My Testimony – Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas

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Me and my mentor during my divinity studies, the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone.

During my second year of theological studies I had a personal and vocational crisis. I began seminary to fulfill my call to ministry that came when I was 12 years old, the same year I began my menstrual cycle. This latter point is very important because it meant that I knew that God knew I was a young girl. My home congregation affirmed me. No one told me that I could not be a pastor because I was a girl.  But, in my second year of seminary, for the first time in my life, people who looked like me questioned my call to ministry. African American male students raised this question and their evidence was found in the bible and church tradition. They were clear that women could not be ordained.

This first experience of sexism was not only extremely painful; it was disorienting because I knew the texts to which they referred: Genesis chapter 2 –“woman was made from man’s side” and so was secondary; Paul in letters to the Ephesian 5:22-24; I Cor 11:3; I Timothy 2: 11-15 basically said that the man was head of the household and women were to be quiet and obedient to her husband. I felt as though I had been check mated by these men, because I believed the bible was authoritative as was tradition.  But, I could not let go of my experience: what about God’s calling of me at the age if twelve. My world fell apart. How could I put together “the word of God” with the “my call by God”?

I decided to do a search for a use-able past and in so doing found an answer that has been incorporated into my life to this day. My embodied strength, wit, and proclivity to speak truth to power is a result of my close relationship to a woman born into slavery, and only freed because of her agency to pick up her bed and walk when her promised freedom was denied.

 

Her slaveholder named her Isabella and like most enslaved black women she did not control her body. She bore 12 children all of whom were sold into slavery so the plantation economy could grow and flourish. Even with all this as part of her everyday life, Isabella remembered the God her mother introduced her to, whose presence was found in the night sky that held the stars connecting her to that divinity and to her mother. Throughout her life she was never alone and in time Isabella heard a call from God to preach.

This God welled up in her on the day of she had expected to be freed from slavery but was told that she had to work several more years. She could not believe that her Christian slaveholder, who she held regard for, would do such a thing. This betrayal and her assurance in the God of her mother is what propelled her under the cover of the awesome dark night to take leave for her assignment to preach God’s word of truth and deliverance. Betrayal led to freedom granted by God and it was not a theoretical freedom but, one of physicality–meaning that her embodied self was freed by God. She packed a few provisions, walked from the plantation, and asked God for a new name. She no longer wanted the name given to her by the slaveholder.

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Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

She desired a new name to signal that she was no longer enslaved and held as property. God answered, “you shall be called Sojourner” and hence forth she no longer answered to the name Isabella.

Living into her new name, Sojourner followed Jesus’ pattern of walking from town to town across this country preaching the good news, offering hope, asking questions, and standing with vulnerable people. She was both an abolitionist and a woman’s rights advocate. Like the prophets and Jesus, she brought a message she was compelled to preach grounded in the truth of the Triune God. She raised questions about God presence in the activities of Christians who practiced chattel slavery and later spoke about women’s equality with men. She responded to anyone who attempted to limit the authority vested in her by God to preach about the relationship between and among those with structural power and those without such power.

When people wanted to know her “full name,” Sojourner asked God “to give her a handle for her name” and the response from God was “Truth.”  This new name, Sojourner Truth, sealed her divine identity and added strength to her gait as she missioned from place to place. It was unusual for a black woman–to freely walk and preach God’s word, but who else could it have been more fitting than a black woman–one who had been scorned and abused, spit upon and reviled and discounted by the authorities of her day (read her famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech here).

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A drawing depicting Sojourner Truth preaching.

This woman Sojourner Truth is my spiritual mother. I have been to her grave site and she continues to mentor me always steering me in the direction of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

So why do I mention this now?

Have you been watching the news this past week?

The president of the United States of America denigrated three African American women reporters in one week – women who were simply doing their job by asking appropriate questions on behalf of the American people to hold him accountable.

Are you aware that two Muslim women were elected to Congress, despite the way that as candidate and president used his power to discriminate against Muslims?

Did you note that two Native women were also elected to Congress, just weeks after voting privileges were essentially stripped from Native communities in North Dakota, also won seats in Congress, and one in one of the most conservative states in the country?

Not to mention the slew of female veterans who are going to Congress – Democrat and Republican alike – who have signed a pledge among them to always be bipartisan in their workings with each other?

Sojourner Truth is perched, among the great cloud of witnesses, hiding in the invisible brush that separates her world from ours – and looks upon all of us, strong black women and Muslim women and Native women, approvingly nodding her head with contentment and pride.

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She calls us to remember Hagar, the Egyptian, who with her son Ishmael was sent to die in the wilderness, but was saved by God, she names and told that her son would become a great nation (Genesis 16 and 21:9-20). She encourages us to recall the Syrophoenician woman who was scorned and mocked and clapped-back because she knew the life of her daughter was on the line (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). And of course, we harken back to Mary Magdalene – who witnessed the Crucifixion and was the first person to see Jesus post-resurrection, (although the disciples did not believe her) and was supported by Jesus despite the despicable things people said about her being a prostitute of which there is no evidence in the Gospels (Matthew 27:55-61, 28:1-10; Mark 15:40-47, 16:1-11; Luke 8:1-3, 24:1-12; John 19:25, 20:1-18).

And they’re all there, waving us on.

So we needn’t, and shan’t, fear.

Not then, not now, not ever.

Amen.


fontDr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.

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Identity Crisis – Rev. Mauricio Vieira

IMG_4512After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, we have returned to our series honoring Hispanic/Latinx Heritage month – and this new post is truly a curious one. Written by Rev. Mauricio Vieira, a naturalized US-citizen from Brazil serving in rural Illinois, it is a poignant reflection on how being a “white-passing” Latino immigrant has been problematic. Read, comment, and share!

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


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Colorism in the Latino community – see video here.

Peace, sisters, and brothers, be with you from our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. How should I describe my journey as a Latino ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Four words come to mind: post-adolescence identity crisis. 

Allow me to explain.

