Base Communities: A Vessel for Healing and Decolonization – Francisco Herrera, M. Div., PhD student, LSTC

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Alice Walker and me 🙂

My institution, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, hosted a truly new thing last weekend – the first base community training from the people at #decolonizeLutheranism, titled simply #decolonizeTheBase. I’ll let chief coordinator, and blog regular, Francisco Herrera give you the details – but suffice it to say, if the body of Christ is called to build a truly intersectional Church—a Shalom Church[1]—then with these souls working the land and watering it, God will the bring forth growth.[2] Please 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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Communion Of Saints by Elise Ritter

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9)

To give a brief overview of what a base community is, you have to go back all the way to 1956 in Rio de Janeiro – all the way between the ear and the soul of Roman Catholic Bishop Dom Agnelo Rossi, in the impoverished district of Barra do Pirai, as he listened to the frustrations of “a humble old woman.” Since her local parish couldn’t pay for a priest for Christmas services, it stayed “cold and dark,” whereas local Protestant parishes were “lit up and full of people” (Boff, 3). So these laments provoked the newly-minted bishop to action

With help from his deacons and some Jesuits, then, they created a lay-education program that soon took over all of Latin America. Grounded in the reading and interpretation of Scripture through each community’s context, that community’s joys and burdens, these new outposts for God’s kingdom were called comunidades eclesial de base or “base Christian communities.”

Quickly, however, they would evolve into something far more glorious.

Because the roots they sprouted went so deep into the soil, their first green shoots of growth were shelters to protect abused women and food banks to feed their children.

Because the love they inspired had such potency and flavor, their blossoms and fruit included legal aid societies, literacy programs, and labor unions.

And because their fragrance and seeds were so luscious  and fertile, they scattered through all of Latin America, bringing forth 30, 60, and 100-fold servants of Jesus, the community having such good soil.

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Demonstration in favor of land reform in Brazil, ca. 1970’s – supported and lead by base communities.

And as the 1950’s and 1960’s became the 1970’s and 1980’s they were ruthlessly persecuted, as one oppressive regime after the other – often with full support from the government of the United States – brutally tore up as many of these communities as they could, grinding their leaves and petals into the earth and turning root beds into mass graves.

But in the end the love of the base communities won, sustaining a vital solidarity and hope among the persecuted as dictatorship after dictatorship stomped and burned and raged itself to ash.

When #decolonizeLutheranism had its first official face-to-face programming meeting after our inaugural revival in 2016 we agreed, then, that this would be the model for organizing and mission that we should try. Our would-be reforming partners all over the country were looking for solidarity and direction, and the base community model seemed a good beginning.

Because workshops hadn’t made our churches more welcoming – not many, anyway.

Because ‘hard conversations’ had cracked some doors open, but few had taken the next steps to opening them wider, let alone walk through.

So we decided to appeal directly to the Holy Spirit and the power of God and wait to see what She did.

But since we didn’t really know how to create a base community, and after a few failed attempts at doing so, the Spirit finally intervened, carrying me into a random house in south central Los Angeles (last March) to share a potluck and lecture with some-time hero, Pastor Alexia Salvatierra. And how did I know la pastora had been given to us by the Spirit to lead us?

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Rev. Alexia Salvatierra (ELCA) at an immigration rally in Los Angeles.

Because sometime during her lesson, after mentioning that she had done her CPE among base communities in the Philippines in the 1980’s (then under the thumb of another US-proxy dictator, Ferdinand Marcos), she said this:

“When we are very young, we usually receive some kind of curse – often it is said by someone very close to us, even family. What I want to do now is talk about what those curses are – and to share as you’re comfortable – as well as find a line of Scripture that we can use to counter them when we feel their power working on us.”

This made it clear that spiritual direction was crucial to her community organizing work.

Two weeks later I asked Alexia if she would teach #decolonizeLutheranism about forming base communities, and she said yes, but quickly added, “Call Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and ask if she could help out, too. You need someone who can truly lead someone to experience the Spirit and she does that better than anyone I know.”

