“I’m a Nasty Guy”

On Tuesday morning, July 5, I was distributing flyers for the “Now Speak With Boldness” forum in the convention center near the doors to the Exhibit Hall, when I got a phone call from Debra Bender.  Debra had come from Florida to assist me in publicizing the event–not necessarily because she knew or agreed with the speakers I had lined up, but because she and I had both chafed at the “anti-racism” strategy of some Mennonites, which had come up in conversations we had resumed after two decades.  Debra and I hadn’t seen each other since the time we had both lived in Chicago over 20 years ago.  I had married a Chinese woman from Malaysia and Debra had married a black ex-cop from Chicago–but those are different stories and I won’t try to tell either Debra’s story or mine here.

Anyway, Debra was distributing flyers at the Second Street entrance to the Convention Center, across the street from the Hilton where the Canadian delegates were meeting.

“Security is here and they are telling me I’ll have to leave,” she told me.  So I packed up my flyers and headed her way, curious to know why security personnel from the convention center would have any interest in prohibiting my appeal to my fellow Charlotte 2005 Mennonite registrants.

I had begun handing out flyers at the Second Street entrance to the Convention Center the prior day, and also to people I had met and conversed with, without incident.  On July 4 I had also registered for Charlotte 2005, my third straight convention after an 18-year hiatus, and I had spent most of the day participating in a service project (playing kazoo in an Independence Day parade at a nursing facility), and then volunteering to help at the registration tables for the youth convention.

When I got to where Debra was standing, there was a single security guard with her, holding a radio.  I asked him who was asking us to leave, and why.

He first indicated that the convention center was reserved for the Mennonite Church.  I showed him my registration badge and told him that I thought what we were doing was within accepted practice for Mennonite conferences.  Did someone complain or tell him about our leafletting, I asked?

At that point he said I would have to go to “Room 103,” and speak with “George.”  This turned out to be Jorge Vallejos, Director of the MCUSA Office of Convention Planning.

Debra told me later what had happened before the security guard came up to her.  A short dark-haired man appeared at the top of the steps leading from the doorway to the main meeting rooms at the convention center.  After he had watched her for several minutes, he then came down the stairs and said curtly, “Let me have one of those.”  He had gone back up the stairs, reading the flyer, and had spoken into his radio.  It was shortly afterwards that the security guard appeared.

Debra also said that the security guard had initially asked her if the flyer related to the Mennonite convention, and that she responded by saying, “Not officially.  It’s an alternative seminar.”  Debra recounts that it was at that point the guard stated that he would have to escort her out, and that she responded that an escort would not be necessary; she would leave the building on her own.

She notes that when she then asked the guard who had complained, he said something to the effect, “I’m not at liberty …. oh [pointing to the ceiling], you see those cameras?  We’ve been watching you.”  Debra says that she laughed and responded, “Sure you have.  For three hours I’ve been standing here and you just now come to tell me to leave?”

While Debra sat down outside the convention center, I walked with the guard to the Convention Planning office.  As we walked, we talked a bit more.  As I explained what I was doing, he seemed to soften a bit. “Look, I support what you’re doing but I’ve got to do my job,” he said.  I went into the convention office with him to find out from Jorge Vallejos exactly what job he had been given, and from whom.

When we entered the outer office, the atmosphere seemed a bit tense.  A woman was sitting at a computer terminal.  She seemed to be experiencing some difficulty with the situation.  We’d have to go “in there,” she said, pointing toward a set of closed double doors.

We opened the doors and for some reason the image of a mafia don flashed through my head.  There sat Jorge, who I had never met personally, sitting at the opposite end of the room on a sleek black couch, legs crossed, a walkie-talkie in his hand.  He barked, “Are you the person who has been handing out these flyers?”  I said I was.

“Well, I don’t like that.  And I’m a nasty guy.”  There was not a trace of humor or irony in his voice.  This man was serious. I was almost speechless at the menacing tone of his voice.