It all began in the year 2000. My wife Ana and I were somewhat fresh living in the United States and working as life sciences scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One day someone working for the census bureau stops by, and Ana answers the door. There was a mistake with our census information. We had marked white. Ana looks at the inside of her forearms and all the veins visible through her ashen skin, gives the person a very puzzled look, and asks flat out, what do you mean?

The unfazed person then answered, “Sorry, you are not American.”

See, in spite of being born and raised in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Ana and I are white as white comes. We are designated as white in our birth-land. Without relying on the precision of DNA tests, Ana is 100% Portuguese. I am more or less 70% Portuguese, 15% Italian, and 15% French – pure Caucasian blood unless proven otherwise by modern science. Therefore, without thinking, Ana just went with the motions and checked the box that said, white. I confess that the fact that someone had come back in an official capacity to knock on our door to correct the “mistake” gave me pause. I went on to learn much more from that point on.

As a consequence of my pure whiteness, I can claim to myself the colonizer heritage mentioned by Nicole Garcia in this blog. Our ancestors, the Portuguese, did pretty much the same stuff that was done in the rest of the Americas, plus one small devilish detail. We invented the concept of go to Africa, kidnap people, and ship them as cattle to a foreign land to live lives of slavery – the British took over the business later. This is a heritage that is not oblivious to me, nor my wife, nor my two sons.  Ana and I, we own it, and since the time we were college students, each one of us on their own path, and then together, have worked and stood against the prevailing racial injustices that happen in Brazil.

Contrary to North American perception, Brazil is a very racist country, and I have benefited from its systems of racism. That privilege allowed me to come to the United States legally, to be offered a job, to become a permanent resident, and then, later on, a citizen.

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Nonetheless, like most Latinos, due to the excessive number of vowels in my name, which can be typical of Latin-derived names, combined with my place of birth, I was introduced to stereotyping very early. A lot of it can be dissipated in the science field. Flagship State University towns and work environments tend to be melting pots, including biology labs. Therefore, one’s accent and culture does not necessarily carry the same weigh in the power structure because this is what is important: can you generate data and get funding? If one can, ethnicity does not matter as much.  Even so, there were moments when, despite my qualifications and expertise, I lived the typical Latino experience in America, that is, almost always misinterpreted, often distrusted, seldom heard.

However, nothing had yet prepared me for the reality of the North American relationship systems outside the science “bubble.”

Seminary for me was brutal. I checked most of the handicap boxes, a second career, full-time, commuter, husband of a wife with a full-time job, father of two kids in elementary school, international student.  My perceived privilege – and physical strength – was shattered by mid-October during the fall semester of my first year. I made it, but I have scars.

I get it now what took me some time to figure out. In white North American Anglo-Saxon systems, solidarity and respect are earned, especially if you are perceived as a person of color – now you can see where this is getting twisted. I come from a system where there is an expectation of solidarity and respect out of the gate – at least if one is Caucasian – which is lost if you prove otherwise over time.  Therefore, when it came to the “real” world outside labs and conference rooms, acceptance was upside down to me, as it was paper styles. In life sciences, the conclusions are the last paragraphs. It took me a “D” to figure out that in human sciences the conclusion comes first. The seminary professor for whom I actually wrote that commented that it was upside down.

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Latinxs talking about the pain and frustration of being seen as “white.”

But I digress.

So, there I was. On the one hand, male, Caucasian and privileged for some, and therefore steward of powers that now I know I have, but that I never claimed or wanted. On the other, Latino, foreigner, heavy accent, perceived as a person of color for others – even if one can still see the veins on my arms – and therefore almost always misinterpreted, often distrusted, seldom heard. It was a mess.

Who was I supposed to be in God’s beloved creation!?

I know it sounds dramatic, but I have many mundane and shocking examples to share. However, since I am mindful of the number of words suggested to me by my friend Francisco Herrera, I will mention only three.

There was this day in CPE small groups that a colleague told me out of the blue that she did not know what it was, but my presence alone was stressful to her. I wonder if she got confused by a big Caucasian male who acts like a Latino. Then there was the day when we were on a candidacy retreat, and I had volunteered to set up the worship space, only to hear a fellow person of color tell another that he was sticking around “to make sure our international student (yours truly) knew what he was doing.” By the way, that was after one of the internship supervisors in the retreat approached the organizer and offered to set up the worship space in my place, only to hear that I was the one assigned to do it.

Now comes the cherry on top.

Once I was attending one of the classes on Science and Religion and it happened that the speaker was presenting something about my country of birth, out of a website, that I knew to be, let’s say, scientifically incorrect. The speaker had no idea that sitting in the audience was not only a life scientist with a doctorate but also a native of the same country. Credentials enough, right? Nope, comments dismissed, even after the such were presented. Apparently, I did not know enough about my own country.

One can’t make this up!

I can certainly say, however, that not everything in this crazy and awesome life of serving Christ through God’s people has been annoying our upsetting for this Latino pastor and preacher. I have met classmates, teachers, colleagues, and parishioners who have made this journey absolutely a blessing. The support of my home congregation of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, IL. My friends from St. Andrew Lutheran Church and Campus Center, who welcomed my services during my time in Ministry In Context. My supervisor and the people of Grace Lutheran Church in Champaign, IL, who taught me more than I deserved during my internship, especially my beloved confirmation class. My candidacy committee, who accompanied and prayed for me along the way. Those from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Cullom, IL, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Chatsworth, IL, who have embraced me as their proclaimer, teacher, and pastor. I don’t have space to name all of you. But, you know who you are I would not have done without you; and I continue to do it for you. I love you all.

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Me and my family

So, here is my message to you, fellow Latinos who may be pursuing ministry, or to anyone who is not cookie cutter and feels like always having to justify why you are in such path…

By the way, it is a minimized version of the crude and lousy sermon that I preached on the before mentioned candidacy retreat. It goes like this. When one goes into my country to buy salt, one will find only one kind, which is cooking salt. It can be either coarse or finely ground but cooking salt, nonetheless.  In this country, there are a variety of salts, sometimes on the same shelf. There is water softening salt, salt to melt ice, rock salt, salt for ice cream machines. Besides the ordinary cooking salt, there is Kosher salt, sea salt, garlic salt, onion salt, celery salt, and Himalayan pink salt.