After some conversation and email ping pong, (Rev. Dr.) Elizabeth agreed. Pastor Alexia wasn’t kidding when she said that Dr. Conde-Frazier was a master of bringing people into the Spirit’s presence. And how did I know, on top of Pastor Alexia’s recommendation, that the Spirit had roped her in too? When she said this:

“It’s a glorious moment when we get our liberation, but we have to be careful.  we carry a lot of anger after we get and if we’re not careful, it will spoil everything we touch.”

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Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Conde-Frazier – Dean of Esperanza College, Philadelphia.

And she was right to point this out – because thanks to the grace of God #decolonizeLutheranism had received a grant to pay the full cost of attendance to every person of color, every trans and non-binary attendee, and every person with a disability that qualified them for public benefits. And these leaders – beautiful and perfect and devoted to the Gospel – for all their power, likely would need healing before doing or talking about anything else.

And that’s how our base community training – #decolonizeTheBase – would begin.

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So on the first night of the training Pastor Alexia and Dr. Conde-Frazier greeted every attendee with a flower, a piece of chocolate, a small bottle of water, and a choice of fruit – delivered from baskets on their arms – walking throughout the meeting space and giving blessing.

It was at that point then, that I realized that my heart’s image of this day (Revelation 7:9) was incomplete. For though a multitude did come – from every tribe and nation, of every gender and sexuality and ability and disability – as the weekend progressed, right there in the middle of Augustana Chapel, Tree of Life itself sprouted and bloomed before all of us (Revelation 22:1-3) “with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” – and the gifts of chocolate, water, flowers, and fruit – were the very first fruits of that tree.

But the Scripture of the weekend? John 10:10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (NRSV)

And it was upon this truth – not the colonizing lashes of racism, the colonizing echo of being mis-gendered, the ominous rumble of the colonizer’s institutions and apathy and violence – that we built a community and welcomed the Holy Spirit among us that weekend, both as liberator and healer. And all-together, with nothing but longing for the power of God in our lives to lead us, the Spirit grafted us all unto Jesus, the true Vine, the Liberator, and his promise of abundant life.

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Helping hands – remembering a friend.

For me, as the chief coordinator of the weekend, this abundant life showed itself most powerfully in the way chapel staff (especially Morgan Gates, bless you friend) taught us how to run the sound-board along with printing, folding, and stapling bulletins – and the way random attendees would help fill in the holes in my planning. The music and worship team provided abundant life too – in the form of last minute changes and shifts, learning four new songs that weren’t in our original hymn booklet, and regularly meeting with the Pastor Alexia and Professor Conde-Frazier to make sure that every bit of information was shared in an atmosphere of constant intercessory prayer – like the smell of charcoal that always filigrees Frankincense. They, too, showed abundance in the fact that our leaders regularly met with attendees to make sure that each part of the training tailor-fit their needs – often shortening or lengthening, or even cutting out, entire parts of the day to make sure that no one left overwhelmed, confused, or lost.

And the gathered community, too, showed abundance to each other. In the way we loved each other, carried one another’s pain, challenged each other’s weaknesses, and prayed and sang and embraced each part of us into this abundant life.

“Your experience of this transformation, this change, will be what teaches you more than anything,” Dr. Conde-Frazier mentioned more than once that weekend, “and these are things you can’t put on paper and take away with you. And it is this that you take home with you, and this is how you will begin your communities and your ministries.”

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Hermanas en la lucha – sisters in the struggle, Prof. Conde-Frazier and Pastor Salvatierra.

And from all of this a marvelously gentle and beautiful vine sprung forth, both connecting all assembled more completely to each other as well as to the world around us. For our teachers, our tias, knew that if we wanted to create community that could change the church – let alone the country, or our hearts – we had to do it right there and then, too, experience it right there and then. So much so that by the end of the day, it seemed that all we cared about doing – all we could do, was find more ways to love each other.

