The mob included deputy sheriff Cecil Price. Sheriff Rainey was in [Meridian]. So he had an alibi, he didn’t know anything about what happened. [The bodies were found] buried in an earthen dam.
About that time, the church building was blown up again, for the third time in two years. This was six months to a year, probably more like a year, after the murders happened. So I needed to go down because of this, to assure the Mennonite community in Mississippi that we knew what was happening and we needed to do more than we did. We knew that the people in Mississippi, the Benders and others, would not take much of a position with community leaders. They were called to establish the church and to support their people in the mission field.
I had a little informal meeting with Ernest Bennett, my boss at MBM, general secretary, and Ray Horst, who was in charge of VS and had done a lot of very good work with community leaders where they had VS workers. He had been called to Washington, D.C., a consultant in designing the Peace Corps. Ray sort of chuckled after a while and said,
Well, I think if I were going down, I would try to make appointments with the editor of the paper and with the CEO of the lumbering industry and with the leading pastor if you can figure out who it is, and he may have said another one or two. Then he said,
If you can, make an appointment with someone in the sheriff’s office, but don’t be surprised if you don’t learn anything there.
So I went down, and Nevin Bender took me around town in his little VW bug and we visited the newspaper editor and the preacher and the industrialist. I think I was there two or three days, and eventually we had lunch together one of those days and I said,
I really need to see Sheriff Rainey if I can. Brother Bender, maybe I should go alone – could I use your car?
So I drove down to the sheriff’s office after lunch, when it was about time for an afternoon nap. The deputy was there but the sheriff wasn’t in. I introduced myself and told him what my business was, where I came from and what I was interested in. I expressed some concern that all this had happened, and I wanted to see the sheriff if I could. The deputy said,
I think he’d be glad to see you. He was very supportive and nice. This was the same one who had been in the mob [Cecil Price].
If you go down this street, there’s a tire store and I think Sheriff Rainey is getting tires put on his pickup. He may have called the tire store after I left.
I found the store and the sheriff and he welcomed me. I introduced myself. He said,
Let’s go back here and talk. So we went into a back room where they had their tire stockpile. I said,
You know, we have a church out at Nanih Waiya that’s been blown up three times in the last two years and we’re concerned about it. Our business here is to evangelize and establish a church with the Indian people.
He affirmed what we were doing. He said,
I know about that. It’s pretty far out there, and we don’t have a lot of information. That was probably true. I eventually asked him if there was something that our mission workers were doing that was troublesome, or were they making any unnecessary trouble. One of my jobs was to try to help mission workers fit into their communities and be supportive [of the local community].
I don’t remember the train of details but eventually I said,
Do you and your deputy have any idea who’s been doing this kind of thing? Is there anything we can do to identify that person? He said,
Well, we do think we know who it might have been, but he said,
You know, we can arrest a person like that and bring him to trial but we can never get a conviction. As though it was somebody else’s problem.
I don’t remember my responses. Eventually I said,
We’ve rebuilt the church twice and it’s well underway again, and we have to decide whether we’re going to continue. He affirmed that was a good question to be asking. At about that point in the conversation, I said,
You know, your community here has had a lot of negative publicity. Almost every newspaper in the country has been talking about Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Neshoba County, and that’s probably been pretty tough for you. Even some of your people have been accused of being involved. Before I came down, I asked some of my co-workers what we ought to do, what I can do down here, and one of them said, I said [to Sheriff Rainey],
Maybe you shouldn’t go, but instead of that, call New York or Washington, D.C., and tell our story.
We really don’t want to do that. We don’t think that would help what we’re trying to do, or what we’re here for. But I said,
I think that might be a possibility for some of us back at the office.
I don’t remember the exact responses back and forth, but he said,
I don’t think that will be necessary. I really think it won’t happen again. I thanked him and wished him the best and went back and told Nevin Bender that I think it won’t happen again and went back home.