So remember, you too were called to be the salt of the earth. Figure it out what kind of salt God has made out of you, for this time and this place, and never, ever, let anyone take your saltiness away.

“[The God who abundantly poured grace upon you] may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:16-19).

Amen.


mo.jpgPastor Mauricio Vieira was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and became an American Citizen. He is a former life scientist with a Ph.D. in Cell Biology by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He obtained his Master of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Home is currently in Cullom, IL, with his wife Ana, sons Logan and Dominick – all culprits in this ministry – and puppies Gus and Molly.  He is currently the called Pastor to St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cullom, IL and St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chatsworth, IL.

Coal and Poverty – Robin Lovett, ​M.Div. student LSTC

fontIt is no surprise to mention how growing up in poverty can greatly limit the quality of one’s future life. There are reduced opportunities to pursue education, jobs don’t pay as well, and the many systems and cycles that make life hard for your seem to be insurmountable. What we don’t often talk about, however, is how pollution is also something that disproportionately impacts the poor. This week’s author, Robin Lovett, talks about this in today’s post – at the end inviting everyone to contribute their energies to the cause of renewable foods in the United States. Read, comment, and share!

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


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I spent the last summer as a hospital chaplain during one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. I provided spiritual and emotional care for patients and their families, and I was assigned to my hospital’s two pediatric units. As a chaplain for a pediatric intensive care unit in a non-trauma hospital, I gratefully did not see many of my patients die. I saw young people of all ages with a variety of grave illnesses, from the tiniest, premature babies recovering from open-heart surgery to twenty-something year-olds suffering from childhood cancers. In the three months I interned as a chaplain, I only witnessed the deaths of two children.

Both died of asthma attacks.

The first was a teenage boy named Alexander, but his family called him Xander. He suffered a major asthma attack, which led to cardiac arrest, which led to brain death. He was on my unit for nearly a week before life-sustaining care was ended. In the days leading up to his death, I learned so much about this boy. He was an athlete at a high-performing school in Chicago. He always had friends around him, and he was always making others smile and laugh. His mother proudly told me about how Xander would spend time with the kids no one else wanted to be around – the bullied kids or the new kids. Similarly, Xander would often bring home abandoned animals to take care of them, like baby birds or lost dogs. His heart, the same one that could not withstand his asthma attack, was big.

The second boy was only eight, and his name was Trey. He had special needs and was non-verbal at baseline. Though he didn’t use words, his parents told me Trey nonetheless would always make sure you knew how he felt – and he was generally happy and excited in his young life. He loved Sponge Bob; he loved to play with his sisters, who adored him. Trey was surrounded by love and tenderness and he returned love and tenderness to the world.

Xander and Trey were very different from each other in life, but their deaths have so much in common – both with each other’s and with thousands of Americans every year who die of asthma attacks. Both Trey and Xander were black and both were from the Chicagoland area, a fact which reflects that asthma rates are highly disparate between different ethnic and geographic communities. Namely, poor children are most likely to die from asthma, especially those children who live in monetarily impoverished areas or children of color, wherever they might live.

And while these two children remain foremost in my memory because of their deaths, I had dozens of children on my unit who were hospitalized because of their severe asthma, most of whom were black.

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A coal-fired power-plant in South Carolina.

The disparate rates of asthma depending on where you live, your class, and your race reflect the reality that asthma is not a tragic happenstance – asthma is a man-made disease. Asthma, which kills more than three-thousand six hundred people every year, is created by our collective lack of regard for the natural environment. It is caused by our willingness to pollute the air we breathe. Xander and Trey didn’t die randomly and we, collectively, could have prevented their deaths.

So when I read the Trump administration’s analysis of its own proposed deregulations on coal-burning power-plants, in the so-called “Affordable Clean Energy rule,” my stomach sank. By their own estimates, these deregulations will cost 1,400 lives annually and result in up to 15,000 new cases of upper-respiratory disease. These numbers do not reflect the additional 48,000 cases of asthma caused by the Affordable Clean Energy rule, nor have I yet mentioned the additional deaths and illnesses which would be caused by other efforts of environmental deregulation by the Trump Administration. This was most assuredly predicted by the Trump Administration: coal plants are some of this nation’s largest emitters of mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide, so the fact that they’re deadly is no surprise. These efforts do not present a goodwill effort at reducing your home’s energy bill by the Trump Administration, but instead show a calculated effort to determine how many lives coal is worth.

 It’s hard to imagine what those numbers mean when you read them from the comfort of your desk; it’s all too easy to imagine what they mean when you’ve met and mourned children like Xander and Trey.

This was not the first time I have encountered deaths resulting from pollution. As a native Tennessean who considers East Tennessee my home, I was already all too familiar with pollution-related deaths. While many Americans might see few connections between rural, (mostly) white Appalachia and urban, racially diverse Chicago, both areas suffer greatly from poor health as a direct result of environmental degradation. Progressive massive fibrosis (better known as “black lung disease”) is known as a coal miners’ disease; COPD, another lung disease, is far more common in Appalachia than anywhere else in the country, and the biggest contributing factor to this is air quality and exposure to coal dust. Finally, lung cancer is most deadly in Appalachia. Air pollution, caused significantly by coal, is literally killing the people of Appalachia.

Another similarity between my home in Appalachia and the black Chicagoan children I cared for?

Poverty.

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Though across the US the poverty rate hovers at around 15%, it is 34% among black Chicagoans. In Appalachia, the poverty rate is about 20%, and many of the nation’s poorest counties are situated in these mountains. Nationally, the people living near coal plants have an average income of less than $19,000 a year, and many of them are people of color.

The deaths of black children in Chicagoland may seem like a far cry from the deaths of white coal miners and their families in Appalachia, but they point to the same truth: the true cost of polluting our air is the deaths of the most vulnerable people in our country, whether they be children of color in urban areas or workers in the hollers of the Smokey Mountains.

