The passing of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero threw a wrench into the works at LSTC. He challenged many, angered many, and inspired thousands of seminarians for the better part of 40 years. His challenge was simple – live into your baptismal identity in ways that deepen your love of God and undermines the evils of racism in our country.
So in tribute to Dr. Pero, as well as a compliment to the MLK Celebration and discussion at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago this morning (sponsored by the center that bears his name – The Pero Multicultural Center) today’s post is the first of a series of reflections on Dr. Pero’s life and witness. We hope you enjoy, and as always – share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
We have been giving thanks to God for the life of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. who passed from this life, November 18, 2015. It is with grateful remembrance of his contributions to the life and mission of the church as a pastor and theologian and civil rights leader that I share these thoughts. One of the last times I had a conversation with Pete was at his house. He had several seminary students over (a regular occurrence), my daughter being one of them, and we all experienced his and Cheryl’s ready hospitality and his humor. At one point in the conversation we moved from politics to theology and he talked about the importance of context for worship and theology. If we take away the concrete experience of who and where we are, theology and even worship is an abstraction removed from human reality.
I was called to be pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church on Chicago’s southside in 1986, a white pastor serving an African American Lutheran Church, shortly before Dr. Pero’s essay, “Worship and Theology in the Black Context” was published. This essay spoke to issues of the time and still speaks. Among other things, he wrote of “whitenized” black churches that must “immerse themselves in a black theology and a black worship” before they can “perform their critical and reformatory role in relationship to the total culture” including the white church. With these words, he was describing the situation of St. Thomas and other Lutheran churches on the southside at that time. In those first years at St. Thomas, a number of young African American pastors took calls to churches on the southside, some who had been mentored by Dr. Pero. For me, these pastors were a God-send (along with pastors of other denominations in the community); they guided and helped me with the kinds of changes that our churches needed to undergo. They were actively engaged in “immersing themselves (and their churches) in a black theology and a black worship.”
Dr. Pero’s essay has implications for white mainline churches, as well, as he briefly considers the “critical and reformatory” relationship of black churches to white churches in predominantly white denominations. When Dr. Pero writes of “whitenized black churches,” he is referring to churches that have come into a white middle-class denomination that offers a white middle-class Christianity that provides little for dealing with the realities of daily life in an oppressive society. This kind of Christianity also has little to offer whites in the way of taking up their cross and following Jesus, becoming salt, light and yeast. Pero writes of the “suburban captivity of the white church” which suggests to me a church that seeks to isolate itself from the world’s troubles, values its security and that of its property and possessions, its comfort and convenience.
In contrast to (white or black) churches captive to middle-class values, Pero writes of the roots of the black church in a faith and hope that, while still enslaved, was able to sing, “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” He sees such a church as a “contemporary theological model” of first century churches in Rome—“urban, hidden, scorned, persecuted.” Such churches are sustained by the good news of the deliverance of God and the power of the Spirit and therefore by praise and thanksgiving in the midst of all kinds of circumstances. It is this kind of church that is a critique of the middle-class (think values, not income) captivity of the church.
In white “suburbanized” churches, it is often personal crisis that opens individuals to the power of the gospel: the death of a child, the breakup of a marriage, addiction and the twelve steps. Life itself often speaks a word to us, and we may begin steps outward. But the problem is that our white middle-class church may not be able to support additional steps into an ever widening freedom to serve, to hear the cries, to enter into the suffering of others, to be change agents at a societal level. We may find that we do not even have a theology that supports us. In the theology we receive, grace may mean God’s acceptance but not necessarily our transformation.
For many the word “salvation” may itself be a hindrance. It has become a religious word that for some means little more than going to heaven when I die; for others, God’s forgiveness and love, but often without repentance, and therefore often leaving the middle-class captivity of the church intact. We might find ourselves understanding New Testament texts differently, if every time we came to the word salvation, we read deliverance or liberation, fitting translations of the Greek. We would then have to ask what we need to be delivered from. We might come to see that the deliverance of God has to do with every aspect and dimension of our lives—personal, social, global. We might begin like all addicts (and idolaters) to acknowledge that we are powerless in and of ourselves. We might rediscover how much our Scriptures talk about power—social power dynamics and the power of God. In white Lutheran churches, we often hear much of God’s grace and acceptance, in black churches, God’s power—“the gospel; it is the power of God for liberation to everyone who has faith (Romans 1:16).” By God’s power, we are liberated to take up our cross and follow Jesus daily; by God’s power we are set free from values that do not come from God and that bind us, keeping us from being the people of God for others—especially for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. The gospel of liberation is a gospel of transformation, not only of ourselves and our personal relationships but of our society and its institutions, as we become light, salt, yeast.
I will speak personally here. I often tell others that the two earthly realities that have most contributed to my becoming and growth have been my marriage to Elly (almost four decades) and St. Thomas (almost three decades). St. Thomas and the black church have formed and reformed me, my wife, and my children who grew up in a black church and community. We were members of a body of Christ where those who gathered for worship often included professionals and homeless, people in the corporate world and those living financially on the edge, people juggling multiple part-time jobs, working poor, abused, addicted, pressed down, people who had lost children to gun violence, children in crisis.
We experienced together the joy of praising God in the midst of the struggle, ministry to each other in prayer, rejoicing in God’s work among us and through us in providing spiritual and material nurture and sustenance. We were moved outward to share the gospel in word and action in our neighborhood with other broken people in a variety of ministries including joining others in actions addressing systemic racism and oppression in governmental and corporate institutions.
At the heart of our life was worship; it was the Word and Spirit without which there would be no body of Christ, no abiding support, no change, no sense of call, no sending with power, no witness.
We were, at one time, not so economically and socially inclusive. We had to acknowledge our classism, or using Dr. Pero’s word, our “whitenized” Christianity and by the grace of God and the power of the gospel of liberation be delivered from this bondage and continue to be delivered. That same gospel of liberation must address the captivity of the white church to middle-class values and self-satisfaction and comfort. There are witnesses to that liberation in the black church who will help us if we humble ourselves, turn from our complacent ways and be open to the voices God provides.
Dr. Pero was one of those witnesses. What he has said about the importance of context for worship and theology remains.
The Rev. Dr. David Lowry most recently served as pastor of St. Thomas Lutheran Church on Chicago’s South Side (over 28 years), a church with a strong outreach to children in crisis and a ministry to recovering addicts. He has been involved in lay
leadership training, faith-based community organizing and served as a revivalist in the ELCA. Pastor Lowry received a Ph.D. in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology
at Chicago in 1986. His doctoral dissertation, entitled, The Prophetic Element in the Church As Conceived in the Theology of Karl Rahner, was published in a revised version by University Press of America (1990) and focuses on the timely word of God.