And that’s pretty much it.

And I know this post doesn’t give a lot of information about the training itself, because in the end, it wasn’t the most important lesson.

And yes, we did things – we made plans, shared visions, wrote things down and affirmed ourselves, but everything we did essentially had one main goal and everything orbited this goal: to teach each other how to heal and love each other.

To grow those roots like our kin in Latin America in the darkest days of the last century’s tyranny, living water bursting forth from the baptismal fonts in all of our hearts, with richly green leaves for the healing of the nations, with fruit fertile and fragrant as to feed the soul and bring forth a rich harvest, with shade to provide rest and strength for the weary and determined.

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Getting ready for the Eucharist, Jaffa Castañeda Carrera working his pipes and Putting a Praise On It (Tasha Cobbs).

Because when you’ve been healed by the love of God, well, the devil might tempt and try you, but he’ll be hard pressed to stop you – and this is what we need if we’re going to decolonize our church.

And this may sound naïve and sentimental, even foolish, but it isn’t.

For didn’t someone say something about fools for Christ and what that entails (1 Corinthians 4:10-13) – how those most despised by the world were the key to its salvation? Because when you spend your whole life fighting the church you’ve been called to serve, you need all the love you can get. And therefore, praise be praise be for this, God will GIVE you all the love that you need and more.

And if you’re curious to see what it’s all about? Come next year.

Come and see what it is like to have a heart where “nothing accursed will be found… anymore,” to be so filled with the love of God that you “need no light of lamp or sun” since “the Lord God [is your] light” (Revelation 22:3, 5) – and then to be blessed to go forth in service of the body of Christ, knowing that you have just that many new friends praying for you, working with you, helping you to solidify and guide your call and your mission.

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“Because they say that communion is perfect and eternal, but we know communion to be messy and awesome.” Rev. Joseph Castañeda Carrera, from Los Angeles mission start ADORE-LA.

Come see what that multitude of every tribe and nation, gender and sexuality, ability and disability, height and size and woof and warp looks like.

From their bounty, come and take some of their healing leaves for your soul, your body…

…and taste the sweet fruit that is the love of God, given to you from their loving, faithful hands.

RESOURCES

If you’d like more info about future base community trainings, are interested in donating to our work, or just want to chat with #decolonizeLutheranism and see what we’re about, email us at decolonizelutheranism@gmail.com and let’s start talking!

The Gospel in Solentiname – Ernesto Cardenal “In Solentiname, a remote archipelago in Lake Nicaragua, the people gathered each Sunday to reflect together on the gospel reading. From recordings of their dialogue, this extraordinary document of faith in the midst of struggle was composed.” An excellent read into the inner workings of a base community in Nicaragua during some of the darkest days of their struggles in the 1970s.

Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World – Rev. Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel A wonderful mix of reflection and praxis, much of what Pastor Salvatierra talked about during the training was also mentioned in this book. So if you want to get a bit more insight into how she leads base community trainings, and the kinds of things base communities do, this text is a good place to begin.

A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation – Elizabeth Conde-Frazier and S. Steve Kang A popular work co-authored by Dr. Conde-Frazier’s, it mixes research and data with personal stories about working in and creating multicultural spaces. Both her and S. Steve Kang have much to share.

CITATIONS

[1] Dr. Angela Cowser, professor of sociology of religion at Garrett Evangelical Theological School in Evanston, IL lectured on congregationally-based community organizing in the Methods for a Public Church l course on Tuesday afternoon and introduced this concept using Nehemiah, 1-8.

[2] I Cor 3:6.

 


11062145_10152973497325213_4921417369076653093_nBefore coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and travels the country as one of the central leaders of #decolonizeLutheranism.

