Interview with Dr Katelin Hansen: MennoNerds on #BlackLivesMatter


Dr. Katelin Hansen is someone I deeply respect.  Her work with the racial realities in the United States on her blog bytheirstrangefruit is a go to resource for me, even being from Canada.  It is of particular interest to me as she is white, like me, and is very well grounded in what it means to be an advocate as a white person.  It is complex,  as she said in our preamble before the questions started flying “colonialism/racism was created by white people.”  As I try to understand the #blacklivesmatter movement more in depth, and consequentially learn about racial realities in my country to have this conversation with someone as grounded and grassroots as Katelin is a complete pleasure. Her answers to my wonderings are gentle, challenging and inspiring.  Please read, learn and act.

Chris: Thanks Katelin for your willingness to dialogue about the Black Lives Matter movement.  It is deeply appreciated.  For some of us Canadians, we don’t have a deep sense about what the Black Lives Matter movement is.  We hear the occasional news story from “Big” media and some of us know the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, but that is often the limit of our engagement. Being from a different country with different racial realities might be contributing to that I think.  Can you share a little bit about the emergence of the movement and how it has impacted current social realities?

Katelin: I suspect a lot of people in the USA (especially white people here) also don’t have a great understanding of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which often leads to undue suspicion, fear, or anger. There is indeed a reticence to immerse ourselves in full engagement with what it being said, so much of the message is misunderstood, or missed entirely.

The phrase itself was coined in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who after Trayvon Martin was killed, used it to respond to the anti-Black racism that was being made so apparent. The phrase began to pick up momentum even more after Michael Brown was killed, because as he lay in the street for over four hours, it demonstrated again that some lives simply mattered less than others in our society. As the month unfolded, it felt like we were hit with more and more evidence, often videoed live in the act, that Black lives don’t matter.

So ‘Black Lives Matter’ is powerful for the very reason that such a statement is needed at all. Because so often Black lives are treated as though the don’t matter, we are compelled to reaffirm that yes, yes, they do!! It does not mean “Black Lives Matter instead” or Black Live Matter only” but it is an affirmation that gives special cover to those who have not felt that truth from the society around them.

And what an indictment on the Church! This, the very institution charged with conveying and acting on the message that our lives matter to God, especially those treated as ‘the least of these.’ (The white church being by far the most culpable).

Thus, Black Lives Matter is a statement of commitment that we will work to ensure that our Black sisters and brothers are protected, respected, and empowered in our society, in a way that has never been the case to this point in USA history. I am not immersed in Canadian culture myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were similar issues of injustice there as well, While I know the USA has a very particular and sordid history with race, power combined with prejudice is a mighty force that knows no borders.

Chris:  Canada most certainly has a sordid history with race, power and prejudice.  The Canadian history, and currently realities with Indigenous people is, well, terrible.  I think this is why it is important for us to talk, because of the different contexts, yet similar racial realities.  In common we both live in countries that are saturated with white privilege, and power.  

For some of us in Canada, we have been embarking on a process which is called the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”  The purpose is to reconcile Canadians with the injustice that occurred to Indigenous people through the Residential schools, which were more or less intended to assimilate Indigenous people into white, colonial, European culture which was masked and informed by a particular, power hungry Christianity.  It was a process where survivors of Residential Schools would share their experience and add it to official record.  It was a multiple city commission.  I attended one session in Vancouver and was drastically changed.  One thing I notice about the rhetoric here is that it is about truth telling, listening and reconciliation while moving toward a hopeful future.  It is often framed int he context of a journey.  This is certainly more complicated, but I am wondering how the engagement between the white people and power structures and BLM is being framed.  What does it look like to move forward together?  

