Inez 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
Inez 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.