Sheriff Rainey was eventually acquitted in the federal case on the murders because he had the alibi of being out of town on the night in question. The deputy was tried and I think he got life in prison (sic), I’m not sure.
I did feel the Lord had led in that adventure. I had good interviews with the three or four other local influence-leaders, and what I thought was a good contact with both the deputy and the sheriff.
A couple of years later, I had occasion to go down to Mississippi again and I stopped for gas in Washington, Tennessee, I think the town was, 150-200 miles from Philadelphia, and who do you think pumped my gas? Mr. Rainey, the former sheriff. I didn’t have a conversation with him, but I’m just sure it was him. I can believe he had to leave the community. I suspect there was a lot of awareness in the community that the deputy took all the blame that really should have been shared.
[A comment made the next day:
I had enough information to know Rainey and the deputy were suspected in the killing of the civil rights workers. I don’t know if they knew I knew. I don’t think the bodies had been found yet. (sic) After the event happened, the federal government sent in dozens of people to investigate, to try and find out what happened. Those people had pretty well left before I came down. They were used to seeing strangers around so I didn’t stick out. I was ill-at-ease at times on my visits to that community. I remember stopping at a roadside gas station-grocery store, common in rural Mississippi. I was driving my car, which was identified by the Indiana license plate. I knew my language was from the North rather than the South. I was a little uneasy, wondering what these people were thinking. Once I was driving down a state or county highway, a paved road, and
KKK appeared on the roadway. I wondered if I was going the wrong direction here. Those kinds of things were kind of threatening.
But nothing ever happened – I was always treated courteously.]
That was probably the most dramatic adventure I had in the 12 or 13 years I served in the home missions office.
The church was never bombed again.
In the meantime, we built a church building over at Pearl River. I don’t know what happened to
Mildred [Bender] – I don’t think she was there when we were working on the new building. Her brother was ordained to take his father’s responsibilities and I think served maybe his whole life in that area.
One of the Bender daughters and her husband lived about a half-mile from the church that was bombed. The burned station wagon that had belonged to the three civil rights workers was pushed into the ditch not far from the church, which was off the road about 100 yards – it was there at least once when I visited. This was clear on the other side of the county from where they were buried.
(What was the reason for bombing the churches?) What I believe, but I don’t have any tangible evidence for it, was a nearby white farmer, a bachelor, who was using some of the church families, maybe abusing the women, I think there were some sexual issues involved, and I think he saw the church as a threat to his lifestyle. So he was trying to scare [the Mennonite mission workers] away. The [younger pastor couple’s] home was shot through with a rifle.
There are still Mennonite churches in the area – several Choctaw churches are part of the conference. There was Choctaw land but it was smaller areas scattered over a large area, not contiguous. The people who remained there [had hidden] in the bushes and forest when Andrew Jackson forced the Indians west onto reservations in Oklahoma.
I think civil rights struggles had something to do with the beginning of Mennonite mission work in Mississippi. Nelson [Kauffman, my predecessor at MBM] was a person who could find openings for planting churches. There were a couple of things in the culture of Mississippi that made him aware that here were Choctaw Indians and almost no Christian work among them. He was aware that people like Nelson and Eunice Mae [Histand] were moving to Mississippi and some of them could help with the Indian work. One of the big things [was that] health care was a problem. There was an Indian hospital, but people lived 30 or miles away from it without good transportation. Big families with high birthrates, a lot of poverty.
The civil rights era was a very formative time in my emotional and spiritual development. …
During my time as pastor [at Holdeman Mennonite Church, Wakarusa, Indiana], … the conference gave me some responsibility for managing the conference’s mission activities. I was on the district mission board for Indiana-Michigan Conference. … Being on the district mission board, I was automatically a member of the Mennonite Board of Missions. The executive committee of MBM nominated me to be on the executive and I was elected. I was about 35 years old, it was 1959. I was much younger than the other members of the executive and still pastoring at Wakarusa at Holdeman Mennonite Church. [My wife] Dorothy wasn’t very well, suffering from depression. The church was in pretty good shape right then, had some new members and a kind of a revival, and it began to seem like it might be time for me to resign. MBM needed a replacement for Nelson Kauffman, who was nearing retirement age. MBM asked me to take his place.
