John Powell, who was introduced to the way of peace by Martin Luther King Jr., didn't give up on the Mennonite church, despite enduring its racism. This story has been adapted from a version that first appeared in The Mennonite, now Anabaptist World, on Nov. 1, 2011. This article includes an example of the racist language Powell encountered.
GOSHEN, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — John Powell, who has a long history with Mennonite Mission Network and its predecessor agencies, has been "sequestered" for the past 12 months in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with Shirley, his wife of 56 years.
Although the Powells observe the restrictions that have been imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, they remain active participants at a Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregation, Shalom Community Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. John Powell, a Mennonite Church USA ordained pastor, is also helping to write MennoMedia's adult Bible study curriculum.
Powell brings courage, passion, love for Jesus, and 70-times-seven forgiveness to every aspect of his ministry. He inherited some of these qualities; the rest, he said, are a gift of God's grace.
John Powell walks in ways of peace, though his road has not always been peaceful. Powell remembers his father taking on the Ku Klux Klan — and winning. He also remembers intense anger against the racist structures in the Mennonite church, which he left in 1974, vowing never to return.
Powell spoke of his father's dignity and daring, as he recounted events that took place in 1948. The senior Powell, John Sidney, sold some lumber, cut on his farm near Hissop, Alabama, to a Klan member who paid with a check calculated to bounce. John Sidney Powell refused to keep quiet about this injustice. When he learned that a pickup of armed Klansmen was headed toward his home to silence him, John Sidney Powell sent his seven-year-old son, John, to the safety of a neighbor's house and laid his plans to welcome the KKK delegation.
Although young John Powell didn't witness the events, they have become part of his family's history. As the pickup pulled up in front of the Powell home, the fraudulent check-writer yelled an obscenity-studded command for John Sidney Powell to present himself. John Sidney Powell did. He stepped out of the door with composure — and two firearms.
One of the Klansmen barked a command to drop the guns, to which John Sidney Powell replied, "You better look around before you go any farther."
The noisy bravado of the men in the pickup died into silence as they became aware of their precarious situation. Willie Mae Powell, John Sidney's wife, stood at a window with her rifle trained on one of the Klansmen. Sons and relatives with guns were poised at each window, on the roof and behind trees.
The hush was broken as the pickup sputtered to life and backed off the Powell property. Soon, there was only a cloud of exhaust left to indicate that the Klan had been there. A few days later, John Sidney Powell received full payment for the lumber, in cash.
Martin Luther King Jr. introduces Powell to nonviolent conflict resolution
"I didn't grow up with a pacifist heritage," John Powell said. "It was a slow conversion from violence to nonviolence as I was around people who were practicing peace. I saw a change in people and the mood of the nation when protests were nonviolent."
Powell was in high school when he first spoke with Martin Luther King Jr. Over the next four years with King's mentoring, he became a conscientious objector.
"That was one of the things Martin taught, that you could be affirming of those who are your enemies," Powell said. "He also said if we were COs [conscientious objectors], we needed to connect ourselves to a historic peace church."
Of the peace church options, Powell chose the Mennonite church because of the voluntary service workers he'd worked alongside in three Michigan locations. One of these workers, Shirley Hochstedler of Kokomo, Indiana, later became Powell's wife and partner in ministry.
"I was attracted to her because of her mind," Powell said. "She and I got into this heated debate about politics!"
Powell expressed appreciation for Shirley's constant support throughout his various ministries, especially when she was obliged to assume financial support of the family. One of these times was when Powell was fired from an administrative position at the University of Michigan. His offense? Spearheading a prayer vigil in front of the university president's home the night before the regents were to vote on ending their investments in corporations doing business in South Africa.
In addition to partnering with her husband, Shirley Powell advocated against hunger-related injustice. She was the national chairperson of the Nestlé boycott that unveiled the suffering and death resulting from the company's promotion of breast milk substitutes. She participated in the 1981 Geneva summit, where the United Nations and the World Health Organization began to issue and enforce more responsible guidelines in the sale of infant formula. Before her retirement, she was also the executive director for the Hunger Action Coalition of Michigan.
Church: Haven and hell
John Powell was born into a church that has been both a haven and a place of wounding for him. As a child in Alabama, he loved "third Sunday worship," which lasted from 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (His congregation met only once each month because it shared a pastor with three other congregations.) The members of his Missionary Baptist congregation may have been feeling tired from 12-hour days of sharecropping and working in the kitchens of White families. And yet, they were always singing God's praises, Powell said.
"When I attended the churches of my White friends, they would be singing some of the same good songs my church sang," Powell said. "But when we left, it was a totally different story —we were separated. The same people that were proclaiming God were also cracking heads of Black folks. I'm saying, 'Is this a God of justice?'"
In 1968, Powell moved into leadership in the Mennonite church when he left a good-paying job as a union organizer in the Detroit area to accept a pastorate in Kansas. Powell's salary as a pastor was less than half of what he had been earning. The conference to which the congregation belonged showed how little they valued Powell's leadership when they suggested that Shirley Powell, who had recently given birth to their first child, get a job so the conference could be spared the expense of the pastor's meager salary.
"Granted, I was a little radical. I did not wear a suit and tie. I wore my dashikis [West African traditional garb]. I had the pulpit on the level of the congregation and rearranged the rows of pews so they were facing each other. I also organized a reconciliation center on the site where the Wichita riots had just happened," Powell says.
Powell converted a vacated laundromat into The Brothers' House, a community center where religious leaders could dialogue about race issues.
Powell's ministry in Wichita lasted one year before he was invited to become executive secretary of the Minority Ministries Council in Elkhart, Indiana. In this capacity, he worked on a document that suggested concrete ways of empowering Mennonite congregations in African American, Hispanic and Native American communities. In 1969, Powell presented his proposals at a meeting in Turner, Oregon.
"If I thought I had hell before, I had more," Powell said. "A brother got up in the meeting and said, 'If we do what John Powell says to do, the next thing they'll have me out of my pulpit and a nigger in there.'"
After five years of trying to work within the racist structures of the Mennonite church, Powell was angry and discouraged.
"I left the Mennonite church, declaring clearly that I would never ever return," Powell said.
Evangelized back into the Mennonite church
However, over the next two decades, as Powell ministered in several denominations throughout the United States and internationally, he made his way, step-by-step, back to the Mennonite church.
"I was evangelized back into the Mennonite church," Powell said. "It was brothers and sisters who loved me to death. They invited me to meetings. They listened to me. They became increasingly involved in the struggle for civil rights."
In 1997, Powell accepted a half-time position as the director of evangelism and church development with Mennonite Board of Missions, while he continued to teach and provide administration for a ministry training program at Houghton College, a Wesleyan Church institution in western New York. For 16 years, Powell served in various directorships and in other capacities with the mission agency that became Mennonite Mission Network in 2002.
Beginning in 2013, John Powell served Mennonite congregations as regional pastor for the northern region of Mennonite Church USA's Indiana-Michigan Conference until his retirement four years later.
Throughout his life, Powell has practiced the ministry of reconciliation that he preaches — even to the extent of accepting his Oregon-conference adversary as a brother. In Kenya, during a conference that Powell organized to encourage dialogue between African and African American theologians, he was christened Sebsebe Samantar — the Gatherer and Peacemaker, a name that describes his God-given vocation.