It’s impossible to say whether Xander and Trey died as a direct result of pollution, and even more difficult to say definitively if these deaths resulted from our use of coal. Climate scientists have been reticent to ascribe climate change or pollution as the cause of any one death. But, we do know that the actions of the Trump Administration will cause more deaths like Xander’s and Trey’s, and that these same deregulations will cause more intense suffering in Appalachia. When we fail to protect our natural environment, we inevitably fail to care for the least of these among us.

The cost of coal – the deaths of both the urban and rural poor – is far too high. We must move away from this deadly and dirty source of energy if we claim to care for the lives of the poor and disenfranchised in our midst. We must begin to care about climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation of any kind. Fighting back against the Trump Administration’s deregulation of the coal industry can be a first step, but it must be the first of many steps towards environmental justice.

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(Written public comments on the “Afford Clean Energy Plan” can be submitted to the EPA until October 31st. Submit one online here.)

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photoRobin Lovett  is an M.Div. student and a Public Church Fellow at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her sermons and writings can be found at robinlovettowen.com

“Who do you say that I am?” a Refelction on Laquan McDonald and Jesus – Rev. Erik Christensen

Dr TIn life, one of the hardest things that anyone can do is try to answer the question, “Who am I?” Compounding this, too, is the fact that despite what we say about ourselves there are countless others willing to say who we really are, and are willing to do so with violence. This week’s reflection, written by LSTC’s pastor for the community and Dean of Worship Erik Christensen, is a profound exploration of Jesus’ question “Who do people say that I am?” in the context of the horrific murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald – whose killer, Jason VanDyke, is going to trial this week (for a transcript of this sermon, click here – to hear the SoundCloud recording, click here). Read it. Comment on it, and share it. 

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


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Laquan McDonald in a family photo

The trial of Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot and killed Laquan McDonald four years ago here in Chicago, began this week. For those of us who have lived here in Chicago for some time, or who have been following the story of endemic police violence against black and brown bodies nationally, the details of this case are old news. But for those who may be new to this country, or just awakening to this issue, the details in brief are these:

Laquan McDonald was born on September 25, 1997. If here were still alive, he would have celebrated his 21st birthday this week. But he is not alive because, on the night of October 20, 2014 he was fatally shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Police had been called to investigate reports of a person breaking into vehicles at a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare, about 11 miles from here just off the Stevenson Expressway, north of Midway Airport.

When officers confronted Laquan, he used a knife with a 3-inch blade to slice the tire of a patrol car and damage the windshield. Initial reports by the police department said that he lunged at Officer Jason Van Dyke, forcing him to shoot Laquan in self-defense. This was the accepted story for almost a year, until video taken by a police car dashboard camera was released, clearly showing that 17 year-old McDonald was walking away from the police officers when he was shot, 16 times in 15 seconds.

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Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago at the time of McDonald’s killing, and Officer Jason VanDyke

The tale of how that dashboard video got released is a story all its own, and worth taking the time to learn. It involves a $5 million payout to Laquan’s family that wasn’t settled until the day after Mayor Rahm Emanuel secured re-election to his second term, and continued protests that built into a movement calling for the resignation of the city’s top officials. Eventually police superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, and Cook County’s State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her bid for re-election. There is speculation that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term is connected to the timing of this trial coming just as Chicago’s mayoral race is heating up.

Chicago Public Radio has created a podcast titled 16 Shots that goes deep into the facts surrounding Laquan’s death, and explores how the police killing of this one young man set off a series of events that led to the United States Department of Justice conducting a civil rights investigation that resulted in a public report in which the Chicago Police Department was described as having a culture of “excessive violence,” a “culture in which officers expect to use force and never be carefully scrutinized about the propriety of that use,” especially when used against minorities, an assessment supported by the fact that Chicago Police are 14 times more likely to use force against young black men than against their white counterparts.

But I feel like I’m getting off track here. I’m supposed to be talking about Jesus.

Oh, right, so I was listening to the podcast, 16 Shots, and was struck by the fact that of all the places the journalists might have chosen to begin their reporting on this story, they began with a clip of an interview with the Rev. Marshall Hatch, Sr., pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, who — along with other black clergy from Chicago’s south and west sides — was called into the mayor’s office and asked for support in quelling the rising tensions immediately after the video footage of Laquan’s killing was released.

These clergy were told in no uncertain terms that if they did not help out, they should not expect support from city hall when they came with requests of their own.

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Rev. Marshall Hatch, Sr.

In that same meeting, Pastor Hatch learned that Laquan had been raised in foster care from the age of three, bounced from home to home, diagnosed with learning disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder rooted in the brutality and trauma of growing up on the streets. Reflecting theologically on these facts, Pastor Hatch told the reporter…

“That’s when I knew we had moved into a real spiritual realm with this piece … and as a pastor, to me, that’s divine poetry. ‘Cuz he’s a throwaway person if ever there was one. That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away. And it was pretty explosive after that, as the ministers kind of said, ‘Look, we’re not making any guarantees. It’s not our job to go and tamp down a situation that you guys have created.’”

That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away.

Are we talking about Jesus yet?

This past Sunday, the Church throughout the world gathered for worship and many heard the except from the eighth chapter of Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and follows this up with, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers him, “You are the Messiah.”

The daily lectionary selects passages that support our reflection on the meaning of the Sunday texts, setting them in conversation with other biblical voices so that we can more readily perceive the conversation going on in scripture about questions like these. So, today we hear a related conversation taking place in the gospel of John, as “some of the people of Jerusalem” speculate about Jesus’ identity, wondering with one another whether or not the authorities have actually determined that Jesus is, in fact, the messiah.

This passage is the only time where “the people of Jerusalem” appear as a group in John’s gospel. They appear to be different from “the crowds” that Jesus has been addressing, who may be pilgrims to Jerusalem, there during the Festival of Booths. In the verses immediately preceding this passage, Jesus says to the crowd, “Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” And the crowd replies, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?”

