Cyneatha Millsaps, visiting pastor at Eastern Mennonite University Sept. 19-23, lead conversations around the topics of racism and unjust structures in a number of formal and informal venues. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

‘Christianity amid systemic racism is an oxymoron’: Visiting pastor Cyneatha Millsaps challenges EMU community

Cyneatha Millsaps is lead pastor of Community Mennonite Church in the Chicago suburb of Markham, Illinois, and multicultural liaison/consultant for Illinois Mennonite Conference. She’s a community activist and advocate for women’s and children’s needs. She’s an author, writing quarterly for The Mennonite. She’s an educator and trainer in the areas of domestic violence, dating violence, multiculturalism and diversity.

Cyneatha Millsaps leads a discussion in Professor Melody Pannell’s class on race and gender. (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

“She’s lots of things to lots of people,” as Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) instructor and Restorative Justice Coordinator Jon Swartz said, introducing Millsaps to his “Ethics in the Way of Jesus” class this past week.

Millsaps brought those varied experiences and gifts to EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Sept. 19-23, serving as visiting pastor and leading important conversations around the topics of racism and unjust structures. Venues included chapel services, classes, meetings with administrators and student groups, and a late-evening “Questions After Dark” residence hall discussion.

During “Questions After Dark,” students were encouraged to write questions on slips of paper, which were then answered by Millsaps. “The first question drawn during our time asked her to tell a story that was dear to her heart,” said Scott Eyre, residence director. “The story was raw and personal and I think it created an intimacy and honesty right away … students were captivated by her personality and honesty.”

Reflecting on her time on campus, Millsaps said, “It’s been more than interesting to be in this space, to see the love and commitment of a university that is stretching itself, pushing itself, farther and farther.”

Millsaps, an alumna of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, continued to push EMU, too. In a chapel address Friday morning, Millsaps challenged the very title: “Grounded in Christ Amid Systemic Racism.”

“Christianity amid systemic racism is an oxymoron,” Millsaps told a large crowd in Lehman Auditorium. She recounted some of the acts of racism that have occurred in the nation’s history and then observed, “All the history of things that have happened in the U.S. happened under the watch of Christianity.”

Mllsaps’ Sept. 23 chapel on the topic of systemic racism was followed by an all-day event in Thomas Plaza, organized by students in Professor Deanna Durham’s “Exploring Conflict and Peace” class, the Black Student Union and Peace Fellowship to allow space for grieving, sharing and concerns around domestic and global violence. (Photo by Londen Wheeler)

In her presentation to Swartz’s class, she told more personal stories of ways that racism had affected family members and others close to her. In one incident, her son was arrested after being involved in a bank robbery, during which another young man she knew well was killed.

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to go through,” Millsaps said. “It changed my entire life. Who I believed God to be was challenged.”

She criticized a justice system “designed to grab them all and wrap them all up in one little package” and one that only works if “you’re white and have money.” A good attorney was able to provide fair representation for her son, she said, but many others go through the system without that advantage. She encouraged students to consider entering the field of law and providing counsel for those who can’t afford it.

Millsaps also noted issues such as unfair jury selection practices, the number of children in Black communities who grow up without fathers, the punitive nature of justice in the United States and other factors.

“It is amazing, the things that happen and why they happen,” she said. “Until you are on the margins, you don’t really understand what I’m speaking about.”

In another class, Carmen Schrock-Hurst’s “Covenant and Community: Introduction to the Bible,” Millsaps touched on Anabaptist values and spoke about the role the Bible plays in her life, and about people of faith who have made a difference in her life.

“I sensed that students appreciated her honesty and strong convictions,” Schrock-Hurst said. “At a university that lacks diverse faculty, it was a gift to have Cyneatha in the classroom.”

At the Friday chapel, Campus Pastor Brian Martin Burkholder praised Millsaps’ “wealth of experience” and thanked her “for being present and listening and receiving and giving” during the week.

“We will be sending you with our prayers,” he said.