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What it’s All About – Francisco Herrera, Ph.D. student, LSTC

ThomasLinda sittingEvery so often the Church gets so stagnant, and human beings so ornery, that the Holy Spirit can’t help but step up and raise some mischief. Inspired by a series of internet memes and only six months old, the #decolonizeLutheranism movement is quickly becoming a national force in the efforts of countless Lutherans to make their churches truly accepting and loving of everyone. One of #decolonizeLutheranism’s early adopters, Francisco Herrera, shares not only a brief take on the theology of #decolonizeLutheranism, but even a simple overview of the movement’s first revival, ##decolonize16, completed this past Saturday. It is a simple, eloquent, and inspiring read. So take it in, comment, and share, friends.

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


“So what is this #decolonizeLutheranism thing about,  anyway?”

I get this a lot.

My first response is usually, “It’s about creating a Christian community where no one has to prove to anyone else that they’re a human being, let alone a child of God.” Because, really, at bottom, that is what this is about. So many of us are through with being “issues” or “problems” or “too much/too soon/too fast” and not Children of God.

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Because if you’re a seminarian of color who has heard things like…

 “You’re not a real Lutheran.” “You black people may clap in church, but not us!” “That wasn’t a Lutheran ordination. People were talking while the pastor was preaching!”

…When ethnocentric comments like these are made you are precisely being told that you’re not a human being, let alone a child of God.

Or if you’re a pastor or lay leader who is LGBTQ and you hear…

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 “How can a gay pastor marry a straight couple?” “They’re calling us ‘the gay church’!” “We didn’t have financial problems before our church accepted the gays.”

…at some point you start to believe the lies and the Devil rubs his hands with fiendish glee as cracks deepen and spread through your once-solid faith.

And women pastors and seminarians? Pshaw…

“All women pastors are just lesbians who want to be men.” “Your husband approves?!” “You can’t wear a dress like that – it’s too risque for a seminarian.” “What does your husband think?”

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@TrybalPastor, aka Rev. Kwame Pitts, welcoming in a capacity crowd of 203 people.

So in order to purge themselves of so much filth and ick, while all-the-same moved by the Holy Spirit and hopeful for the future of Lutheranism in the United Sates, 203 beautiful souls from all over the United States converged here in Chicago (on the campus of the Lutheran School for Theology at Chicago) for one glorious day of challenge and refreshment, sharing the theologies and melodies of Lutheran voices known by a precious few.

And they stayed in this familiar, but ever-modulating choir all day long.

All day long.

We had songs from Mexico and Pakistan and the United States and Germany. We had piñatas – decked in the fullest of Roy G. Bivs – to teach us that, though pleasant to the eye, that sin needs to be destroyed – and that sin’s destruction is sweet to the taste. There were drums – oh yes – there were lots of drums, and maracas, and a cajon – and a poet who mourned that her mocha-brown skin seemed only to be a magnet for bullets for many people.

Then there were stories.

My goodness were there stories! Each of the main presenters told their own stories – about how the church doesn’t really see them, how so many Lutherans revere the Augsburg Confession as if it is Scripture although they don’t do anything it really says or teaches. One of the presenters talked about the day he learned that he was black, another lead a conversation on the Doctrine of Justification accompanied by the song ‘Amazing Grace.’ There were over 30 small groups that shared their stories, talked about what Grace meant to them, what sins they wanted to smash upon the paper skin of that piñata, and an entire assembly sang songs in Urdu and Xhosa as they lamented the ways their own church, that each of them personally, were complicit in racism and violence.

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Because everyone has to pee.

And as I myself stood there – posing the self-same deceptively simple question “What is this?” – I began to realize something. As we came together to ask what this day was all about, with little surprise and boundless joy I realized that, as we were dreaming of what Lutheranism could be and could become, all of us assembled truly and surely became the very church for which we sought. We were a church where a queer woman of color had her call recognized by the community and wasn’t gas-lighted into oblivion. It was a place where a black man could talk about Black Lives Matter – accompanied by loud hoots of acclimation as his face streamed tears of relief. Gender Non-Conforming and Trans folkx had all the harassment-free bathrooms they needed and no one ever asked anyone if they were really Lutheran. No one. Not once. And in that wonderful, wonderful day a special clemency, a fresh conviction, and – yes – an amazing Grace – filled every space of the seminary.

