Throughout much of the twentieth century Mennonites worked across the globe on issues related to poverty, hunger, disaster relief, and church missions. Entire organizations and bureaucratic structures within the church, like the Mennonite Central Committee and the former Mennonite Board of Missions, were born out of a desire to engage the world through a delicate mix of service and evangelism. Mennonites, most of whom lived in the Midwest or East Coast, volunteered in places such as Puerto Rico, Argentina, eastern Europe, and India. In the process an ethic of service developed that both raised the global consciousness of Mennonites and sharpened Mennonite peace theology.
For many Mennonites, international service became almost a rite of passage, a prerequisite for authentic ethno-religious Mennonite identity. But as critical as international service became in the twentieth century, it also exposed a large blind spot: mainly, that international service trumped local service. In fact, Mennonites who have served in U.S. contexts have not received the same kind of recognition and “status” as those who served overseas. Now before I get any push back, I do acknowledge that church programs like Voluntary Service worked for social justice here at home (U.S). But Mennonites who worked on local, meaning U.S.-based, issues like poverty and racism were more the exception than the rule.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that it is hard for our North American and Mennonite sensibilities to invest in a local perspective, to see the racism and poverty at home, and to understand how U.S. policies in Latin America have generated large flows of immigration, especially after the 1960s. But if the twentieth century pointed the focus outward, the first decade of the twenty-first century has pushed us to look inward. All across the U.S., a new generation of Mennonites is turning the tide and placing increased focus on their local communities through volunteer opportunities, activism, and church missions. I’m not only talking about Mennonites who grow their own vegetables, but folks who are also building resistance movements at home, challenging anti-immigration laws, and a generation who understands that the days of seeing America as the land of plenty are over. In fact, those days never existed for all Americans.
This is a new generation whose possibilities for overseas work are either not within reach or they have made a political choice to serve locally. This new generation of Mennonites is more conscious about injustice at home and more committed than ever to focus on local causes. All of this points to a new direction in the geography of Mennonite service. If the twentieth century defined white Mennonites who left their rural surroundings for foreign lands in Asia, South America, and Europe, then perhaps the twenty-first century will be defined by a more grounded and local practice of service in our neighborhoods, communities, and nation. This is already happening as many young Mennonites have taken the mantra “think globally, act locally” to heart and shifted where they invest their time and energy.
A few examples include the local work of voluntary service workers in Elkhart, Indiana, Mennonite Central Committee workers in New Orleans and Houston, and Goshen College’s new “local” study-service term. My own church in Houston has a strong commitment to the local politics of Houston, especially around poverty, racism, and inter-faith dialogue. What am I saying here? That your generation, born in the booming 1990s, is a generation more prepared than any other to deal with and address the problems that trouble our nation. This is not an excuse to be blind to global struggles, but instead an encouragement to understand local community struggles through a global lens.
This is precisely what drove black and brown civil rights leaders in the 1960s and 1970s who drew strength from the anti-colonial movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Civil rights leaders gained inspiration from global events in order to address systemic inequalities at home. In the same way, I encourage you to increase your global awareness as a means to better help you understand current immigration politics at home and other social injustices. As you and your youth group prepare for the convention in Phoenix 2013, I am confident that you will be a shining example for Mennonite Church USA of just how to develop and deepen our commitment to local communities.
Born and raised in South Texas, Felipe Hinojosa is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University. Felipe is married to Maribel and they have two children, Samuel Alejandro and Ariana Saraí. The Hinojosa family lives in College Station, Texas, and attends Houston Mennonite Church.