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Jesus perceives correctly that his movement is setting him in opposition to the reigning power structures, and that he is a marked man. The crowds, less schooled in the politics of Jerusalem, doubt Jesus. “The people of Jerusalem,” however, knew how power worked in Jerusalem. They understood how the religious authorities operated when it came to exposing false messiahs, so they knew that Jesus’ life was most definitely at risk.

They say, “Isn’t this the one they want to kill?” because they know that’s how the system works, to eliminate all voices of dissent. “And here he is, speaking freely, and they have nothing to say to him! Can it be true that the authorities have made up their minds that this is the Messiah?”

So here we have finally returned to the question from Mark’s gospel, the question that ties these readings together, the question Jesus puts to his disciples, and to us, “Who do you say that I am?” It is a question that forces us to examine our expectations of God, who God is and how God moves in time and space. Is God a divine conqueror, the sovereign of a heavenly empire? Is God an ineffable wisdom,  the truest of realities hiding in plain sight? Is God a righteous avenger, upending worlds and effecting regime change? Who is God, and how does God show up in the world?

We all have our explicit and implicit expectations about who God is, and how God will show up in the world. The people of Jerusalem say, “Yet we all know where this fellow comes from, but when the Messiah comes, no one will know that one’s origins.”

The story begins working in irony at this point, because the people of Jerusalem have named their expectation for God’s messiah, that that one will have unknown origins. Jesus cannot be the messiah, because they know exactly where he is from, Nazareth in Galilee, not Bethlehem — at least, not in John’s gospel — the expected site for a messiah in the Davidic model of warrior kings.

The irony is that Jesus actually meets their expectations, his origins are unknown to them, because he has been sent by “the One who is true.” He is, to use John’s earlier words, “the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] not one thing came into being. What has come into being in [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

This is John’s answer to the conversation Jesus started in Mark. Who do you say that I am, John? And John replies, “You are the Word. You are the life that is the light of all people. The light that shines in the darkness, that has not been overcome. The Word that became flesh and lived among us.”

This is why the people of Jerusalem cannot recognize Jesus as the messiah at first, because they cannot conceive that God would take on human flesh in time and space, in history and in politics, in the dying mess of human relations and the decay of human bodies. In children shot down in the street and hung from crosses.

That would have to be the one that God would have to put in the center, the name that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

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In this way, John’s gospel responds to Mark, asking a new question of those looking for a messiah. John poses from the first chapter, “And who do you think you are? Children of God?”

It is a question we must grapple with. Our desire to deny that name, child of God, to those we hate, those who oppress us. Our habit of denying that name to ourselves, in our own self-hatred and self-doubt. The evidence of history, the way that all our hate of self and other has laid the foundation for systems of violence that seem eternal. Yet, the gospel truth is that the Word of God, shining in the darkness, has not been overcome and, one day, it shall be that same Word that overcomes.

That is who we say Jesus is, the Word, co-eternal with God, the Word that creates, the Word that overcomes. The Word that somebody else thinks is worth throwing away. That is the truth we bear in our hearts and on our lips, even in moments when it seems that truth and justice themselves are on trial.


headshot professional (large)Pastor Erik Christensen serves as Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship at LSTC. He joined the staff this last after previously serving as the redevelopment pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square (Chicago) for the past eleven years.

Pray and Work – Rev. Dr. Katrina Foster

fontTasked with the role of ministering in a church that is 96% white,  any pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is a person of color other than white  has a special role to play. They have a two-fold job – to change the structures of the church and society that keep people of color at risk, as well as doing what they can to protect and defend people of color wherever they are at risk. The Rev. Dr. Katrina Foster – pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, NY reflects on this reality with a mix of personal anecdote, riffs on the apostle Paul, and how combating white supremacy needs to be a top priority for all white Christians. This has been a crucial part of her ministry, and her observations are as poignant as they are jarring. So 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.”


My honorary daughter called me from Chicago recently. My ringer was turned off. I was in a training for an anti-racism curriculum to be included in the Diakonia class I teach. She tried Whatsapp and texted me. When I turned my phone during our lunch break, I saw all the activity.

I called her back. Usually when we talk, it is very substantial, but also fun, funny and easy.

When she answered the phone, I knew she was scared.

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She told me about a disturbed man who came to the church where she works. She’s not yet ordained, but she was the closest thing to a pastor there that day.

So she met with him, listened as he described the storms in his mind and all that scared him. She listened as he said he had a gun in his car.

She got the gun away from him.

And now, she was calling because she was scared, not of the man or even the gun. She was terrified of what could happen if she, a young woman of color, called the police to ask them to come get it.

She called around and I did too, to find a white, male pastor who could call the police and facilitate the hand over of the gun. It felt like it took forever. I was ready to fly from New York to Chicago to do it myself.

Lest you think she had no reason to be afraid as a woman of color with a gun, please remember Philando Castile was in legal possession of a handgun and was shot and killed while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four year old daughter.

Remember, Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times when he tried to pull his wallet out to show the police his identification when they mistook him for a rape suspect.

Remember, Stephon Clark who was killed in his grandparents backyard when police thought he had a weapon. He did not.

 

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In my nearly 24 years of ordained ministry, I have had many occasions to call the police, usually my local precinct, to come get a weapon or drugs I had taken from someone or that had been given to me. Not once did it occur to me that the police might think I was doing something illegal. Not once did it occur to me that I would be accused of breaking the law.

Not once did it occur to me that I could be seen as a threat. Not once.

That is the very definition of white privilege. As a little, white, middle aged woman, I am not seen as a threat. I am not assumed to be guilty of anything. I have never been afraid of the police. I enjoy all the benefits and privileges of citizenship.

My honorary daughter could not assume she would be safe. She could not assume she would be seen as innocent. She could not assume she would not be shot. She is a well educated, thoughtful, powerful, amazing law abiding American born citizen of this country. None of this would guarantee her safety. Long ago, she was convicted in the womb and must prove her innocence always.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman draws out the primary contextual difference between Jesus and Paul. The difference was Paul was a Roman citizen, Jesus was not.  Paul “was of a minority but with majority privileges.”

I have often puzzled over Paul’s promotion of government as it is. His urging of people who were slaves to remain in that position and not rebel seemed out of character when set side by side with his radical theology of inclusion and recognition of women in leadership roles.