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“I did not feel like preaching in an alb.” Rev. Tuhina Rasche

Because those of us that don’t fit the default white, cis-het, sexist, racist profile of greater Luther-dumb suffer much and suffer long – yes. But, too, we know about justification, Augsburg Confession Article IV, about Grace. Because many of us were forced to walk a different walk, to straighten our hair, our teeth, go on a diet, to swap-out Public Enemy for Vanilla Ice – to do the this, the that, and EVERYTHING in between – only to be reminded once again that being forced to change how and what we do – to believe that we must DO things before we can be loved – only makes us despise ourselves.

But God still loved us as we hated ourselves and strove to conform. God loved us when we loved our rolls, let our hair kink, smiled at the bounce in our step, and raised a black-gloved fist next to ours as we shouted “Fight the power!” because God loves us in our pain, in our us-ness, even when we don’t love us – and ESPECIALLY when others turn our self-love into self-hate. Because Jesus, well, his blood washed away the default settings that Satan is always so keen to sculpt and keep. And through this wond’rous love Christ lifted us all up to eternal life.

And lots of Lutherans seem to have forgotten that.

So the Holy Spirit called #decolonizeLutheranism to remind everyone of this love, yet again. And that’s what we did this past Saturday. All. Day. Long.

All day long.

And it was glorious.

And that’s what we’re all about.


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Before coming to Chicago Francisco Herrera studied classical music (viola and orchestra conducting) in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and then Geneva, Switzerland. After feeling the call to ministry at his home church in Geneva, The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Geneva, he returned to the US to enter seminary in 2005, completing his M.Div. from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2012. Since beginning his Ph.D studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC)  in Fall of 2013, he has also been developing his skills as a seminary instructor, both at LSTC and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. And when he isn’t doing any of those things, polymath and scatterbrain that he is, Francisco likes to write worship and devotional music, blogs at www.loveasrevolution.blogspot.com, tweets at @PolyglotEvangel, and relishes in his duties as the Convener of #decolonizeLutheranism.

 

On Caves and Histories – Joel Morales Cruz, Ph.D.

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Finding what is lost and reclaiming what has been stolen are common themes in Scripture. So imagine if the power and peace and justice when the “things” found or reclaimed are your history, your songs, your memories and songs. LSTC alumnus Joel Cruz, Ph.D. writes about a recent trip he took Puerto Rico, both for the sake of reconnecting with his family’s roots, but also to reclaim history stolen from the people of island – whether by Spanish colonialism or United States imperialism. Read, comment, and share, friends.


Over the Labor Day weekend I had the pleasure of touring the famous Window Caves in Puerto Rico, a four million year old cave system replete with bats and swallows that eventually opens up over a majestic view of the countryside seven hundred feet below.

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Parts of the allure of the caves are the petroglyphs – rock carvings– left by my Taíno ancestors centuries ago. I took a moment to talk to the guide about the indigenous mythology of the earth, and specifically caves, serving as wombs of creation from which the people emerged from darkness into light. It is a worldview found throughout the Americas. From there the conversation took an interesting turn as we spoke of the myth of Taíno extinction and how research into mitochondrial DNA has revealed the survival of the Taíno into modern times. We continued, touching upon the control over history-telling by the colonial powers, first the Spanish and then the United States.

Generations of Puerto Rican children, including those in my family, were taught that the island had no natural resources (despite the fact that agricultural and mining companies were harvesting said resources out in the countryside!) and that Puerto Ricans had no history of their own; that US citizenship was a gift conferred upon the population in 1917 despite not having been “worthy” of it. They were told that Puerto Ricans, unlike the Cubans, never rebelled against the Spanish — the well-known Grito de Lares of 1868 and other smaller revolts notwithstanding. However, in the last several decades those long-taught assumptions have been challenged and Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland have sought to reclaim their history and their contributions to culture, sports, music, art, literature, and religion.