Katelin: Canada does seem to be better engaged with the injustices surrounding its indigenous peoples than does the USA. One of the consequences of the USA’s particularly shameful history with its Black residents is that the injustices against other communities of color often go overlooked and underaddressed. A similar effect happens in other countries, with other populations. Even as Canada begins to address its sins against indigenous peoples, it often parallels the USA with regard to other racial groups as well. The focus is often on indigenous peoples (and much focus is needed!), but as this Rabble article notes, “collapsing Black struggles in the U.S. into Indigenous struggles in Canada actively erases Black/Afrikan struggles in Canada. It would be more appropriate to suggest that the Canadian corollary to Black struggles in the U.S. are specific Black-led struggles in our own country.”

As you mention, much listening is needed. Unfortunately, oppressed groups have been speaking up for years without much response from those in power. It seems it is only when things get rough that the media turns its attention–so what lesson does that teach? After centuries of being unheard, it reinforces the message that no one cares.

Chris: What does a hopeful future look like as the church engages BlackLivesMatter? Can you give an example or two of predominately white congregations working in a hopeful way?  What advice would you give us as individuals who are look to support and work toward justice and hope in the midst of diversity?

Katelin: The acts of struggle and protest are themselves deep acts of faith and hope. If we did not have hope in a better future there would be no reason to press on and to continue engaging these issues. Because ours is a religion grounded in hope, being in the midst of these ast of hope is exactly where the church should be. Of all people, Christians believe that it will all turn out alright in the end and that God chooses to do the work of hope on the earth through the Church. As Dr. Christena Cleveland points out, hopelessness is a state of privilege. Too often, those in the dominant culture throw up their hands at a situation that the oppressed have been dealing with courageously for generations. Let us act on hope by engaging, by showing up, and by offering our support.

I confess it is difficult to point with confidence to predominantly white churches doing the work well. Not to say they don’t exist. There are certainly examples of churches opening their doors to marginalized communities and of pastors leading predominantly white churches that are leaning into the issues. But more often than not, once a white church fumbles through the early stages, and begins pushing down this path in earnest, they often find that they cannot truly do it well without fundamentally changing their composition (indeed I suspect this reality is what scares off so many churches from truly engaging!). A predominantly white church committed to the work or racial justice will soon find that the work can’t really be done if it is done in isolation from communities of color or without submitting to the leadership of those most affected. And then shortly thereafter it will find that it is no longer predominantly white. It’s better for their spiritual and institutional health that way anyway.

For those looking to support and engage in the work, I would suggest looking around and plugging into the work already happening in their area, particularly the work led by the marginalized and oppressed communities in question. It’s there, I promise. It’s just a matter of showing up, asking how you can be of service, and listening well to the answer. And educating oneself. It’s not the job of people of color to get earnest white people caught up on centuries of sociological thought and experience.

Chris:  What is the consequence of churches being silent on matters of racism?

Katelin:  I suspect you mean the white church’s silence (churches of color are rarely silent on racism, although perhaps underheard)? The consequences a dire and cut to very root of the Church’s existence on this earth. If we fail to speak up, we fail on so many axises: as a societal moral compass, as the hands and feet of Christ, as witnesses to God’s character, as spreaders of Good News. Both physical and spiritual lives are at stake. We destroy our witness and fail in our charge to love God’s people. As Spencer Perkins notes “white Christians’ decisions to choose comfort of their own race over the Christian ideals of brotherhood and oneness that our gospel so boldly preaches have undoubtedly weakened their witness to the African-American community.” James Cone concurs: “What is at stake is the credibility and promise of the Christian gospel.” He observes that ” “like most blacks of her time [Ida B.] Wells dismissed white Christianity as hypocrisy.” In her view, “our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.” This effect continues today.When the white church is silent it is not only passively complicit in the deaths of millions, but actively contributes to the growing death toll going forward. In short, when the church is silent we fail to be the Church at all. We become known by the ‘strange fruit’ we bear.

Chris:  Thanks so much Katelin.  Please check out her blog: By Their 2014-08-03 15.56.14Strange Fruit

What are your questions about the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States? What do you find yourself thinking about after reading this interview?  

The Cynic: Why Do We Preach the Way We Preach?


