Increased Devotion/Part Two: Reflection on Race and Religion from the Place of Gettysburg

Rev. Leonard M. Hummel, PH.D. and Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood JD, PH.D.

After a long hiatus, We Talk. We Listen is back – but we are taking it in a direction even more vital and poignant from years past.

Since becoming the director of the Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies, this blog is now going to be focusing on intersectionality the ways that “categories of difference” such as race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality (etc…) interact and overlap and influence each other, for good or ill. The first of these posts, as we continue these closing days of Black History Month, focuses specifically on is by the Rev. Dr. Leonard M. Hummel, Ph. D. and the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood JD, Ph. D. and the historical-political and racial-political implications of arguably the most famous battleground of the US Civil War – Gettysburg. Read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda Thomas

Professor of Theology and Anthropology; Director, Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies


Following the deadliest battle (over a three-day period) of the Civil War in 1863, many prominent U.S. leaders have visited the grounds of Gettysburg to reflect on the meaning of that battle for America, both then and now.   Standing in its new cemetery four months after the slaughter had ceased, Lincoln called for a new birth of freedom to ensure meaning for those deaths.  In March of 1963, John F. Kennedy toured its park, and, later, Lyndon B. Johnson gave his own address on race and freedom where Lincoln earlier had stood.

However, as we noted in the first installment of this Blog, a President who had announced that he would deliver a Gettysburg Address in November of 2013, 150 years after Lincoln had done so, Obama did not do so–for reasons that have never been made public.

As we shared in our earlier entry, through the activities of anti-slavery civic and religious leaders, underground railroad conductors,and an African American community whose members risked enslavement/re-enslavement, “Before the war came . . . Gettysburg had primed to respond to issues of race/racism; slavery/freedom; suffering/consolation for suffering.”

In this installment of “Increased Devotion,” we reflect on race and religion from the place of Gettysburg from the time following the battle until now.  We tell this story of Gettysburg as one of endurance and hope amidst the persistence of racism. Endurance and hope amidst racism had been the experience of Frederick Douglass before the war and of his unfinished work of war against racism that continued in post-bellum years—including at his Gettysburg lecture in the Agricultural Hall there on January 25, 1869.

Gettysburg’s Agricultural Hall, circa 1950

Much could be said about Douglass’s address at Gettysburg—and much has been said by Codie Eash about this lecture in which the orator linked the revolutionary work of the 16th century Dutch Prince, William of Orange, with the revolutionary new birth of freedom called for by Lincoln six years earlier.

But much also must be noted about the racist remarks that Douglass—who had received death threats when he had spoken elsewhere—had laid before him by one local newspaper, the Gettysburg Compiler, before his January address: “The negro is not the white man’s equal, and no attempt to force him upon the white man, .. . can ever be successful.” (The Gettysburg Compiler, January 15, 1869, 2). And as Eash has painstakingly and painfully documented, the worst racist epithets of both his era and our own were directed at him by this same newspaper following his Gettysburg address.

After the Civil War, amidst the failure of the United States to ensure the Civil Rights of African Americans, Black Americans throughout the United States relied on many resources to survive and thrive—including, if not especially, leaders, teachers and organized religious life. And so did many African Americans in Gettysburg – Among such leaders was Basil Biggs (1819–1906).

Basil Biggs

Throughout the borough’s post-bellum life, there have been many such leaders and teachers who acquired wealth following the battle from his oversight of the interment of fallen Union soldiers, and then, with these earnings, real estate.

Not satisfied with his own financial security, Biggs transported black Gettysburg citizens to the polls in 1870 to ensure that the words of the 15th Amendment had not been adopted in vain but, rather, might be made flesh.

Throughout the history of Gettysburg, many teachers emerged to serve the black community. Following the war, the first was Lloyd Watts (1835-1918) who was a veteran of the 24th United States Colored Troops and following the war, a dedicated instructor of young persons. Along with Biggs, he helped found the Fraternal Order, Sons of Good Will, who provided that provided burial of U.S.C.T soldiers.

And, along Biggs, Watts was a leader in Saint Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Zion.

Following the battle of Gettysburg, its battleground became a place of tourism for many Americans.  In the late 1800s/early 1900s, many visitors to Hallowed Ground often found much pleasure with picnics, excursions, recreation—and, for a minority, occasional minor misbehaving.  During this same period, Blacks from nearby locales also traveled to Gettysburg.  Many who did so journeyed from Baltimore across the Mason-Dixon line.