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Museum of the Americas – San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I found an example of this a few days later in the Museum of the Americas, located in the former barracks of the Spanish and US occupying forces in Old San Juan. Its mission is to simply focus on the indigenous and African roots of American history (the continent, not just the US)  in order to make the invisible visible again. Though small, it is nonetheless powerful as it recounts the stories of native resistance and survival to conquest, of the African heartbeat that pulses through our food, music, and arts, of the social and political movements in Puerto Rico that sought dignity and liberation throughout the centuries of colonization – one the museum notes continues into the present day.

The process of reclaiming one’s history is integral both to the sense of identity and to the future survival of any community, especially during times of social, political, and demographic upheaval. This act is so important that the Brazilian theologian, Rubem Alves likened it to a sacrament:

“The historian is someone who recovers forgotten memories and disseminates them as a sacrament to those who have lost the memory. Indeed, what finer community sacrament is there than the memories of a common past, punctuated by the existence of pain, of sacrifice, and of hope? – to recover in order to disseminate. The historian is not an archaeologist of memories. He (sic) is a sower of visions and hope.”

In our efforts to decolonize our own Lutheran backyard it is imperative that we not forget the task of decolonizing our historical memory. As the center of world Christianity continues its southward trek and as the demographics of this country changes, our own tradition should become aware of the role Lutherans have played on the larger global stage as well as the voices and contributions of those who do not reflect an assumed German-Scandinavian background — both as a matter of historical perspective and humility and a recognition of the work God has been doing among communities of color.

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#decolonizeLutheranism

One of the most tangible ways in which congregations are aware of our larger heritage is in our calendar of festivals and commemorations that are printed in our bulletins and websites weekly, marking the women and men who have impacted our tradition and the greater Church. Recovering the sacrament of memory might include an update to our calendar that gives larger place to those from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the ethnic traditions in our country beyond the litany of early church, reformation, and more obscure European names we are accustomed to hearing.

Let us decolonize the calendar.

Additionally, the prayers composed throughout time by other communities as they wrestle with God’s Spirit in the world can help enrich our worship through new words, metaphors, and perspectives. These can, at the same time, bring us closer to the lives and struggles of our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

Let us decolonize the liturgy.

The teaching of church histories in our universities and seminaries can no longer be limited to the long-discredited tale of early Christianity brought into Europe and later into North America some unspoken culmination. Nor can our own Lutheran story be divorced from either the global histories of conquest and exploitation or the struggles of the people who experienced it around the world. Professors of color, women, and sexual minorities will be integral in this task.

Let us decolonize our schools.

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The process of recovering a community’s history is no more about erasing the rich memories of another than the freeing of slaves is about enslaving the former slave-owners.  It entails the liberation of those in power from the lies of domination and nationalism as much as it does the empowering of those on the margins of memory. In this journey together, the biblical motif joins with indigenous theology as we are born out of darkness to gaze upon a brilliant vista of possibility and hope beyond our imaginations.


Joel.jpgJoel Morales Cruz earned his Ph.D. in World Christianity and Mission from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor. Dr. Cruz is the author of The Histories of the Latin American Church: A Handbook and the condensed Histories of the Latin American Church: A Brief Introduction (both Fortress Press, 2014), as well as The Mexican Reformation: Catholic Pluralism, Enlightenment Religion, and the Iglesia de Jesús Movement in Benito Juárez’s Mexico (1859-72) (Wipf & Stock, 2011). He has contributed an essay on the 16th century figure, Bartolomé de Las Casas for Global Perspectives on the Reformation (Eerdmans, Fall 2016) and a chapter on Mainline Protestantism in Latin America for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Latin American Christianity. Dr. Cruz lives with his two dogs in and two cats in Chicago where he is contemplating the subject of his next publication.