I believe in the sermon. I really do. But…

Sometimes sermons fall dead in the pews.  This is not me saying “WE NEED TO LISTEN TO SERMONS BETTER.”  I am wondering, why do we preach the way we preach? 

I am a veteran of sermon listening.  I’ve been going to church for the majority of my life and have been exposed to a TON of sermons.  During those sermons I have fallen asleep, I have experienced a boredom that is physically painful, I have felt an awkward pity for many preachers and have, from time to time, been fully and completely enthralled. 

Sermon’s are just something we do in churches.  We gather.  We sit.  We sing.  We pray.  We listen to someone talk for 20 – 40 minutes.  We go home.  Maybe we talk about the content of the sermon on the way home, or at the restaurant, or maybe even in care group.  But that’s it. 

I must confess.  As a veteran sermon listener and now, pastor, I spend anywhere from 10-25 hours prepping a sermon. Sometimes I come off the stage after preaching asking ‘why?’  Then the questions start piling up…

Was all the prep time worth it?  Are people really being transformed?  Did I do a good enough job?  Do people actually listen or is this a habitual ‘going through the motions’ thing? 

Sermon’s need engagement to come alive.  They need engagement by the individual, and engagement by the larger church community.  This is particularly foundational for Anabaptists.  I wonder if the way we preach facilitates a long, brutal death within the pews.

How can we engage sermons in a larger community?  How can a sermon transformative?

Carving a New Story: Of Residential Schools and First Steps


“To kill the Indian child” was aimed at severing the artery of culture that ran between generations and was the profound connection between parent and child sustaining family and community.  In the end, at he point of final assimilation, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.”

Professor David A. Nock, “A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy: Cultural Synthesis vs. Cultural Replacement.”

The dark side of Canadian history which festers to this day is the continued marginalization of the First Nations people.

Starting in the 1840’s the Canadian government developed a policy called “aggressive assimilation” to be taught in church-run, government funded industrial schools which later became known as ‘Residential Schools.’  The hope was to ‘kill’ the ‘Indian’ so that ‘they’ could be better prepared for mainstream society.  The government decided that it would be easier to mould children as opposed to adults, and to put those children in a boarding school environment to reach this goal.


The final ‘Residential School’ closed in 1996.

There has been some mild progress in recognizing the atrocities of this time.  Yet, it is high time for our churches to make a significant effort to enter into purposeful reconciliation with our First Nations brothers and sisters.  It is not possible to say with integrity that we will engage our neighbours or neighbourhoods if we continue to be disconnected from our First Nations people.

We need to be forgiven, but before we can even ask the question of forgiveness we owe our First Nations brothers and sisters the respect and dignity of mutual human relationship where we  listen.

Our church chose to participate in a first step.  The beginning of a new story between the church and our First Nations people.

The whole weekend focused on a “Healing Pole” which is an in process totem pole.  It offered a first step in carving a new history.

The weekend was full of story, of learning to understand what the horrible impact of the Residential Schools had on countless generations of First Nations people.

One woman shared her experience. It was brutal. But as she begun she told us that her husband was waiting in the car outside because he could not bring himself to enter a church.  The pain runs deep.

A totem pole speaks to the history of a people.  As we were invited to participate in carving the “Healing Pole” we begin to shape a new story as we listen to the anger, hatred and pain that is the result of the ‘Residential Schools’ and seek a new reconciled reality for the future.  Carving of the healing pole is to work together in this special way.  We together create a new history.  I am thankful for Isador Charters, Don Klaassen and all the other collaborators for initiating this all important first step.

It was a beautiful moment for me to see my almost 3 year old son carving.  A live and living colour participant in a ritual of redemption and reconciliation.  He was not completely aware of what was going on, but to expose him to this kind of reconcilatory environment, to tell him of this moment when he is older is to remind him of Jesus Christ’s nitty gritty participation right in his backyard.

Much more is to be done.  Much more.  But these kinds of relationships and rituals which point us to divine redemptive realities are a place to start.  This “Healing Pole” will be headed to other churches in the province.

