by Steve Kriss, Executive Conference Minister
“Y’all weren’t waiting 300 years for just any African American woman; you were waiting for Charlene.” These were the words of a family member of Charlene Smalls at the celebration of her licensing, the first credentialing in our reconciled Conference on February 23, 2020 at Ripple in Allentown, PA.
Charlene is the first African American woman to be recognized with a pastoral credential in the history of either of our conferences. The first woman, Ann Allbach, was credentialed in 1911 through Eastern District by the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia. The first African American pastor, James Lark, was called for ministry at Rocky Ridge congregation in Quakertown, PA, in 1945 in Franconia Conference. In Allentown, while the sun shone through the stained glass in the twilight of the last Sunday of Black History Month, Pastor Charlene moved forward the embodiment of pastoral ministry at this intersection of identities.
Charlene had neglected to tell her friends and families of this historic moment for us as Mennonites. She’s only the second Mennonite woman of color to be credentialed in either of the former two conferences or the reconciled Eastern District & Franconia Conference. (The first was Leticia Cortes, three years ago at Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia (Philadelphia, PA).) For those of us who pay attention to the history and trajectory of our conference, the moment seemed historic and monumental. For Ripple and Charlene’s family and friends, this was a recognition of who Charlene is and has been. The larger church beyond simply needed to catch up to the Spirit’s work and Charlene’s faithful incarnation of leadership and service to Christ.
Charlene joined the leadership of Ripple as an intern several years ago while completing her studies. After her internship, she became a part of the leadership. As the congregation’s founding pastors relocated, Charlene became a critical stabilizing leader in a time of transition, joining the other pastors at Ripple. Charlene served in the role without credentials as she explored what it would mean to become a Mennonite minister after serving in leadership in a nearby majority African American Baptist congregation.
While Charlene was the first person to be credentialed in our reconciled Conference, the last person to be credentialed in Franconia Conference was through the ordination of Buddy Hannanto at International Worship Church (San Gabriel, CA). After 20 years of bureaucratic slowness within MCUSA, Buddy was finally recognized as a leader through ordination. For his congregation and those who know Buddy, this was a long time coming and a commitment he had already been living.
For Franconia Conference, the sun set in California on our credentialing with an Indonesian pastor who had begun a congregation at our now farthest west outpost. The sun shone in a new Conference a month later in the east with Charlene’s credentialing as our reconciled community began. The symbols weren’t lost on me, bearing witness and participating in both worship and recognitions.
These are omega and alpha moments; a reminder that the Spirit is still working in continuity and change. It’s also a challenge of recognizing our future work to continue to open the door to new pastoral leaders even when our systems are slower to recognize the work of the Spirit already at hand.