A personal testimony
I was asked, months ago (during this past summer's racial unrest), to share a little bit with this group about Lee Heights Community Church. I have to admit that I was not emotionally ready to write anything like this during the despair I experienced last summer, but it has been on my "to do" list ever since. Lee Heights is the church where I currently attend and have been a lifelong member. Lee Heights was established through the Ohio Mennonite Conference as an interracial, interdenominational Community Church. It grew out of a summer Bible School program called Gladstone Mennonite Mission. The Mission began its work in 1948 at the intersection of Woodland and E. 55th Streets in Cleveland, Ohio. It was run by volunteers from what is now known as Aurora Mennonite Church (previously Plainview). My grandparents, Vern and Helen Miller, moved into the area around 1952 and began working and organizing at Gladstone alongside Gerald and Annabelle Hughes. The Lee Heights Community Church was organized in 1957 and groundbreaking for the building occurred on August 17, 1958 in the Lee-Seville neighborhood of Cleveland. The following year, Gladstone Church and Mission were closed and the members were received into the Lee Heights family. Gerald Hughes and his wife Annabelle Hughes came from Gladstone to Lee Heights at that time and Gerald Hughes became co-pastor and music minister. This began the longstanding tradition of interracial leadership at Lee Heights. Vern Miller served at pastor for 36 years and Gerald Hughes served at music minister for 39 years. During that time, my grandparents worked collaboratively with local churches to start an affordable housing apartment building for elderly and disabled called the MARC apartments. After my grandfather retired, my father, Robin Miller, served the church as pastor for almost 20 years. During his time, he started the Lee Heights Community Development Corporation to continue to promote affordable housing through rehab and repair of homes in the neighborhood. Over the years the church was blessed by the service of several associate pastors including my grandmother Helen Miller, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Jacqueline Youngblood-Rozier, John Branham, Richard Henderson, and VIkki Pruitte-Sorrells who later became co-pastor and who is now our current pastor.
My grandparents had 5 children, most of whom grew up to serve in the Lee-Seville neighborhood. My grandparent's children, my Dad and his siblings, were all raised by and grew up at Lee Heights. A few of them had interracial or inter-religious marriages and I am a product of one of those marriages. As a child, I recall hearing stories about the threats my family received from other white people who did not approve of racial integration. But those stories were never the focus; my white family members are not the heroes of this story. Rather, they are the blessed ones. My family was the rescued; they were rescued from a racial society that keeps us in captivity from one another. They were adopted and lifted out of their confinement by a community with a rich and noble history. We have been blessed a million times over by this. The true heroes of this story were (and are) our brothers and sisters in Christ who had an unwavering love of Jesus. Our beloved community. Those brave beautiful, loving, royal individuals who welcomed my white family into their world, opened up their homes and their lives, and taught them about what it means to be Black in this country. They boldly re-imagined the body of Christ and built strong interracial relationships for the glory of God and for the benefit of the next generation. We didn't just see each other on Sundays and go back to our separate worlds. We became family. If you ask me where I learned to hold my head up no matter how mistreated I am, I will tell you it was my church family. If you ask me how I know with certainty that my life matters and my children's lives matter, I will tell you it was my church family. Within the body of Christ, there is a promise of unity and grace and strength; but you have to continuously work at it. Pastor Vikki, was serving the church as its only pastor after my dad's retirement. We were in the middle of working through this very significant transition when our world was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. We closed the physical doors of the church in order to save lives, but we are still very much alive as a body of Christ and we are still reimagining and working on what our church will be and do next. What will interracial and interdenominational look like during the time of social distancing? What does it mean to do justice at a time when thousands of people (disproportionately Black people) are dying due to decades of healthcare inequities? What can we do as peacemakers to oppose the mass incarceration and lynching of Black brothers and sisters? How can we learn from and support our young people?
Who will join us? Who will fall away? We are not perfect by any means. But we are living proof that people can choose to live and worship outside of their racial bubble; and that God will enrich those who are open to it.
My Mennonite identity was born of the convergence of post-World War II urban missions and African American migration to the city of Cleveland. The Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland was one of the original 13 Black Mennonite congregations, and is perhaps one of the very few Mennonite churches in the U.S. that has had a racial consciousness to it since its very beginning. Established in 1958, this congregation emerged against a complicated background of race and politics.
Before World War I, about 10,000 Black people lived in Cleveland. By 1960, that number had swelled to a quarter million, with most Black families living on the east side of the city. The influx, especially between 1940 and 1960, greatly taxed the availability of housing and schools, and they were often inadequate and in poor condition. These conditions, replicated in cities across the country, erupted in the Hough riots in 1966. Tensions rose, as well as distrust of Cleveland’s old guard politicians, setting the stage for the election of the first Black mayor of a major U.S. City. Cleveland was attractive because jobs were available. Black men could find work, especially in the steel and auto industries. Other jobs possibilities were with the post office, and teaching and social work jobs were open for Black women, in addition to domestic positions.
