ELCA Boundaries Workshops Are an Issue… A LatinX-Caribbean American Lutheran Priest’s experience – Rev. Ángel David Marrero-Ayala

Boundaries – arguably one of the most important skills that many of my pastor-to-be-students have to learn. This week’s author – Rev. Ángel David Marrero-Ayala – shares his culturally nuanced take on the matter as our second post celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. A Latinx ordained pastor in the whitest Christian denomination in the United States – the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America – Pastor Ángel writes about how his denomination’s zeal for boundaries trainings are insufficiently nuanced to accommodate cultural and ethnic differences, and that this lack of nuance is yet another barrier for people of color within the denomination – both those who are simply members of its churches, as well as those who feel called to purse word and sacrament ministry. Read, comment, and share.thomas110_1027092

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

Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunities. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.  (Colossians 4:5-6, NET)

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On January 1st, 1988 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) came into existence creating the biggest, financially strongest, and most culturally diverse church within the bounds of the Lutheran tradition in North America. For many, it was a dream come true; after decades of conversation about a unified mega church body, the ELCA had become a covenantal enterprise full of promises for the future. The expectations were bold for a predominantly white middle class church: within the first 10 years, 10% of the denomination would be people of color and people with first languages other than English; the ELCA had a commitment to adopt an organizational philosophy providing for the representation of cultural diversity in every decision making body; and proactively work against racism.

Thirty years after envisioning these dreams, they lie shattered at the clay feet of a complex, bureaucratic, and largely culturally insensitive denominational behemoth.

One of the places within the ELCA in which this dynamic becomes more evident is in the practices surrounding professional ethics and boundaries workshops.  After the revelations about cover-up, corruption and sexual abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, many synods decided to enforce boundary trainings for everyone, with the ultimate hope of fostering a safe church culture. Seminaries have follow suit to the point that it is impossible to graduate or be ordained without going through the required educational contact hours of training.

Underlying these public intentions is also the silent recognition that most of these initiatives come out of a place of fear: a way to protect the institution against possible legal liabilities when there is sexual misconduct and the perpetrator is a member of our community. In the context of a church predominantly lead by white people, professional boundary workshops are an incarnation of this dread of financial loss. This becomes problematic due to the centering of white culture within these trainings.


Since my entrance into the candidacy process for ordination into the Lutheran priesthood, I have participated in 4 boundary trainings: one as a seminarian and three since ordination. Throughout these conversations, many tips and tricks for a safer church were shared: background checks for church employees, orientations for the community, statements/policies against sexual violence, and the use of mental health professionals as communal resources.

Furthermore, it has become a topic of every seminar to discuss physical boundaries: when and how to hug, the no-no squares, eye contact, how to approach social media, personal space, and the ever present principles that parishioners are not friends and that if something feels “icky” it is “icky”.

If after reading the above paragraph you cannot see what is missing or what makes all of this culturally incompetent and incomplete, ¡felicidades! You are likely part of the majority white and Anglo-Saxon culture or have been deeply shaped by it.

As a Puerto Rican Lutheran priest in the ELCA, I experience these boundary trainings as a “how-to-behave-around-white- people-in-order-to-not-get-in-trouble” class, and I struggle with the absence of Latin American sources that can provide the nuance of latinx cultural experience.  


The first problematic assumption of the ELCA approach to professional boundaries is the belief that there is a universal set of rules that are translatable among cultures. This is not the case: white people, black people, latinxs, Native Americans, Asians, they all have different notions of what is appropriate. Naturally, each sub-category is even less helpful, because they encompass a variety of nationalities with deeper nuances and customs. Take, for example, Latin Americans: a community in which there is no solid unified idealization of the latinx identity outside of the United States. We think of ourselves as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Chileans, Uruguayans, Costa Ricans, Indigenous, etc.

I, for one, was not informed that I belonged to the latinx community until I arrived at the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. Yet in spite of the variety of backgrounds, the experience of being a brown, Spanish/Portuguese speaking foreigner in the United States fosters a sense of an imposed super diaspora that shares, at times, an antagonistic view to the ethical boundaries in question.

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Let me get specific. My experience as a mission developer working with latinx people has given me some experience that I find valuable to share with you. Here are the problems I find every year in attempting to reconcile mandatory church boundary policies and the realities of the mission field:

1. Background checks are often a source of fear, because many undocumented latinxs see it as a way of giving personal information to law enforcement agencies that might one day come to deport them.  Why should they so willingly give information to agencies of the state that generally wish them harm? Many are also afraid because, as victims of racial profiling, their pasts can be peppered with arrests and minor criminal records (i.e. pot possession, an arrest after a speed ticket, shoplifting) which they have intentionally tried to leave behind and feel ashamed to share.