I did not respond as graciously as I now wish I would have.  I was agitated.  I think I told him I couldn’t believe what he had just said, and that if he was a nasty guy he didn’t belong in that post and I would personally try to see to it that he was relieved of his post (which I will be doing in the context of publishing this account).

I forget everything that I said, but I did remind him that the church he was part of was a priesthood of all believers, and that we had historically been concerned to hear dissenting and unpopular voices.   I then went as far as I went, suggesting that “maybe you’re in the wrong church.”  I suppose someone will now call me bigoted or culturally insensitive.  But my ire was strictly theological in origin.

During the course of our discussion (which came close to a shouting match, although thankfully no profanity was used and the security guard remained seated the whole time), I probed Jorge for the source of his authority and scope of his apparent prohibition. I confirmed several times that my ears had not betrayed me and that he had indeed greeted me with his announcement that he was a “nasty guy.”   Now I know where your head is at, I said–full of nastiness.

Then he too seemed to relent just a little.  He hinted that he couldn’t actually prohibit me from distributing the flyers, and another flash of insight came over me.

He was trying to intimidate me because he couldn’t actually order me.  I tried to confirm again what I was hearing:  Are you saying I’m not actually prohibited from distributing these flyers? He responded affirmatively.

I said, “In that case I am leaving, with the understanding that there is no prohibition against my distribution of the flyers.”  As I made a beeline through the door, still burning from the heavy-handed treatment I had just experienced, he said something else, which I did not hear.  No one followed me, not even the security guard.

This conversation occurred in the presence of Jorge’s wife (although I didn’t know that at the time) and two or three other female staffers or volunteers whose names and positions are unknown to me.  That was the end of the matter–or so I thought.

“Leave, Bruce”

After a short break, I was back distributing flyers that evening.  I handed out one of them to a gentleman with a badge before I realized that his badge was not that of a convention registrant.  When he inquired about what I was doing, I found out just who he was–“Jason,” head of security for the Convention Center.  He was looking at the flyer as he walked away, but he said nothing to me and I didn’t see him again.

Soon, along came a women who I recognized as someone who had been in the room with Jorge when he had made his “nasty guy” speech.  I sought to engage her in conversation with a conciliatory goal in mind–only to find out that she was Jorge’s wife.  We talked briefly and I mentioned that I wanted to try to speak with Jorge again, to talk about what had happened in the heat of the moment and to get beyond the angry words, but I repeated how inappropriate I thought Jorge’s comments had been.  All she was willing to admit was that the conversation was unbecoming to two adults.

She then surprised me.  “Look you cannot do this,” she said (and I paraphrase).  “You cannot hand these papers out.  They talked about it, and they decided that you are not allowed.”

I looked at her badge to see the source of her authority.  It said, “Volunteer.”  I told her that I would have to hear it from someone in an official capacity, since I had left Jorge’s office a couple hours earlier having confirmed that I was not prohibited from distributing the flyers.

She said she would go get “Ron.”  As fate would have it, amidst 2000 registrants, MCUSA Associate Secretary Ron Byler and General Secretary James Schrag were nearby.  Soon they had rushed over to denounce me to my face.  The conversation did not begin with any introductions or pleasantries.  I was told that I was prohibited from handing out the flyers, and of course, I dug in my heels, insisting that I had every right to have my voice heard by convention registrants.

Ron Byler took a step closer to me and thrust his face toward mine.  “Leave, Bruce,” he ordered.  If my temperature was elevated before, it shot through the ceiling at this.  I furiously pointed out that I was a registrant and that he couldn’t simply order me off the premises.

I felt outnumbered and clearly disrespected.  One of the things that James Schrag saw fit to point out early in the conversation (somewhat to my puzzlement) was that he didn’t think he had ever met me.