As opportunities increased for Black people, so did white flight. Suburbanization and the completion of interstate highways facilitated the shift in housing patterns. As Blacks moved into previously all white neighborhoods, white families moved out. The neighborhood transitions were facilitated by the institutionalized racist policies of realtors, construction companies, banks, and mortgage and insurance companies. Riots along the east coast and throughout the Midwest accelerated the push of Black out of white neighborhoods and helped Black neighborhoods become firmly entrenched ghettos by World War II. 1
This was the climate when Mennonites began their urban missions projects in earnest.
The heightened racial unrest occurred at the same time white Mennonites were moving from isolated farming communities to major cities. As conscientious objectors to war, Mennonite men who otherwise would have been drafted into military service fulfilled their civic duties by entering into 1-W service, often in cities. Common assignments were located in hospitals and public service agencies. Denominational mission and relief agencies also helped coordinate voluntary service assignments in urban communities; through these avenues many young white Mennonites first encountered African Americans and had eyes opened to the reality of racism and Black discontent in America.
The Mennonite church in Cleveland church began as a Bible school, run by volunteers from the nearby rural Plainview (later Aurora) Mennonite Church in the 1940s. This ministry was located in the Gladstone area near East 55th Street, and housed in an elementary school. By 1948, over 400 children had attended the summer Bible school, and that year, the program was extended into the fall. A house was purchased and renovated in 1951 for the Voluntary Service (VS) unit, which housed men who were doing 1-W service in Cleveland. In 1952, Vern Miller, a recent Goshen College graduate, and his wife Helen moved into the area.2
Gladstone’s first church council was organized in the spring of 1953 when the church had 35 members, most of whom lived in the neighborhood. The congregation quickly outgrew the original building, and the VS unit was eventually phased out. In 1955, plans for an urban renewal project signaled the end of the Mennonite ministry at Gladstone.3
The Housing Act of 1949, part of president Harry Truman’s Fair Deal [Thank you Linda Rosenblum for that correction], expanded the role of the federal government in housing, and chief element of the plan provided federal funds for “slum clearance” with the promise to build new public housing developments. Entire neighborhoods were razed in order to make room for non-residential public works, and in some cases rebuilt housing that was too expensive for the current inhabitants. Poor people, usually people of color, were pushed out of their neighborhoods, inspiring the pithy saying “urban renewal equals Negro removal.” 4
With the mission board’s backing, the Millers decided to move southeast of the first church into the Lee Heights area where there was only one other church. The area had recently been annexed by the city; the land was not desired by industry because it was partially wooded and had ravines running through it. When the congregation formally organized in 1957, they were first known as the Protestant Inter-Racial Parish. These dynamics were the DNA for the new church – a ministry of the Mennonite Church, but interdenominational and community based. The doctrinal statement of the church included a statement of the church’s stance against racial segregation and discrimination.
In 1959, the General Conference Mennonite Church issued a statement called “The Christian and Race Relations” that confessed Mennonites were complicit in “discrimination against racial and minority groups (Mexicans, Negroes, Jews, American Indians, Oriental peoples, and others),” weakening mission outreach. Because “in Christ all barriers of race and nation have been destroyed,” the statement urged congregations to “welcome all persons as brothers and members despite their color” and called on all church institutions to examine their policies and programs. 5
The 1963 General Conference Confession of Faith called the church to be a witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice, and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation. 6
At a conference on race relations in 1964, Vincent Harding challenged Mennonites, arguing they had come late to the issue even though their very theology and history compelled their response. 7
Mennonites in America were no longer as socially isolated, and the fruits of mission efforts meant that people of different racial and cultural backgrounds were now part of the Mennonite family; this diversity necessitated an expansion of Mennonite’s peace position.
Guy Hershberger’s 1941 (revised 1953) War, Peace and Nonresistance articulated the Mennonite stance on non-resistance for the 20th century church. Written in part to explain Mennonites to outsiders, but mostly to help that generation of American Mennonites understand their theology, the book outlined the biblical basis for Mennonite non-resistance, and went beyond military involvement to address issues like responses to labor union tactics as part of a peace witness. Hershberger was clear that a faithful biblical response to violence was to not resist; one did not pick up the sword, and tactics like demonstrations, boycotts and strikes were to be avoided because these were coercive; that is, not nonresistance. 8
For this reason, Hershberger could not support Gandhian (and subsequently Civil Rights Movement) tactics of boycotting and demonstrating. Yet he did call Mennonites to a response to racial injustice and racial unrest.
Challenges also came directly from the African American community. In 1945, the Mennonite Biblical Seminary moved to Chicago. While working on a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, Vincent Harding was called to co-pastor the integrated Woodlawn Mennonite Church, where his spouse, Rosemarie Harding, also served as a lay counselor. The Hardings pressed Mennonites to use their peace and justice theology as a response to systemic racism. This call is certainly relevant for Mennonites today.
“Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963.” – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, gameo.org (Accessed February 13, 2016).