Participants in the seventh annual Mennonite Church USA Hope for the Future conference Feb. 8-11 in San Antonio, Texas, pose for a group photo. Three representatives attended from Eastern Mennonite University, including M. Esther Showalter (in pink sweater, front row), Celeste Thomas (directly behind Showalter) and Melody Pannell (to Thomas's left). (Jenny Castro/MC USA)

EMU representatives join fellow leaders of color at seventh annual MC USA Hope for the Future conference

Three representatives from Eastern Mennonite University attended the seventh annual Hope for the Future conference hosted by Mennonite Church USA (MC USA).

Melody Pannell, professor of social work, M. Esther Showalter, advisor to the Latino Student Alliance and instructor in the Intensive English Program, and Celeste Thomas, director of Multicultural Student Services, traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for the Feb. 8-11 event. Pannell also chairs EMU’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion; Thomas is also a member.

Their participation was sponsored by the President’s Office.

From left: M. Esther Showalter, Celeste Thomas and Melody Pannell at the Hope for the Future conference in Texas. (Courtesy photo)

They joined approximately 70 pastors, leaders, directors, coordinators, educators and artists — the majority people of color — to “explore the ways that power, privilege and racism function in the Mennonite denomination.”

This is the seventh annual conference bringing together leaders of color to network, share support and galvanize for change.

The conference theme – “The People are Marching, Where are the Saints?” – was drawn from Dr. Vincent Harding’s 1967 address to the Mennonite World Conference. In it, he urged the true believers to join the beggars, “to march out of conformity and into the terror of the roaring night … The Master is already on the road and He says, ‘I am the way; follow me.’”

“Having so many of our leaders of color throughout the Mennonite Church in one space together was empowering,” said Pannell, who in her third conference served as worship leader and moderator. “Since I was raised in the Mennonite Church, it was also like attending a family reunion and recognizing who we are individually and acknowledging who we are collectively. It was also a significant time to celebrate the richness of our heritages and honor those leaders of color who have gone before us.”

One conference highlight occurred on Friday morning, when MC USA announced that Glen Guyton, chief operating officer and director of convention planning, would be the denomination’s next executive director. He is the first African American to hold the position.

The room “erupted in shouts, clapping, and cheering,” according to an MC USA article.

Thomas later framed the moment in her larger context. Used to working the “very white Mennonite space” at EMU, she was “empowered to be in a Mennonite space that is majority persons of color.”

Conference participants surround Glen Guyton for prayer after learning of his appointment to the executive directorship of Mennonite Church USA. (Jenny Castro/MC USA)

“Being in that space and then hearing the announcement that Glenn Guyton was appointed as the next executive director of Mennonite Church USA was powerful,” she said, “especially having the opportunity to congratulate him in person as well as to gather around him and pray for him.”

Guyton, a former board member at EMU, was one of four featured speakers. Others included Sue Park Hur, co-director of the Los Angeles, California-based ReconciliAsian peace center; Juan F. Martínez, professor of Hispanic Studies and Pastoral Leadership, at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California; and Chantelle Todman Moore, co-founder and lead coach at unlock Ngenuity, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Showalter also called the conference “empowering” and “invigorating.”

“What gave me the most energy was spending time with other Latino leaders, learning more about their passions and how they are serving their communities,” she said. “Our sister in Christ, Sue Park-Hur, reminded us leaders that we are to bring life to people, to awaken and be courageous together.”

The participants gathered towards the end of the conference to reflect on the theme, contributed by Harding, and to send a similarly prophetic letter, Pannell said, calling for the church to

Be centered in Christ and led by the Holy Spirit;

Love one another as Christ has loved us, despite our differences;

Be visibly active in making a difference in the world;

Bring young people along as we journey together.

Pannell added her closing prayer: “I pray that as we seek to advocate on behalf of those that continue to be marginalized in our society, church and institutions that we join in with the people and march together in unity, love and justice for all.”

The conference was sponsored by Everence, Mennonite Central Committee U.S., MC USA Executive Board, Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Mission Network.