Closing Thoughts – Inez Torres Davis

lt-ny-eve-march-2016Inez Torres Davis has been involved with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America more than 20 years, working as an anti-racism trainer in the whitest Christian denomination in the United States. She retired just a couple of months ago, ending her two decades of service as a core leader with The Women of the ELCA. She shares some parting thoughts with us this week, along with the firm reminder that we have a long way to go before our churches are anti-racist, and that we must continue the struggle. Read, comment, and share.

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


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Prologue: My first day of service (call) with Women of the ELCA (WELCA) was January 27, 1997; my last day of service was March 31, 2017. Over those two decades my job title was changed, but anti-racism education remained my one programmatic constant. In the two months since my retirement, I have been healing. This is the first time I have been moved by Spirit to say something about the ELCA, anti-racism education, and me.

I first got the impression the ELCA cared about racial justice at its forming. That is when the ELCA (then, a 98’% white denomination) publicly stated that they wanted to grow in the number of persons of color in their church. To my mind, to have such growth, required relationship and a passion for racial justice.

I concluded that with such aspired growth, the ELCA definitely wanted to relate to many, many more people of color. It even had a percentage for that growth! The ELCA wanted to reach a representational presence of persons of color of 10%, a significant goal that more than tripled their existing number. I was impressed by such faith.

When my life partner and I joined a Lutheran church, it was the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that we joined and it was at its forming. We are both people of color and the ELCA said they wanted us. We had recently escaped the clutches of fundamentalism, and wanted our young family (two young daughters) to have a church presence.

It sounds perfect, even now.

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As the last decade of the last century began, the people of color leadership of the churchwide ELCA’s Multicultural Ministries Commission drafted me to become a facilitator of the ELCA’s needed anti-racism work. Their actions and the language used by the ELCA communicated to me that this church had serious intent. I believed there was real work to do.

Unlike many of the current churchwide leadership of color, that leadership had both great expectations and the resources to have a role in facilitating a transformation of a Northern European church into a 1-in-10 person of color representational church in the United States. The ELCA spoke and looked like it meant business. This was heady stuff!

At the time, we lived in Flint, Michigan. I was welcomed by the Southeast Michigan ELCA Synod by everyone BUT the white leaders of the congregation where I worked as lay associate. That congregation’s leadership did not know how to receive me. I came neither with hat in hand nor with a wide disarming grin. I frustrated them and in their frustration they concluded there was no reason to learn how to relate to me, particularly when judging me at secret meetings was easier and more satisfying.

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I believe that had I been a sharp, young white woman with a white husband and two daughters, the white people of that congregational leadership would have welcomed me; hell, they might have thrown a party at our arrival!

Instead, they made it clear: the idea of relating to more persons of color for the sake of church growth was a Chicago notion.

Most white ELCA people resist and resent the prophetic utterance central to anti-racism education. Anti-racism education within the church lays the historical and current shedding of the blood of the oppressed by a white-privileged, patriarchal system at the feet of the church. Most of the Christian church took the papal bulls of the 15th century to heart and have used them these past (going on) six centuries to center whiteness throughout the world.

Over the last nearly three decades, however, rather than seeing the ELCA grow in its understanding of its role in combating racial oppression, I have watched the almost all-white ELCA come to accept itself. It has come to accept that it is white and for the most part, that is just fine. For some, I suspect, it is close to heaven on earth – as the 270 electoral college votes necessary to elect our current president went through the ELCA.

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Many states that propelled Donald J. Trump to the presidency – North and South Dakota, North and South Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – have significant numbers of congregations in the ELCA.

For many if not most ELCA Whites, any person who raises the issue of race is doing so for suspicious reasons and, therefore, cannot be trusted. This distrust is true for aspiring white anti-racists as well as aspiring anti-racists of color. The treatment for both is alarming if not always similar.

Those theologically and spiritually immersed in the white, patriarchal culture of the ELCA see little that needs fixing or worse–they see those of us doing anti-racism as a bigger problem. Put enough people into the Conference of Bishops, the Church Council, and other key leadership positions who lack the humility to see anti-racism education as a core necessity for growth in grace or faith and racial justice efforts will crumble.

The first letter of complaint about me received by the corner office came in early 1998. It came from a white woman emotionally devastated by the idea that she and her husband acted in racist ways. The idea that they acted in racist ways came to her after she attended an anti-racism education training weekend that I had led.

What was WELCA thinking,

she asked,

sending out such a person as myself to stir up such trouble? 