I admit I was somewhat sarcastic when I told him that we had met on two previous occasions, and when he still insisted that he had never met me, I interpreted it as a classic passive-aggressive “put-down.”  Whether he really did have such a poor recall, I cannot say, although I distinctly remember being invited to his home for dinner when he was pastoring the Tabor Mennonite Church in Kansas and when I was working for his brother Robert at the Mennonite Weekly Review in the late 1970’s, and within the past couple years I had reintroduced myself and reminded him of our earlier meeting when he happened to visit my Sunday school class at Mennonite Community Church in Fresno.

In the same conversation, Ron Byler also insisted, “Now I know that I have never met you.”  He laughed derisively, as if he had now proved that I was delusional, when I told him that I had also met him.  This was during my days as a Mennonite journalist for various publications between 1977 and 1984 and when Ron was working for Mennonite Media Ministries.

I guess my recall of names and faces is just better than some others, or maybe I really am part of a church where you’re either “somebody” or you’re a “nobody.”

Eventually James and Ron and I sat down and talked for about 20 minutes, wherein the following statements were made.

  • Nobody from my congregation that they had spoken with could figure out “where you are coming from,” although James hastened to add that he had also heard some “good things” about me as well–this seemed to be confined to the fact that I had provided legal assistance to immigrants.  Of course, that’s exactly how I got started helping Ingrid Rimland Zundel and her husband Ernst, but neither of these executives seemed interested in moving beyond the caricatures of the Zundels they had no doubt heard of or seen–that they were anti-semitic white supremacists.
  • In his best paternalistic tone, James wanted to know why I was so angry and what was going on “inside” of me, with the clear implication that my theological-political concerns had unrecognized origins in psychological or spiritual problems.
  • James and Ron were particularly incensed when they asked me about James Juhnke and when I responded with a less than positive assessment.  Juhnke, a history professor emeritus at Bethel College, had just written a distorted and agenda-driven review of an obscure book written by Ingrid Rimland in the 1980’s.  It was not clear to me why Juhnke’s name surfaced at all, since to my knowledge he has not written about any of the subjects I was proposing to treat at the forum, with the possible exception being his reviews of Rimland’s writings–one of which she has responded to in her website.  I pointed out that Juhnke’s latest screed had contained a number of factual errors (these are detailed in my letter to Mennonite Life ).  The only purpose of his review seems to have been to discredit me, or Ingrid Rimland, or both of us, as I have pointed out in that letter.  James Schrag responded scornfully that there were “thousands” of people who were supporters of Juhnke and was I really staking my reputation against his?  I said that I was indeed.  Schrag said that for me to call Juhnke dishonest was “beyond the pale” or words to that effect; and yet I believe that Juhnke has ultimately done his readers a major disservice by offering them the same distortions about key events and personalities of the pre-War era as mainstream American historians.  One example would be his analysis of Gerald Winrod, a preacher who attracted a broad Mennonite following in Kansas and whose papers were in fact printed by the publishers of the Mennonite Weekly Review.  Historical differences of opinion are often complex matters and subjects of considerable political and sociopolitical import, though, and my critique of Juhnke and his work cannot be fully explicated here.  Suffice it to say that one of Ernst Zundel’s battles, like the struggle of the Anabaptists ever since their origins, has been over this issue of who gets to write and interpret the history that our children grow up learning and that we as a people often accept unquestioningly.
  • Ron Byler found it particularly hilarious when I alluded to the position of David Ray Griffin, whose C-SPAN presentation on the events of 9-11 we were going to use in DVD form at the forum. Here is a respected former professor at Claremont School of Theology, where Dennis McDonald now teaches (McDonald taught briefly at Goshen College, but I am not suggesting that McDonald either knows or endorses the position of Griffin), who believes that the evidence points to the involvement of the Bush administration in the events of 9-11.  Byler laughed uproariously, but I had seen the presentation and I was not laughing.
  • I tried to establish what authority MCUSA had for prohibiting the flyers.  I was told that the Executive Board had received “many” complaints from people and that they had discussed the matter the prior day.  James hastily assured me that the discussion was “brief.”  James said that some had urged that I be repudiated from the podium at the delegate sessions, and how would I like that?  I said if MCUSA wanted to repudiate me, that would be okay with me, since that would ultimately reflect more adversely on MCUSA than it would on me.  But James assured me that he himself had counseled against that.
  • Schrag made it clear that no official action had been taken by the executive board, but that they had indeed “decided” that the flyers should be prohibited.  He also said that no official action was needed, since there was an existing policy.  I asked to see that policy.  Byler admitted that the policy did not outright prohibit distribution of materials at Mennonite conventions, but rather only those not in harmony with Mennonite beliefs.  When I pointed out that this would not exclude my flyers, James Schrag assured me that the policy did indeed prohibit my flyers, and he would have it available the following morning.  I was told to come to Room 215 at 7:30 in the morning, and I agreed.