At about that time, the civil rights era was sort of peaking. There had been race riots in LA and in Washington, D.C., New York, St. Louis, some other places. The Mennonite churches had established mission churches about a generation earlier and those churches were all being led by the founders [there was a group of about a dozen inner-city churches, integrated but largely black with white leadership].
When Nelson Kauffman was a mission pastor himself … in Hannibal, Missouri, he had invited young people he kind of hand-picked at youth meetings and wherever he met up with Mennonite youth to come to Hannibal and help him with the work there. So he was mentoring some – he had done a good job of picking them. He had worked them into churchwide management of these mission churches. Some of us have said Nelson was the Mennonite seminary before the Mennonite seminary existed. He did some good work. I was called to be the supervisor of these people who knew more than I did about inner-city work. It wasn’t a comfortable place to be.
I wasn’t aware of my limitations, particularly in the matter of racism. I was born and raised mostly in Missouri. There were black families in Versailles. They lived in
Niggertown. Rev. Amos [my father] befriended the pastors in the black community. They, like him, were making their living at other things. Sometimes he would invite them out to the farm to help with harvest. These men had been with us off and on through harvest time. Threshing time was a community event. In Missouri, black people were not supposed to be eating with white people. My parents didn’t like that but they were a little bit intimidated by the neighbors. I remember Mother struggled with that, but sure enough, she let this black man eat at a little table in the corner. I think we all in the family knew that was bad. So I wasn’t raised without some notion of decency. My older brothers, bless them, would talk about
the hillbillies. That also was derogatory and sort of off-limits if parents were around. Our dad was doing circuit-riding once a month down along the Osage River, where it’s now the Lake of the Ozarks. He wasn’t above coming home and telling about the accommodations and the meals he would have. Our family never really settled into Missouri, except for [brother] Leroy. I can remember the phrase
Missouri folks [in our family as if] we weren’t quite like them. So there were roots of racism in me, and I think I was smart enough to know that by that time [when I was appointed at MBM].
One of the last things Nelson Kauffman did before he retired was to plan for a kind of jump-starting of racism education in the Mennonite church. The way he started to work at this was he invited, I think hand-picked, about 10 pastors from influential churches across the whole denomination to come to Chicago for two days of exposure to inner-city race relations, then fly to LA and do it again. Our agenda in Chicago was developed and planned by one of these young people Nelson he had mentored, now working in Chicago and knew all about race and who the people were who could help with the exposure to what was going on. Then he planned for us to have I think a long weekend in a Presbyterian retreat center. After he had this pretty well planned, his wife got sick and she died. When it was pretty clear that he was going to be unable to take leadership for this [he said]:
Simon, you'll have to do it.
By that time, I had known some of my fellow travelers because they were my contemporaries, met at Goshen College and other places, but Nelson had planned the other people who were part of the staff to serve. Bob Stoltzfus was a young theologian, studying New Testament at one of the eastern seminaries and was getting ready for a career change. Hubert Swartzendruber was an inner-city pastor from St. Louis and very strong as a leader in his church. At the last minute, we had someone resign or couldn’t come and Hubert Brown was invited from down near Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]. He was working in one of these
Old Mennonite mission churches as their first black pastor. He was an extremely helpful person to have in this kind of thing. He knew about racism from the people who were supervising, from the school he had attended – he was intellectually very gifted.
We went to Chicago and had two days of very intense exposure to the language, the pain, what was happening in city government, hospitals, schools in the early 1960s. We met in the YMCA [hotel] down on State Street. We landed in LA and again went to the hotel and had almost the same kind of exposure. Very intense two days and then a bit of a break over Saturday. They sent us to different churches, mostly in the black community. Monday and Tuesday, we talked it over. Bob Stoltzfus did a very good interpretation of the book of Ephesians, there’s a lot of stuff about relationships [between the Jews and Gentiles].