2. Orientations about safe-church that are not conducted in Spanish, or with English only resources, are unhelpful, because some latinx individuals cannot speak/read the language. When working among marginalized immigrant communities, one has to always consider that, as a result of economic inequalities, they might not be proficient in the mechanics of reading. Presenters who are unfamiliar with latinx ways of learning (specifically regarding the juxtaposition between paying attention and eye contact, time management, the use of pedagogical storytelling, etc.) are also not helpful.

3. Public statements about sexual violence are usually unavailable in Spanish, nor are they explained in simple terms. Also, its important to know that latinx culture is unapologetically patriarchal, and customs that might seem like harassment for white spectators are not necessarily interpreted the same way in a first-generation, immigrant, Spanish-speaking context. Although this paradigm is changing among second- and third-generation latinxs, it is still quite common for us to speak, even to strangers, using words that might seem to outsiders as inappropriately affectionate or sexually charged.

4. Many latinxs are uninsured, and it is still a taboo in many of our countries to seek out mental health professionals. It is also hard for us to trust strangers solely based on their expertise; relationships are key. Latinxs tend to prefer polite and friendly conversations before sharing a problem.

5. While informality is often a sign of trustworthiness in an Anglo context (i.e. “No need to call me pastor, I am Mike”), deference for older generations, manifested in the use of titles like Señor (Sir) and Señora (Ma’am), is a cherished value within the latinx community.

6. Boundaries around the comfort level of body contact are also different. It is not uncommon for latinxs to hug, kiss, touch and be in close personal proximity, including strangers. Even as a priest, people of all genders and ages come and touch me, hug me, kiss me, or physically pull me aside. When a white person is on the receiving end of these customs, it might seem like a boundary violation for them.

A Latinx ELCA congregation in Racine, Wisconsin – Emmaus Lutheran Church -with their then-pastor, Rev. Jhon Freddy Correa.

The ELCA cannot become competent in fostering and welcoming latinxs until it becomes aware of cultural differences and how they play out in local churches. Bishops and the churchwide organization should avoid the sin of laziness; they must learn to approach education outside the bounds of white American perspectives. The percentage of people of color within us is small, but we are here and willing to help. We can do so not as a prop but as integral partners in the conversation.

Everyone deserves respect for their cultural norms. Doing ministry in the ever-growing, multicultural communities of the United States requires that everyone learn about their neighbors’ cultures in order to better assess safe-church needs.  Change cannot happen until people of a variety of cultures are present and substantially represented (that is to say with power to caucus and veto) in every decision making body of the ELCA.

When considering boundary trainings, it would do us good to consider the ways in which boundaries differ amongst the various cultural groups located in our communities.  Approaching boundaries, and having experts from those communities as partners in these conversations, is vital. Perhaps it is time for all of us to dig deeply into cultural competency educational programs as conversation starters towards a more egalitarian beloved community.

Then we can truly begin to speak about a church that one day might be safe for all.





17884061_10154507112768225_8871700682864564831_nThe Rev. Ángel David Marrero-Ayala (Padre Ángel) is a young adult, first generation Puerto Rican immigrant and a priest in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Padre Ángel is the mission developer for Santuario Luterano, the progressive latinx church of Waltham, Massachusetts. He also works as coordinator for latinx ministries in the New England Synod. Padre Ángel is the first openly gay latinx ordained after 2009. He has worked as secretary to the ELCA Latino Association and board member of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. Padre Ángel lives with his husband Zachary and their spoiled dog-son Pepe Thor.

#decolonizeCoffeeHour – Elle Dowd, M. Div. Candidate, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Picture 002For all its richness, the life of a woman is always strewn with negotiations and escapes. The current climate of today’s presidential election has all-too-clearly unleashed a rampant and open sexism unprecedented in recent years, the repercussions of which will likely continue well into the weeks and years after the election. It is in this climate, then, that seminarian Elle Dowd shares her thoughts (first published here) on a simple and effective way that the church can make sure that women’s lives and bodies (as well as the bodies of children, men, trans folk, people of color etc…) are respected and supported, and never degraded: consent. Read, comment, and share.

This is not another #decolonizeLutheranism post about food.

This is a #decolonizeLutheranism post about consent.

This is a post about the way that the patriarchy colonizes bodies as they colonize land, and the way the Church is complicit.


Sunday mornings are the mornings I love. I love coming together to sing, to pray, to eat, to learn. I love hearing scripture. I love hearing preaching or getting to preach.

But there are two parts of the morning that fill me with dread: the passing of the Peace and coffee hour. The times most ripe for socializing. The times when I know I’m going to be touched.

How truly, tragically ironic is it, that when it’s time to pass the peace I feel so much anxiety? This is a time when we have just been reminded that we are forgiven. We have been absolved. And so we are invited to pass the peace of God around to our neighbors. It should be a time of easing nerves, not a time of fear.

And yet every time I reach out my hand for a handshake and I am pulled in for a too long, too tight hug (or sometimes even a kiss), I am reminded that to the church, my body is not my own. Every time I put out my hand and I’m told, dismissively, “We hug here!” as I’m pulled in against my will, I’m reminded that to the Church, their own norms matter more than my bodily autonomy.

