Spiritual Life Week
Pastor shares childhood story of compassion
The perception of failure to one person, might actually be considered a critical and life-empowering action by another. Cyneatha Millsaps, lead pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill., and multicultural liaison for Illinois Mennonite Conference, shared a story that revolved around this lesson during the April 12 Spiritual Life Week Forum at Bluffton University.
Millsaps grew up in a primarily black neighborhood in Elkhart, Ind., in the 1970s when white, Mennonite seminary students started buying houses and moving in to create an intentional community.
“This was when white flight was alive and well, and it was a fast flight,” said Millsaps. “Then all of a sudden these young Mennonites came in, and we didn’t have a clue about who they were.”
They were members of The Fellowship of Hope which was formed by Mennonite seminary students who felt called to live together as closely as possible. The intentional community of friends was located in a transitional neighborhood in Elkhart.
“They were good people. At the time I grew up, white people were either listed as good or bad, and they were considered good. That’s how our parents kept us safe.”
Millsaps recalled times when she’d be playing ball or hopscotch, and all of a sudden doors would open, and a flood of people would start walking in one direction to the community meeting place.
“It was wonderful to see, and because they would leave early, they had plenty of time to stop and talk or play, and because they were Mennonites, they always had food, and they would always share along the way.”
And because they moved in, Millsaps grew up in diverse community filled with factory workers and professors, two-parent households and single parent families.
“As a child, I didn’t understand how rare and important this community was.”
While, The Fellowship changed the make-up the community, many in the neighborhood still came from poor and broken homes including Millsaps. She was raised by a single mom, who was also a paranoid schizophrenic. They were so poor, Millsaps described eating green beans as a meal every day for a year straight.
“I was surrounded by darkness, but those Mennonites showed me the light and love of God every day.”
Members of The Fellowship taught art classes in their garages, hosted kickball games in the summer and sang Christmas carols in December—activities that the neighborhood kids readily took part in. They shared their love and resources, and didn’t ask for anything in return.
Because of these interactions, Millsaps joked, “I’m an ethnic Mennonite whether you like it or not. From early on in my childhood, I grew up surrounded by Mennonites.”
The love, compassion and sense of equality displayed by the Mennonites in her hometown stayed with Millsaps. She tried out many different churches as an adult. However, none were quite the right fit, so she went to seminary searching for a spiritual home. At seminary, she rediscovered Mennonites.
However, before this happened, the love of the Mennonites did not stop the cycle of poverty or prevent hardships in her life. Millsaps became a single mom at the age of 17, and then at 19 she had twins, a brother and a cousin both went to jail and many people in the neighborhood were high school dropouts.
“We had the same issues that many people growing up in poverty have. The difference is we knew the love of God.”
A few years ago, a neighborhood reunion was held, and Millsaps and other kids from the neighborhood reconnected with members of The Fellowship who remained in Elkhart as well as with those who moved away.
“Many of them cried because they did not understand the impact they had in our lives. They considered themselves failures. They didn’t realize they had completely altered and changed the community around them.”
Millsaps ended with a call for Bluffton students to emulate the love shown by members of The Fellowship of Hope.
“Young people, especially the ones graduating, trust the word of God. Offer yourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus, and Christ will show up and show out.”
Many of them cried because they did not understand the impact they had in our lives. They considered themselves failures. They didn’t realize they had completely altered and changed the community around them.”