Black kids in Mennonite families bridge 2 worlds

By Carolyn Davis

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

If these children are racially isolated, she said, they have no role models to counter negative images and stereotypes of blacks.

Joseph Crumbley, an expert in transracial adoptions and fostering, doubted the girls would always be around tolerant Mennonites.

"If they're going to stay in that bubble, then fine," he said. "Once they leave that bubble, they're still looked at as African American children."

Autumn Stauffer has thought a lot about family, community, and identity. It took much of her 39 years to be comfortable with who she is and to figure out the purpose God had for her as a black child growing up in a white Mennonite home.

She is now married to a white man in Shippensburg. The Mennonite couple have five biological daughters, one adopted Guatemalan son, and two African American foster sons whose mothers were in Philadelphia's Riverside Correctional Facility. The Stauffers use a car, computer and cellphones.

Autumn was born Brenda Jo Lyons to a 15-year-old white mother and an 18-year-old black father in Kentucky. "In 1972 in the South, that was a no-no," she said.

Her father went into the military. Her mother and aunt tried to raise her, but her mother soon gave her up to the foster system.

When she was 21 months old, a Mennonite couple in Kentucky, Elam and Ella Mae Weaver, made her a part of their family. That time, she found a home. Her new parents changed her name to Autumn Joy Weaver and raised her in their faith.

Even as she built friendships with some classmates at her Mennonite school in Kentucky, others lobbed racial comments.

"They called me a (racial epithet) a lot, and I didn't know what that meant," she said.

Ella Mae Weaver, new to racial prejudice, and, Autumn guessed, not wanting to provoke a confrontation, told her daughter: "When they say '(racial epithet)' to you, what they really mean is 'Negro,'" and there's nothing wrong with being a Negro.

Autumn still felt the sting.

When she turned 15, she wanted to find her birth family.

"Surely, with my other family it was going to be better."

She walked to town but quickly returned home, accomplishing little more than scaring everyone. But from then on, her adoptive mother "started really talking about what was inside me, how I felt, and why."

When Autumn was 19, she had a revelation during a church mission to Ghana.

After she testified about her faith, some Ghanaians protested. Everyone knows God is for white people, they said. As she explained her beliefs, she understood she was to be a teacher of faith to blacks who felt disconnected.

During another trip to Ghana, Autumn met her future husband, Justin, 38. Though his parents supported his marrying an African American woman, others expressed concern.

"People didn't say it would be bad, but they wanted him to be aware that she could birth a browner baby," Autumn said. "He was like, 'And?'"

As a married couple, they moved to Maryland, had one child, and then moved to Pennsylvania, where their other biological children were born.

Autumn sometimes sees her childhood in her foster sons — Malachi, 8, and Mikal, 3. She thanks God for the Weavers but is glad she is more aware of racial issues.

Autumn teaches them at home, which she and her husband do to save money and because their congregation does not have a school.