For most of my life I simply assumed Paul favored the status quo, government as it simply is, etc., because he expected Jesus to come back very soon. Why bother changing the world, systems of oppression, if Jesus was coming back any moment now?

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I think that mindset was probably true. His life as a Roman citizen and the privileges afforded him made him more comfortable under Roman rule. His fellow non-Roman citizen Jews chafed and rebelled under this oppression and had no expectations of benefits or blessings from the government.

I have been thinking about this difference between Paul and Jesus as I have been reflecting upon what happened to my kid. We are both American citizens, we are both baptized, we are both well educated, strong, and on and on.

The color of my skin affords me the full blessings and benefits that white citizens expect. The color of her skin puts her in danger first, makes her suspect, makes it less likely she will be afforded the blessings and benefits of citizenship.

I failed Greek the first time I took the class in seminary during the summer intensive. I barely passed my second attempt. But, I did fall in love with some Greek words, one in particular: metanoia, μετάνοια.

Metanoia is often translated “repent.” There is another meaning which is to change how one looks at things, to change one’s mind. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.

When I studied sociology as an undergraduate student and took classes in subjects like Race and Ethnicity, Social Stratification and Criminology, I was able to begin questioning the lies I was raised with about white superiority and the inferiority of all others.

When in seminary and I learned about biblical criticism and sat through lectures that tore apart my simple faith and replaced it with a real relationship with Christ, I was equipped to question our role is systemic racism and misogyny and a social religion that kept god on our side over and against all that I was raised to fear.

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When I began serving my first call in the Bronx, I saw the transformative power of faith in the lives of everyday, kitchen table saints.  I experienced the renewing power of worship in our lives together. I came to understand I could not go back to old ways of thinking and believing. I could no longer have a pocket sized, MAGA Jesus. I needed this poor, Palestinian, iterent Jewish Rabbi whom I came to believe is the Messiah.

I needed this non-citizen of the Roman Empire who changed the world, created hope, healed, fed, led and called us to go and  make disciples of all nations.

I needed Paul at his best when he taught us to trust in the one “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

I needed to metanoia, to change the way I looked at the world and the way I thought.

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I must try to convince you and continue to convince myself, that we are called to speak, to work, to pray, to labor and to make justice.

I must convince you and continue to be convinced myself that the world can be different than what it is right now. I must convince you and continue to believe for myself that we are better together than apart. I must continue to convince you that my kid’s body matters because Black Lives Matter.

I must keep praying and working, and hoping and believing. “Not talking about race does not make the matter of race disappear. It only sustains the culture of race that continues to take the lives of our children.” (p. 227 Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Kelly Brown Douglas)

After the white male pastor came and got the gun to the police, and I knew my kid was safer, I went to my church to do some more work. I sat at my desk to something, but I could not sit and read, or reflect.

I went and laid in front of the altar, staring up at the Crucifixion/Lynching scene, staring at the angels on the ceiling. Screamed and sobbed in rage at Jesus. Seethe prayed at God who knew what it was to have a child murdered by the state.

I have no happy ending to this essay, no answer to these omnipresent yet invisible reaches of systemic injustice and racism, no way to let us off the hook.

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This is what I have, clarity that God is still calling us to DO  JUSTICE, LOVE KINDNESS AND WALK HUMBLY. Clarity that when we pray THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH, that is a command we are called to follow. Clarity that the most frequent command in scripture, DO NOT BE AFRAID, is still spoken by angels to us in the midst of all that is too big.

I do not have certainty of how to fix all that is wrong, I have clarity that we, Jesus people, are called in the church and without, to not give up and to hold onto hope.

Friends, no matter what, be encouraged, pray and work.


20180802_115940.jpgKatrina D. Foster earned a B.A. in Religion/Philosophy and Sociology from Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. She earned  a Master’s of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. She earned a Doctorate of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, May, 2008, focusing on Stewardship and Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Now in her third decade of ministry in both the parish and the street, she began serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, Greenpoint, Brooklyn –  where her work was the focus of an award-winning short documentary by The Front entitled “Working Women: The Urban Pastor.”  And since May of this year, Pastor Foster will be one of the presenters in the PBS series The Great American Read – presenting 1984 by George Orwell.

White Christianity and the New Reformation – Rev. Kenneth Wheeler

thomaslinda-sittingTo be black and Christian can be a hard proposition these days – especially when you’re a black pastor in a denomination that is not only 96% percent white, but living in a country where 81% of some of the most devoted white Christians in this country voted for a presidential candidate that consistently mocks your community. Rev. Kenneth Wheeler, an august and respected pastor in the ELCA, shares some thoughts on how the confrontation of racism within the church may well be the task of the next Reformation in our communities. Read, comment, and share.

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


“Fear takes away a person’s humanity. This is not what the creature made by God looks like. The Bible, The Gospel, Christ, The Church, The Faith- All are one great Battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. We who believe in Jesus must no fear, because we have heard the good tidings of the Arrival of a new political regime: The Kingdom of God. We are all patriots of a different homeland.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1933

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Slave auction block – Greenhill Plantation, Virginia

102 years after the Reformation the first slaves were brought to America. And every institution in America, including the Church, was impacted by this scandal.

A New Reformation

A few months ago I spoke at an event in Milwaukee in commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It began as a theological movement by a young monk whose name was Martin Luther. He would speak to his Church, the Roman Catholic Church, that had shackled the Gospel in the trappings of tradition and “works righteousness” – making the claim that one’s good works could earn salvation.

Specifically the selling of indulgences, a corruption of the sacrament of penance, was a manifestation of the claim of good works. But Luther saw this not only as a perversion of the Gospel, it was in effect another Gospel and  he would come to realize that the Roman Church was wrong.

Then in 1517 Luther would nail his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg -hoping to engage the Church in a theological discussion about the meaning of scripture, the authority of scripture, and the meaning of faith. But instead of a conversation Luther’s actions would stir up a firestorm and the Church that he loved rejected his arguments, saw them as undermining the Church’s authority. So he was labeled  a heretic and in 1521 he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.