African-American Tourists from Baltimore

William Francis Penn (kneeling in front) 1842-1 Feb 1925 one of two colored (early 1920’s) Battlefield guides shown with an expedition of tourists from Baltimore, Md. Mervin Henry Winfield Jones were the other colored Battlefield Guide. (note the badge on his left shoulder)

On occasion, some Black Baltimore church leaders chastised their flocks for making this pilgrimage—perhaps for their focus on having fun and, thereby, for not lifting up uplift.  And some Gettysburg whites were discriminating in directing their attention toward those few black tourists whose spirited recreational activities “broke boundaries” rather than also minding that a significant number of white tourists also did so.  In the end, however, most Gettysburg whites appreciated the money spent by all African-American visitors even if a few did not appreciate any of the visiting African-Americans who spent it. (Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003, 90-98)

After the war and up until now, tourists have not been the only groups to journey to Gettysburg:

Ku Klux Klan Annual Convention, Gettysburg, 1925

Threats by the Klan to appear in the borough continue now—threats that on certain occasions have resulted in their making appearances,and sometimes not.  However, in all instances, these threats have aimed to terrorize by the very process of threatening to appear.

In the first installment of this blog, one of us wrote,

“The battle of Gettysburg is arguably the turning point of the American Civil War and is unarguably the most iconic event of that war and its many meanings.  Among those many meanings is the particular significance of Gettysburg for white racism.”

The meaning of the “Klan at Gettysburg” for white racism manifests itself in the informed judgment of the Louisiana State University historian Gaines Foster’s that, in the post-bellum South, the hooded Ku Klux Klan often portrayed themselves as the original Ghosts of Gettysburg—that is, they donned spooky garb to represent Confederate soldiers slain at Gettysburg who had returned from the dead to wreak revenge on emancipated blacks.  Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, The Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South: 1865 to 1913, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, 48).  

And in her essay, Haunted Histories: A Cultural Study of the Gettysburg Ghost Trade, Pamela Cooper-White has argued that, hovering above all the fanciful ghost tours that float around Gettysburg, the real ghost that haunts the borough—and the U.S.A.—is the unhealed trauma of racism then and now.

In the previous installment, we noted that, before the war, leaders like Samuel Simon Schmucker and Daniel Payne led the church and society in addressing racial justice through the lens of religion?  What has been the response to the seminary after the war?

After the war, the seminary’s response to race and religion was much like its reaction to the battle itself which swept over its grounds.  Summarizing the period from this immediate aftermath of battle until well into the start of the twenty-first century, the late Frederick Wentz, a leading historian of this seminary, commented, “The Seminary–intent for its 175 years upon training leaders for the Lutheran Church–has not cultivated the story of its involvement in the battle..[i]

Many others would concur that from the time of the battle until now, Gettysburg Seminary has engaged in a kind of collective forgetting, not remembering, of the many violent, sad, and compassionate occurrences on its grounds, so that it might instead focus on preparing its students for ministry. Until recently, that is.

It is no wonder to both of us—one, an African American, lesbian woman currently living in Gettysburg, PA and, the other, a non-black cisgender man now living in the rural Minnesota where some Confederate flags do fly

–that President Barack Obama did not attend the 2013 celebration of the Gettysburg address. One reason is obvious. It has very little to do with Obama’s speech making capacity, as George E. Condone, Jr. of the Atlantic opines. It is a simple calculation of safety. One of us had been in Gettysburg less than one month when she was warned to back my car into the park at her home so that people could not see the “Biden/Harris” sticker on her bumper. No speculation was needed. It was a clear indication that certain political views, indeed worldviews, are not wholly tolerated here. Fortunately, that has proven less a threat and more an invitation to engage. However, for a sitting president whose ontological being was questioned from his birthplace to his intellectual fitness, it is not hard to see how such a decision could be made. Weighing the circumstances as they currently exist in America, one can see how safety is an issue generally for many non-white Americans. While we acknowledge that much has changed in the centuries since the Gettysburg address, specifically regarding race relations in America, much has remained the same. According to African Americans during the Gettysburg Campaign (U.S. National Park Service), “Gettysburg’s black population made its escape. Abraham Brian, a farmer on Cemetery Ridge, left with his family. Basil Biggs, a veterinarian, made a hasty retreat, as did Owen Robinson, a retailer of oysters and ice cream. They knew … better than anyone, that Gettysburg was not safe for people of color.”

In some places in America, presently, it may be noticeably worse. As evidence to this fact, January 6, 2021, looms large in our theological imaginary.

At the Capitol Insurrection, there were folks carrying the Bible while marching in lockstep with folks carrying a hangman’s noose. Why? The ‘theological crisis’ that this fact alone conjures marries well with the thesis in Mark A. Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Noll illumines the paradox that both sides of the battle cited the Bible as their inspiration for the fight. The proslavery contingency and the anti-slavery advocates both relied upon biblical authority to support their stance in the war. The Bible has been used for millennia to support radically oppositional views. Abraham Lincoln commented “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time” (88–89) The interesting thing about this observation is that despite its obvious veracity, the phenomenon continues. In a class with four women currently in ministry, three of whom are pastors, the instructors learned what blacks living in Gettysburg, PA before, during, and after the Gettysburg battle confronted as part of their lived theology: hate-talk disguised as God-talk is still hate. 