When the executive director called me into her office to answer the charges in that letter, I told her that if she was going to need me to respond to every white woman who found the ministry WELCA had hired me to do upsetting, she should have a desk added to her corner office so we could have our many conversations discreetly.

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I told her there would always be those willing to kill the messenger. But, I asked, was she willing to mid-wife death?

At first, I was surprised some ELCA people of color resented the work. Then I realized that many had thought the only ones that needed changing were white. However, when anti-racism education hits home, people of color learn about internalization and, thereby, learn that we must also change if we are to be a part of ending the cycles of oppression. Change is no less a bitter pill for us, and it can feel doubly damning to be asked to change when we are the ones oppressed!

It takes bold faith to steward the demolition of the structures created neither by love or grace but by sanction of the Doctrine of Discovery. It was and continues to be within the authority of the Doctrine of Discovery that principalities and powers created systems and laws that beat, torture, and strangle those created in God’s image. Within such a canon, the least of these had best simply, and quickly, die.

Becoming a practicing anti-racist takes living by faith, not in some esoteric color-blinding, once-and-for-all final solution kind of way, but in a living by faith, a breath to breath, from relationship to relationship across and within the racial divides kind of way. Anti-racism from the heart infuses not just our good days but also our bad days and will always carry us back again to God’s impossible grace.

It takes radical faith and actions to facilitate God’s will on this earth. Such radical faith births a sweeping, bold human spirit with the capacity to partner with God’s Spirit in replacing what Empire has given us with the beloved community.

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It also takes a great deal of life and soul energy to engage in such a battle against principalities and powers in high places. To seek justice within the house of God and with the people of God, takes strong fruit of the Spirit.

At this point in my life, I pray that more and more of us baptized will place their hand to God’s wheel. I pray this because, without more folks carrying on this kind of work as me and my friends retire, we will only continue to grow  irrelevant. That can’t happen.


InezInez Torres Davis is an indigenous Latina worked within and for the whitest religious affiliation in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recently having retired as the  core racial justice/anti-racism trainer  of Women of the ELCA after 20 years. She is also rostered Word & Service lay professional of the ELCA and currently serves on the World Day of Prayer USA Board, is an Illinois State Commissioner for Guardianship & Advocacy, and she sits on the ELCA’s Theological Discernment table. If this wasn’t enough, she’s also a blog writer (for WELCA and her own blog page), a spiritual director, a wife, mother, grandmother, gardener, writer, and painter, a Reiki master, and creator of sacred spaces.

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17 thoughts on “Closing Thoughts – Inez Torres Davis

  1. edwinabaethge

    blockquote, div.yahoo_quoted { margin-left: 0 !important; border-left:1px #715FFA solid !important; padding-left:1ex !important; background-color:white !important; } Dear We Talk We Listen–  I thank God every day for Inez Torres Davis. I am one of many trainees she mentored. Only by intention will our denomination become welcoming to persons of faith who are also people of color. We have good intentions, but we wont listen to the messengers: we tokenize, we ignore, we brutalize the messengers. Thank you, We Talk, We Listen, and thank you Inez Torres Davis! shareChristsJoyRev. Edwina Baethge

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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  2. Anita Warner

    Inez, my profound thanks for your work in our church. By the Spirit and grace of God, as you have written, it will not have been in vain. May the Holy One bless and lead you into all your next steps, and may new partners be called and older workers be reinvigorated in the holy work of unraveling racism in our church so that the cords that bound us all may become new banners of praise.

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  3. Pingback: This Week’s Links | Timothy Siburg

  4. Thank you Linda, for inviting Inez to share her reflections on 20 years of ministry. I’m thankful that you trained 6 of the women in our synod to continue to carry on your work. Your new congregational resource is a tool that will also continue the work you’ve done. And a special word of thanks for spending some of the final days of your Women of the ELCA time in our synod at our huge Walking Together Event. It was a gift to be able to host you in our home. Peace and Joy to you. Greg

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    1. It was a great pleasure to spend time with the NW WI synod in such a way, Greg. I know your TDTR team is one of the best–I pray your synod will make great use of them. My best to all of those fine women! Namaste.

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  5. Although I am in a different denomination and different country (United Church of Canada) I too am grateful for Inez’s work and what I learned from her in the brief time we met. May you feel the blessings of your time of retirement. (Although it doesn’t look much like you retired! 🙂 )

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    1. Inez Torres Davis

      Kimiko, I am humbled by your generous words! (Not having the Mon-Fri grind is retirement enough! I am rested. I am loved. I am grateful.) Namaste.