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I’ve been thinking a great deal in these last several months about the Church and specifically about the ELCA – a Church that I have been a part of for most of my life, a Church that I know better than any other. A Church that I love and that I served in for 30 years as an ordained Pastor and yet a Church that is still 96 percent white – in part because in the words of Paul Kivel, “Racism is still a central constituent of American life.” The ELCA this predominantly white Church body is a part of this American life.

As we celebrate the 500 year Anniversary of the Reformation I believe that our great work as Evangelical Lutherans  is to reclaim the truth and the freedom that is rooted in the Gospel – truth that calls us to put to death any other claim that we might choose to hold up including the claim of race. We need a new Reformation that calls us to strip away the idolatry of race not just with nice sounding words, but with a commitment to live into the inclusiveness that the Gospel calls us to, even if it means that we lose membership in our current congregations and denominations because they are simply unable to give themselves fully to what the Gospel is demanding.

It was troubling to me and it continues to be troubling that 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted in the last election for a man who rose in the polls offending women, disparaging Immigrants, and spouting racist and vitriolic language. Perhaps, more than anything else, it highlighted the bondage of white Christians and the bondage of the white Christian Church to the idolatry of racism – a bondage that had wrapped Jesus in the white skin of privilege.

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Black preacher in the 19th century south

African slaves brought to our land resisted the Christ of the white slave master because they knew deep down within that the Christ of the slave master was false. The slave masters had co-opted Christ and co-opted God to support their position of racial superiority and of all things white, and this God was silent in the face of the savagery and the cruelty of slavery and the nightmare of Jim Crow segregation.

Yet the slave knew that this vision of God was incongruent and inconsistent with the God they knew to be the God of love, a God who so loved the world that God allowed His Son Jesus to suffer death. Black liberation theologian James Cone writes about this god most eloquently in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, worshiped by Christians who would leave their Sunday service to watch the lynching of a black mana god co-opted by racist fears.

This God came to the aid of Donald Trump, who won the presidency because he exploited the racial fears of whites. It’s also the god of hundreds of once all-white inner city congregations abandoned by their original members as soon as other racial minorities moved into those neighborhoods. To illustrate, an African-American female pastor serving an all white Lutheran congregation in the mid-west, recently shared what happened she invoked the names of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin in her sermon. The congregation’s response…?

“We don’t want to hear any of this Pastor. We just want to remain white and Lutheran.”

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There are many within our Church who share that sentiment but where such sentiment exists Jesus is absent. I don’t mean the Jesus who has been Americanized but the Jesus who is black and who suffers with those who are black and who are rejected because they are despised. This is the Jesus who welcomes all and who makes room for all especially those who have been the outsiders

This is the Jesus who is able to set all of us free.

This is the Jesus who is able to renew His Church

This is the Church that I and so many of us long for.

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wheelerBorn in 1952 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Rev. Kenneth Wheeler later moved to and grew up in Jackson. After graduating from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN in 1974 he would eventually pursue his M.Div Trinity Lutheran Seminary, receiving it in 1982. He has served parishes in Florida, California, and eventually and Milwaukee, Wisconsin – where he served 18 years as Assistant to the Bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA. The last seven 7 years of his career he served as the Senior Pastor of Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, then retired in 2013. He considers himself a student of the theology and ethics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even spending time at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, learning about non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. He’s made multiple trips to Tanzania since 2000, learning about evangelism and church growth, and even co-lead a trip to Israel for 12 days. He is additionally a sought-after speaker an preacher, has had reflections published by Living Lutheran, and Working Preacher, and has received Distinguished Alumni awards from both Concordia College (1995) and Trinity Lutheran Seminary (2012). He and his wife of 42 years, Cloria, are blessed with three sons, two daughter in-laws, and five wonderful grandchildren.

500 Years of Lutheranism – Rev. Ronald Bonner

thomas110_1027092In recent years, this day – the second Monday in October, traditionally used to Celebrate Christopher Columbus’ so-called “discovery of the Americas” – is being more-and-more directed towards giving voice and attention to plight of indigenous people across the globe. However, since the colonialism that lead to the demise of countless indigenous culture on virtually every continent, discussion about confronting white supremacy invariably figure into many of these conversations as well – virtually beckoning the long ignored stories of millions across the globe to finally come forward. The Rev. Ronald Bonner, welcomes us into a similar discussion – reflecting on the presence of racism in the church, the season of Advent, and Lutheran theology. Read, comment, and share.

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


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As a person who was ordained in another tradition I have come to embrace my identity as a Lutheran pastor.  It was Martin Luther, the German monk who began a non-violent conversation that became the first of a series of reformation movements that changed the Catholic Church and the world.  Martin Luther became incensed with the misuse of biblical text and practices by the Catholic Church.  He was appalled at the selling of indulgences to poor people to ensure their afterlife and the afterlife of their dearly departed. This practice that he considered fraudulent served as a fund raiser for the Catholic Church in Rome.  He saw this practice of selling indulgences as a major breach of Christian values and practice. 

About this Luther observed: “They have obscured the teaching concerning sin and have invented a tradition concerning the enumeration of sins which has produced many errors and introduced despair. They have also invented satisfactions, by means of which they have further obscured the benefit of Christ. Out of these arose indulgences, which are nothing but lies devised for the sake of gain.” [i]

In response to his displeasure, Martin Luther wrote an inspired argument that became known as the 95 theses. In this document, Martin Luther pointed out errors in church practices that were supported by the Catholic Church and the Pope.  He argues that these practices and beliefs went against the bible and what it teaches about love, liberty, and salvation.  It is widely believed that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the main door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany, a sort of bulletin board for discussion.  Some also believe that a sermon or lecture in 1518 at Heidelberg may have been the actual spark that led to the acceptance of the 95 theses that created the impetus for the Reformation.  Regardless, there is little debate regarding the importance of the newly invented printing press, the internet of its day, allowing Martin Luther’s ideas to spread and gain momentum for church reform.