I’m not sure which day it was, I think it was the last day we were together, everyone, I think, including me, was kind of exhausted. We were having our discussion after lunch, a group of about 15 people. Hubert Brown – a newcomer to the group, had never before been to the Midwest or to any church-wide gatherings – got up early in the afternoon session and disappeared. I said,
Hubert, you won’t be gone long, will you? We were summarizing what had happened and I thought it was important for him to be there. He returned on schedule, I suppose. We went on with our business. Late in the session, he said,
I’d like to say something if I could. Sure.
Simon, why did you ask, I don’t think he said much more and I don’t think I answered very directly. Then he began to say what meaning this had – he sort of unpacked his feelings about it. He was the youngest person there and the newest person there and I think he was the only black person there. He told me, in the company of this whole bunch, that it felt like racism to him.
You won’t be gone long, will you?
That wasn’t the last day, because the next day, or maybe it was later that afternoon, I don’t remember, I went down to a nearby library and wanted to look up something. I talked to the woman at the desk about what I needed to find and she just picked up on what I was asking for and went and got it and just perfectly did her job. I was kind of surprised she understood me so well and knew where it was and was courteous. And she had a black face. I found myself thinking,
You know, why am I surprised? I was kind of shocked at myself. But the Lord was working in my soul and my heart. Hubert had not been mean, but he was forthright, and open and honest.
When I came back to Elkhart, I drove down Cleveland Avenue past one of the black families’ homes that I knew well. They had built a new fence, I’m not sure if it was for the children or the dog, because they had both. The fence was crooked and wasn’t very secure – I just glanced at it as I drove past. Again the Lord spoke to me:
Why was I expecting that? I’d helped that family moved so I knew them well but I also knew they were black and that apparently was bothering me or was an issue that I shouldn’t have had.
Those three encounters, one after the other, helped me to understand some of what my black friends were knowing and doing. I remember struggling with the issue of why the anger and the rough talk –
Why can’t they be more nice about it? Then I was reading in Time magazine that you don’t tell a person who’s hurting how to holler. That also helped to readjust my spirit.
Not everyone at the Mission Board staff had gone through those experiences. So I began to see racism as more damaging than some of my colleagues. I began also to be aware that I wasn’t cured. I was made aware but I wasn’t sanctified. Grandpa Amos used to use the word
sanctified in his prayers and I never knew what it meant.
I was still pastoring in Wakarusa – I overlapped two years but I quit my day job and went to the MBM half-time. I came home and preached a sermon after my trip to LA and was able to kind of think through my whole problem and share it with the congregation. I got enough positive responses that I knew what I had experienced was authentic and that people were able to see themselves in the situation in a somewhat new way. In a way, that was a very crucial time for me. And it still is. I’ve come to kind of believe, though, that white racism in America is in at least one respect like alcoholism. You can declare that
it isn’t me and then you can get some new insights about yourself and really make the changes that you know, but down deep you’re still an alcoholic. You may be recovering, but – that helped me be patient with my brothers and sisters in the church. I haven’t been able to confront people like Hubert did with me and I kind of think I don’t need to.
In the spring, probably April or May, sometime after the trip to Chicago and LA which was very early in my Mission Board years, the public media, the news was worried about Detroit:
This is going to be a long, hot summer in Detroit. Detroit had been having a lot of race problems, problems with landlords; food service [not sure of meaning; supply?; restaurant service?]; problems with police, abuse of their role; and also the city government. St. Louis and Detroit, here in the Midwest, were particularly delinquent in terms of public service and the equal application of public service. For example, stores like Kroger would have a small store, maybe placed 40 years earlier but now it’s a black community. Then they would build a supermarket out where the white people had gone. They would bring their day-old bread from the nice stores to the smaller stores, and their
old vegetables, but the price would always be higher than at the supermarket. That kind of behavior is annoying and if you’re a little angry about some other things .... Those were some of the motivating factors that caused the riots. There were tangible reasons why these things were happening.