To some people, this might seem like a leap or exaggeration. But as a survivor of sexual abuse and sexual assault, I am very aware of the times that my body is not my own. Moments like these are microaggressions, actions that might not seem like a big deal on their own, but when they happen over and over and over and over and are happening in front of the backdrop of a society entrenched in patriarchy, these seemingly little instances have large implications and deeper impact. Because these incidents are not isolated but are instead part of a patriarchal system, they serve to reinforce that system.

Groundbreaking text on microagressions and the chruch.

The Church throughout the ages has benefited from and been complicit in patriarchy, of centering cis-men and their seemingly unquenchable need to dominate and control, to colonize. Colonization in the traditional sense involves land. In the broader sense, it involves taking over something that is not yours and declaring yourself in charge of it.

Colonization also involves bodies.

White men throughout history have stolen land through imperialism, and stolen bodies through slavery, and subjugated bodies still, today, through religiously based laws and theologies about sexuality and morality that disproportionately affect women and gender non conforming persons. And because colonization deals in the currency of conquered and commodified bodies, colonization has a real body count. In and out of our churches, women and gender nonconforming persons are being abused and the church is not only silent, we are complicit.

We are complicit in the ways that we perpetuate rape culture instead of a culture of consent even within our own spaces of worship. The way we do things sends a message:

Women’s bodies and bodies of GNC  (gender non-conforming) persons are public property.

This shows up in our worship and it shows up in our theology. When we spend so much energy controlling women’s bodies and controlling LGBTQ+ involvement and yet ignore the lack of consent culture in our churches that runs rampant during the passing of the peace and coffee hour, it’s clear that this theology is really about control and domination and not actually about sexual ethics and respect and safety.

It happens to me, as a white woman. It happens even more to women or GNC people with other intersecting identities that we exoticize, infantilize, or put on display. It also happens in different ways. While men kiss my cheek to “thank me” for my sermon (something I assure you my husband does not endure), a white person might pet a Black woman’s Afro during coffee hour. Or, I’ve seen many many times where an adult will pinch a child’s cheek. And all without first seeking consent.

I’ve experienced too much sexual harassment within the Church, too much slut shaming, too much queer bashing. Unfortunately, I’m not alone in this. And outside of the Church when I’ve experienced these things in public or in the community, the Church has been largely silent.

So what can the Church do, to detangle itself from rape culture, to relinquish its claim on our bodies, to decolonize? The duty is two-fold: root out this evil that manifests inside the church and then also lead and be a voice for change in the world.


Within the Church, we can teach our congregations about consent.

This means talking about sex, yes, and making sure our churches are SAFE church compliant. It means accountability for that guy in leadership that is handsy with the female parishioners. It means preaching and teaching on rape culture and thinking critically about the language we use to talk about God. It means calling out microaggressions. It means deconstructing horrific stories of rape throughout scripture. It means all of those things.

It also means granting people in our pews bodily autonomy and modeling it on every level. It means talking about times like coffee hour or the passing of the peace where touching often happens, and teaching and preaching that people must consent to your touch, even down to the handshake.

It means during rituals where there is touching or a laying of hands, we ask participants “Is this ok with you?” and we make it ok to say “no.”

When I lead youth events, part of our time of rules and expectations centers around keeping the space safe. The youth lead this session and demonstration. They speak out against heteronormativity, misogyny, racism, ableism. They also give a short training on consent. They model, through role playing, how to ask for a hug and how to tell from peoples body language if someone is uncomfortable. They affirm over and over to everyone present that their bodies are their own, and that no one deserves to feel uncomfortable because of the way someone else is treating them. Especially in church.

No one is entitled to another persons body. Not even the Church. And when we act as if we are, we are taking something that doesn’t belong to us. We are being colonizers.

And while there is much work to be done within the Church around dismantling rape culture and cultivating a culture of consent, there is also a call for the Church to be a light in the world. The Church must be present and public and loud around devastating examples in the news like #BrockTurner. The Church must support legislature that promotes bodily autonomy. The Church must show up for women and GNC people who are not in our pews and who are out in the world, especially in light of things like the Pulse massacre, and say, “I’m sorry for the ways the Church has failed. How can we make this right?” and then listen.

If we want to #decolonizeLutheranism, we must #decolonizecoffeehour and the peace and laying of hands and youth group lock-ins and ANY space that is vulnerable to falling prey to a lack of consent culture. Decolonizing means giving up our ownership over each others bodies. And we must do so.

For the sake of liberation, and for the sake of the Christ who came in a body to redeem our bodies and who sets us free.


ellefamElle Dowd is a candidate for ordained ministry in the ELCA and 1st year MDiv student at LSTC. She is a founding member of the movement to #decolonizelutheranism. She has background in youth ministry and global ministry, particularly in Sierra Leone, and has interests in queer and feminist/womanist theology and liberation theology.