African American children in Mennonite families bridge two worlds

African American members break popular stereotype

By Carolyn Davis

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Sunday, Jan. 8 2012 5:00 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, Pa. 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.

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.

Malachi sat on the short ledge bordering a public playground one day after classes and said he didn't really remember his mother, who is from South Jersey. When he was about 2, Autumn took him to visit her in the Riverside Correctional Facility. For his third birthday, his mother, still at Riverside, sent him a card and a toy milk truck. When he was 4, he and Autumn visited his biological grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins in New Jersey over the July 4 holiday.

His biological half-sister lives with a Mennonite family about a 40-minute drive away, so he sees her a few times a year when the two families get together.

Autumn still takes Mikal to Philadelphia for monthly visits with his birth mother.

Malachi wonders about his biological relatives. "I just want to see them again — they're really nice."

He doesn't think he feels different from the boys and girls around him, though some children from a Mennonite church the family doesn't attend have said mean things.

Malachi looked down toward the playground's shredded blue rubber surface and lowered his voice. "They say, 'You have ugly black skin.'" Malachi shrugged when asked his reply. "They just don't play with me."

Said Autumn, standing nearby, "I always hoped my own kids wouldn't face things like that. But I told myself, 'They will.'"

She has warned her children that people might say unkind things about their skin color, that the words will sting, that the they should tell Autumn and Justin how they feel when it happens.

The parents also advise them to walk away from those situations or calmly ask the other person, "What is it about me that you just can't accept? You know color is only skin deep.'"

As she talked, Autumn seemed to feel pangs from her past.

"In God's eyes, we're all the same. There is no race," she said. "Of course, when you look around, there are all kinds of colors. In the real world, there is a difference. It's not always easy when the difference is you."

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