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  6. Joan Beck

    Thank you, Inez, for your testimony. I am just so discouraged today by plain old garden variety sexism in my church that I needed the reminder that intersectionality–of multiple oppressions–is intractable PLUS intractable, or maybe intractable squared. You sent me right back to breath by breath struggle in faith and faith in the struggle. Thank you. Come, Holy Spirit.

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  7. Karl Anliker

    Thank you for your story and life of work. I appreciate the way you spoke of the life of faith and anti-racist work as everyday, ongoing, and never ceasing. I think, as a white, hetero, cis, male that this declaration is profoundly true for people of privilege like myself who may combat racism in an instance and be “done” having understood ourselves to have arrived at the anti-racist stage. This work is ongoing. This work is never done. Especially, as you said, from relationship to relationship. I think about how for myself, unpacking the patriarchal systems in my own marriage is only the beginning of combating hetero patriarchal systems, and this work is never done. I can only hope to move this work as you said, “from relationship to relationship.”

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  8. Harvard Stephens

    Dear Inez, your words invite us to reconsider how the day of Pentecost comes to us. At one level, this day is an annual event predictably placed on our liturgical calendars. It’s coming this year on June 4, 2017. But in the realms where Spirit operates, this day comes whenever we enter the transcendent places you call “breath to breath” and “relationship to relationship” – words that point toward a transformational experience that disarms and dismantles the systemic powers of that keep us in bondage. Pentecost is a celebration of our liberation, and you have served with incredible faith and fortitude as a herald of that promised freedom. You dare to do what the prophet Habakkuk did: you stand in the watchpost, you make God’s vision plain, and you keep pushing this church to believe that it is coming. If it seems to tarry, well, that’s no excuse for pretending that there is nothing to do. Thank you for the courageous light you humbly and proudly and consistently allow our God to shine through you. You are living proof that the Spirit continues to move and speak where she wills.

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  9. Chelsey

    Thank you so much Inez for your story. I am grateful for reading these words and agree with everything you have said. It is sad that the ELCA is fine with having their church be a white church and constantly living and complying to the white culture. You have so much strength and love and bravery and thank you so much for the work that you have done. It is never done as you said and I pray for strong women like you and Dr. Thomas, because white people (like myself) have had the luxury and privilege to stay quiet, but for communities and people of color you have not had that choice. Many blessings to you and thank you so much for sharing your story.

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  10. PJ

    Thank you for your ministry and your witness. As a white male preparing for ordained ministry in the ELCA, anti-racism training has been important in recognizing the ways in which racism not only operates in our society and in our church, but also in recognizing the ways in which racism has influenced the ways in which I perceived and interpreted your world. I pray for your continued healing as you enter your retirement, and I pray that commitments like LSTC’s to anti-racism training will raise up a new generation of leaders in creating an ELCA that is represented by communities of justice. Looking forward to my context after seminary, I am strengthened to know that I have role models in the faith who have fought for this justice despite antipathy, indifference, and acceptance of the status quo.

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  11. Marissa Becklin

    Inez, thanks be to God for your life, ministry, and for this article and call to action. As a young, white, cis, hetero, US, middle-class Lutheran woman I find the honesty in your description of watching “the almost all-white ELCA come to accept itself” over the past few decades extremely profound. Kyrie eleison. As a white woman in particular, I have myself been guilty of spending so much time thinking about sexism that I have entirely lost the gospel’s call to learn from the perichoretic dance of God as Trinity and see the world through an intersectional lens. This historical unwillingness to think critically, face the truth of oppression and racism in particular, and do something about it is an unwillingness to engage in repentance—it is sin. I pray that all of us in the ELCA (particularly those who are leaders) may have the “life and soul energy” that you so beautifully describe as necessary in boldly naming and then fighting the structures built by sin and injustice so that we might be a part of the “beloved community” that we are called to foster.

    Blessings to you during this time of newness and transition in your life. Thank you again for your ministry, and your words here.

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  12. Hans Becklin

    Deacon Torres Davis,

    Thank you for your witness to “God’s impossible grace” through this blog post and decades of work for Christ’s church. I, too, have seen our denomination’s people recoil at anyone who dares put their hand to God’s wheel. Yet, as a young white man entering ministry, I am committed to sharing in this anti-racist work because we believe that the fullness of baptismal transformation comes through God’s word–which first accuses and brings forth repentance, and then brings forth repentance’s fruits and a graced life.

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