        I noted that there had certainly been no notice of a policy prohibiting distribution of materials not authorized by the MCUSA structure, and that if indeed there had been such a policy and I had known about it, I would have abided by it–although I might have also worked to overturn it, since it was a bad policy.

The “Racist” Label Emerges

Promptly at 7:30 the following morning, I presented myself at Room 215, where the Executive Board was meeting.  Although James Schrag wasn’t so prompt, he eventually got to me.  I had asked for a written copy of the Board minute in question, and I had thought James Schrag had said that the policy had been adopted at a prior convention.  But what I was shown was a minute from a 2/05 meeting, which read something like this:  “distribution of materials at conventions shall be prohibited where they are not in harmony with the theological and ethical positions of the Mennonite Church.”  I told James that this certainly did not bar my materials.  Harumph. He then told me we should talk with Duane Oswald, moderator of the Church.

“Look, Bruce, I’ll be blunt,” Duane said.  (Duane is a member of my congregation.)  “This is racist.”

I responded swiftly that I certainly was not racist, that this was a slur, and that the two speakers I had scheduled had also disavowed racism or white supremacist ideology, and that the people who were saying this should really come listen for themselves before they reached such conclusions.

Maybe you’d like to explain that to the anti-racism team of the Church, I was told–as if this would cow me into submission.  I responded by saying that I would be glad to do so, and in fact that I had previously tried to initiate conversation with persons spearheading the church’s anti-racism efforts (by attending the 10th anniversary celebration of the Damascus Road anti-racism program in Atlanta in March 2005), but that I found little interest there in dialogue.  (There was one exception, Lynford Hershey, an early staff person of the minority ministries program of Mennonite Board of Missions who probably gave up on conventions a long time ago, engaged me in considerable discussion.   Hershey now lives in Idaho, but apparently he is not automatically disqualified as a white supremacist because of his place of residence.   By contrast, one individual who took a flyer from me immediately pounced on the fact that Michael Hoffman lives in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to him a bastion of white supremacism.)

James Harder, an Executive Board member who was standing with us, asked if I wanted to have the Board adopt a formal resolution prohibiting the flyers (or the distribution of all materials not approved by MCUSA–my recollection is not entirely clear).  I said that I thought this was a bad idea not just in my case but as a precedent, but that if they were really intent on doing that, they should at least let me have the opportunity to address the board first.

Schrag pointed out that I had sent materials to all 2,500 pastors in MCUSA and that surely I must already be content that my position was stated adequately.  So it fell to me to remind him that it always makes a difference when individuals can speak face to face, and so the board could see for themselves that I was not some flaming right-wing extremist.  (In fact, the next day at a workshop called “Dismantling Institutional Racism in the Church” I jotted down an excellent set of points on the subject of listening to each other, which can be found here).

The upshot of this conversation was that I was told by Duane Oswald that a “request” was being made by the church that I refrain from distributing any flyers inside of the convention center, but that I limit my distribution to outside.  I said I would think about that and pray about it.

I did.  I have.  Debra and I confined ourselves to the outside heat and humidity in our distribution of flyers on Wednesday, July 6.  This account is the other result of my thinking and praying.