May we continue to pursue relationships with our neighbours in humility, compassion and may it be grounded in Christ.

How can you and your community build relationship with First Nations people in your neighbourhood?  In what other ways can we pursue forgiveness?  What other rituals can we create?

For those interested, Mennonite Church Manitoba is collaborating and creating long term partnerships between Mennonite congregations and First Nations people in Northern Manitoba. They are simply building relationships. Check out one example here.

The Seminary is Important

I have been fortunate enough to participate in fruitful discussions both online and in person regarding the relevance of seminary education for a post Christian (Post Christendom) context.  Over the course of these conversations a few important points have been illuminated for me about some very positive things that ‘the seminary’ as an institution is doing.  While I currently don’t think the following outweigh my own concerns, the dream and hope would be to in some way address the concerns and blend them with some of the very positive things that go on in the seminary context.  I carry this hope because I believe ‘the seminary’ is extremely important.

Intentional & Structured Learning – Intentionally sitting with a group of students engaging a particular topic is a very fruitful exercise in any learning context.  During my undergraduate degree I wrestled with many interesting topics such as the existence of Satan, non-violence, post-modernity and the Missio Dei (Mission of God) with other students.  Collaborative learning like this is extremely important to the further understanding of biblical texts and their engagement in each our own particular time and place.

Professors – The good folks who facilitate discussions or lecture in classes are very important people for the church.  Many of the most important theological works in our history were written by professors.  A good professor will hopefully stretch you academically and spiritually.

Networking – Seminaries offer a place to connect with an existing network of people.  I have seen the benefits of this in my experience with my undergraduate studies.  Many of the people I studied with, prof’s included, are now colleagues or people with whom I connect with on a regular basis.  They are my brothers and sisters on this journey.

The seminary is important.  I believe that seminaries are and will continue to shape the leaders of the current and future church.  For this reason we need to take a good hard look at what we do and how we do it.

What do our seminaries do well?  What would it look like to re-imagine our future seminary in light of its current strengths and weaknesses?

Why I may not go to seminary

I have been wrestling with this question forever!

I had a wonderful experience working towards my undergraduate degree at Canadian Mennonite University.  I met a wonderful network of people who I still depend on today.  Through a few select classes it helped create a skill set that has significantly shaped me as a ministering person.  Yet upon graduation the question kept coming at me, “are you going to seminary?” to which my response was always, “I want to get some ministry experience before I do.”  So, I’ve been a full-time pastor for the past 5 years and I still find myself hesitant to go to seminary.  Here are a few reasons why:

Debt – I racked up so much student debt merely getting my undergraduate degree.  I cringe at the thought of more debt.  I have a wife and a son whom depend on me to put a roof over their head, and food on the table.  Sure, there are options for assistance most of which make me exhausted just thinking of all that I will need to juggle just to make it happen.  Certainly in a post-Christendom (post Christian) world, where institutional church budgets shrink, full-time pastor jobs gradually becoming fewer and fewer I wonder if the debt load is becoming too much for many folks.  It certainly could be that for us.

‘Higher’ Education – Does a seminary degree perpetuate an institutional ‘higher than’ authority that the believers church seemingly stands against?  This is a new’ish’ thing for me.  This is merely something I worry about.  Thoughts?

Place & Courses : The Disconnect – There is a big difference between the street and the classroom.  As I reflect on my years as a pastor a lot of my learning has been within my context ‘on the job.’  In my opinion, if seminaries were serious about creating ministering people, they would be requiring their students to be saturated within their contexts.  This would mean not creating people to be pastors or missionaries as if they can be unwrapped ‘out of the box’ pastors and placed anywhere.  I long for seminaries to create a structured learning experience that facilitates full on the job learning.  As this would happen, I have a suspicion that the ‘classes’ offered would look significantly different.

What do you think?  Is seminary education important?  Do we need to re-think what our ‘seminaries’ look like?