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Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers

The story of Martin Luther is one that speaks to the power of one, and when a timely idea becomes a demand it can change the world.  The story of the Protestant reformation honors the story of Jesus and his revolution or reformation of Jewish religious tradition.  It speaks that the power of truth can weaken the stranglehold of orthodoxy and bring liberty and freedom to those who were bound.  It is this part of the story that a young Baptist minister traveling in Germany in 1934 became enamored with and fully embraced.  He was captured by the power of Martin Luther’s commitment to God and liberty, to the point that upon his return to the South he changed his name from Michael King to Martin Luther King and his son’s name to Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am glad to be part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) a young arm of the Lutheran family that was formed in 1988. This Communion was developed with a vision of inclusion and diversity.  However, it is not just my personal experience, but a shared experience with a growing number of persons of color within the ELCA, that unfortunately this vision of inclusion was not fully embraced by many of its membership.

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Graphic from Pew Research on racial diversity among religious communities in the US – the ELCA is second from the bottom, marking it as the whitest religious community in the United States.

The evidence is seen on Sundays and a recent PEW report that claims that the ELCA has not really moved the needle in terms of increasing the number or percentage of persons of color who gather in worship. However, during my nine years as a local parish pastor and increasingly within the past five years, I have become blessed to meet and interact with those who seek to truly reform this Reformation denomination with commitment and not just lip service.  It is these reformers that give me hope that this church will not continue to embrace behavior and attitudes that deter the full participation of persons of color and others.

It is these reformers who do not just embrace diversity or inclusion but stand against the tide of white supremacy and patriarchy that still flows through the veins of many within this denomination.  Of course, there are those who will decry being called white supremacist or racist, or heterosexist, or sexist but the truth is there are many within this denomination that hold fast to their normative sense of racial, gender, class, and orientation superiority.

From the book No Bigotry Allowed: “Thus, the inability to admit past wrongs, the inability to see how one has benefited from past injustices of racism, and the inability to see “I got there on my own” as myth are all by products of racism supported by the pedagogy and language of white supremacy. These are attempts to deflect the reality that racism is normative and that the vast majority of white people still benefit from its use and existence on a daily basis.”  [ii]

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I have seen on the ELCA Clergy page the comments that police brutality is sparked because black people do not know how to behave and deserve whatever treatment they get.  This comment long since removed or deleted was posted on the same day that a young white male Lutheran decided to kill 9 African Americans in an AME church in Charleston, SC.  I know of stories of how persons of color were devalued by different expressions of this church.  One such example is the nearly five-year wait between seminary completion and ordination for women of color.

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This church is not without spot or blemish, but there is a growing segment of committed persons who seek equality and not superiority based on any human characteristic.  These reformers are the ones who will tear down dividing walls within our church and will be the reformers who will embrace the changes needed to continue to grow the global Lutheran church.  These people are the ones who truly live in the tradition of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These people continue to breathe new life into this church and understand the promise of ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.  They are not seeking change for the sake of change but for the realization of the beloved community, for the realm of God.  Paulo Freire reminds us, that we must have reflection before we act.  It is important for the church to examine itself, to reflect, and then adjust the rudder and sails of belief to make sure that we are going in the right direction.

The reformers of our church who seek to end hatred and bigotry within our church understand that the gospel message of Jesus was never intended to create economic elitism based on skin tone, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic background.  Yet, somehow the departure from the gospel message of “love your neighbor” was witnessed in countless segregated white Lutheran congregations where persons of color were not allowed in or not welcomed if they came in.  These modern-day reformers have seen the malignant bigotry that causes the cancer of racism and the dementia of white supremacy and it makes them ill, ill enough to take a stand within the church against this evil.  They see how the church has normalized white supremacy and seek to expose it, name it, and dismantle it.

Again, from the book No Bigotry Allowed: “There are white people who are well intended who can grasp the horrors of enslavement intellectually. There are some white people who consciously endeavor to understand the full impact of racism in our culture, society, the world, and people of color. They are the ones who historically have given their lives in support of freedom and equality for all people. In the 60’s they were among the Freedom Riders and other supporters of justice, whose blood also spilled on the landscape of hope as they gave the ultimate sacrifice to bring humanity back into harmony.” [iii]

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Jean and Robert Graetz

Two such reformers within the Lutheran church are Robert and Jean Graetz.  I know that there have been thousands of persons who have fought and continue to fight for racial justice and equality. But, these two stand out because of their involvement as a white Lutheran pastor and his wife and their role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement during the 1950’s.  They took to heart that this church could not simply be a repository of 16th century values and aesthetics and that it must share the gospel message as one of hope and not simply of following traditions. The Graetzs, whose home was bombed on two occasions, were willing to risk their lives to live out their understanding of the theology of the cross.  They witnessed, that like Christ who stands with those who suffer we too must stand with them.  We must stand with those in the margins of our society, the victims of predatory public policies. We stand with our siblings not to offer charity that keeps people at the margins, but in a manner, that liberates, empowers and encourages them to become part of the center as equals.  Today the legacy of the Graetzs is institutionalized and serves as a reminder of what love in action looks like.  My prayer is that justice will also become fully institutionalized within the ELCA and not remain in the margins of polite talk, toothless resolutions, and well-meaning social statements.

The new reformers must continue to fully embrace what it means to dismantle a world organized around the elite status of materialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy and fight the power that is designed to protect it. As the Lutheran church and specifically the ELCA, we must move our world to understand and embrace Jesus’ teachings on love, liberty, and salvation as the cornerstones of biblical teaching and Lutheran practice.  And when we do, then we will be the ones and those who follow us to keep the Reformation alive for another 500 years.

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pastorfotoRonald Bonner, is the pastor of Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Atlanta, GA, author of No Bigotry Allow Losing the Spirit of Fear: Towards the Conversation about Race and The Seat. And has recently been called as a Director of Evangelical Mission/ Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA

 

[i] Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Church, Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1959, 328

 

[ii] Ronald Bonner, No Bigotry Allowed: Losing the Spirit of Fear, Towards the Conversation About Race, North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Publishing, 2015, 49

 

[iii] Ibid., 48