I remember we talked at the Mission Board office over lunch and at staff meetings about how are we going to respond to this crisis that’s going to be increasing this summer? It’s in Detroit, that’s not far away. Is there anything we can do? I think I probably was the one who suggested in a conversation with some of my colleagues that maybe we ought to invite pastors and congregational leaders in the cities that have had problems like this for a couple of years and ask them what we ought to do as a denomination to respond to a crisis that’s almost sure to happen. (It did happen. People lost their lives. Police shooting into crowds, things like that.)
Let’s have eight or 10 of these people with experience in the city to come and talk with us about what as a denomination we ought to be doing. So we did. I remember telephoning, writing letters. We set a date and a place, they were to come to Elkhart. We made arrangements to have a meeting at the YWCA in Elkhart, an old building that was no longer functioning as originally, but they still had a restaurant, meeting rooms, a gym. We said, let’s go down to the YWCA for this so we won’t be interrupted because of being so close to our desks and telephones.
I remember that Dorothy and I were living in Elkhart, we hadn’t been there so very long but we had a guest room with two single beds and a couple of beds in the basement. I invited several people to come and sleep at our house, people who had needed to drive or travel the day before. The next morning, Dorothy got up early and made breakfast for people and I hustled off to a little town south of South Bend where the train from Washington, D.C., stopped, to pick up some passengers. These guys were getting up and getting ready for the day. I noticed they were talking to each other but they weren’t talking to me. I didn’t think so much about it, they had things to say to each other.
We got down to the YWCA and mission board staff people started coming – Ernest [Bennett] and Ray Horst, I’m not sure if Dorsa [Mishler] was there. I was to preside. Someone had the usual kind of Mennonite devotional before we began our work. I made this little speech about why we were here and that we staff people aren’t living in the cities where these bad things are happening, but you fellows have first-hand information about what’s happening and why it’s happening. What would you like to see different if we could find the resources to be helpful?
Nobody picked up on this much. The staff people would help me a little bit to say what I wanted to say, but no one [who had come from away] felt free to help us much – until the elephant [in the room] started moving. Bless him, one of the good brothers said,
Some of us have been talking to each other, and we don’t think the problem we really need to face is in Detroit or St. Louis but part of the problem is here in Elkhart. The problem they thought they should talk about and be honest about was the fact that we had things in our own [Mennonite] church and the institutions of our church that will have to change if we’re going to be very helpful in the wider society.
That was the beginning of sort of the opening up of awareness that we did have deficits in our spiritual lives and our understanding of the world and particularly in our relating to the needs of the poor and the racially damaged people in our society.
I don’t recall if there were specific names named that day but I think it was Ernest Bennett who came through with the suggestion:
Let’s talk about the things that we’re coming to be aware of. I think some of these dear brothers had done some homework with each other, and the suggestion was made that we find a way to enlist the black and Hispanic leaders that we have in an organization that could help the white parts of the church to recognize the effects of racism in the Mennonite church and on the leaders of the church. Out of that meeting, an organization was formed or at least planning for it was initiated that was supposed to be
indigenous people with maybe a few white faces. We formed what rapidly was developed into what was called an
Urban Racial Council. The job they were to do was to help the institutions of the church deal with the racism. So it wasn’t long until Ernest had assured the group that yes, the Mission Board would sponsor such a group and yes, there would be money to pay salaries if necessary. They would be given the responsibility, opportunity, to have their leaders to be present at Mission Board meetings, Executive Committee, maybe Board of Education, colleges. I think we staff people were aware that we don’t tell the colleges and the publishing house what to do, we were equals, but we did recognize in that first meeting that they were thinking more broadly than just the Mission Board. That was the beginning of the Urban Racial Council, which had two staff people, one Hispanic and one black. MBM furnished salaries, travel budgets, gave them a pretty open budget to do what they felt they needed to do.