The presence of both icons—the Bible and a hangman’s noose recalls the tensions that were obvious in the Civil War—a fight over who is legitimately a human, who can participate in this government, and who should be relegated to permanent involuntary servitude with all its brutality and terror.  These are questions that earlier leaders such as Samuel Simon Schmucker and Daniel Payne engaged in on the grounds of the seminary at Gettysburg and which the seminary on the Gettysburg campus is called on to engage now.

The display of the Confederate flag is another icon of the Civil War, which, quite frankly, unmistakably harkens back to the time and place fraught with treachery and perfidy so dynamic that it caused fissures in the American psyche plausibly evident in present generations.  As we noted earlier , we understand the trauma of Gettysburg to be the ghost that not only haunts this borough but also the ghost that takes on flesh which  visits both the nation’s capital and the nation itself.

Americans committed to the acrimony of a bygone age, (July 1-3, 1863), sought to reenact its reign of terror on the nation in 2021. Reminiscent of the battle of Gettysburg, the rancor displayed on January 6, 2021, fills the anachronistic lacuna, which fuels disparate winds in government, politics, society, and faith. 

At the Gettysburg campus of United Lutheran Seminary (ULS), one of us co-taught a course with Rev. Dr. Martin Zimmann entitled “Let’s Talk: Racial Reckoning in Ministry Context,” where we engaged our students in an intensive week of critical thinking around race relations. Through this “course for church leaders either engaged or preparing to engage in conversations about race in America within their ministry context, we posed the following questions: How do we walk with people from white fragility to white humility? How can we help folks understand that Critical Race Theory and The 1619 Project are the truth that sets us free from fear and encourages us to see the world around us with Christocentric and inclusive focus?” Faced with congregants who express the kind of hostility pictured in these images where challenges to authority, physical violence, terrorism, and mayhem are freely engaged, current ministry students face the challenge of faith versus fear. This fact was affirmed in a life-learning seminar collaboratively produced this summer by ULS faculty, life-learning director, and Peter Miele, director of the Seminary Ridge Museum and Education Center. We assembled over 15 persons to the Gettysburg campus for a 2-day conference entitled Sites of Conscience in concert with the International group. The pastors who attended were all part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) or affiliated with the seminary as alumni. All expressed frustration at how to engage the struggle around divisions stemming from race and racism. As a “site of conscience” the battle ground and the museum offer much to assuage the concerns of those in clerical positions, if the location serves as a site of conscience–a place destined to bring people to truth and reconciliation as opposed to a place where people come to square off with old divisional lines where reenactments seek to lean into the divisiveness from two centuries ago.

Our country has once again internalized its own fears such that building a wall of separation from perceived enemies is promoted as a sufficient method for national protection, in theory, against immigrants who seek our refuge; when in reality, a wall is a metaphor for the fears within that give rise to the same people who promote building the wall literally climbing the walls to mimic the very thing they name as a threat.

The fear that drives them transfers to those whom they seek to conquer. That same fear drove this country to war against itself  from 1861 to 1865 and it is postured to do so again. Paradoxically, we call that war “Civil.” How do we combat this fear? Fear is not of God. Fear is an emotion that characterizes a lack of faith. The apostle Paul put it best in his second letter to the young preacher, Timothy, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.”

Our students at United Lutheran Seminary engage with several conscience forming exercises to prepare them for this work. The students in the racial reckoning course completed a media project helping them focus critically on the subtle messages of racism, sexism. xenophobia, intolerance and the like in media. One student discovered in her work on the “racialization of media” that “while narrative frames may not directly change the views of readers, readers who consistently rely on single news sources risk falling into an echo chamber, where their prior beliefs and shared assumptions are reinforced.” (Duxbury et. al., 2018) This fact helped our students discern the many ways that marketing strategies intentionally tap into the psychology of people to drive racialized narratives. 

Gettysburg College has an exemplary teacher in Professor Scott Hancock whose valiant efforts to confront hate-talk speaks to the societal corrective that is needed. Professor Hancock’s dialogue with oppositional voices offers pastors and lay people a modicum of resistance narrative that is powerful and transformative. In one exchange Professor Hancock stood flatfooted on the Gettysburg battle grounds to speak truth to power by saying “that the organizing principle for the Confederate government, the reason there was a battle here was because of slaves.” Those in the crowd shouted back, “it was not!” Scott defiantly continued, “yes, it was!,” in response to a chorus of “no, no, no, it was about money!” Scott retorted “What money? Money generated by black men and women!” When this country can square its conscience with that truth, we can start the journey to racial reckoning.

In these reflections on race and religion from the place of Gettysburg, we have striven to speak of endurance and hope amidst the persistence of racism in the United States of America.  In doing so, we have striven to illustrate that the place of Gettysburg offers a story of endurance and hope for not just to this particular town but for all towns, cities and places in the nation itself.  As Lincoln argued in his Gettysburg Address that meaning of Gettysburg is for increased devotion to a new birth of freedom for all Americans (lest those who died for this unrealized freedom might have done so for no real purpose at all), we here address all who listen that all of us are called to devote ourselves to the unfinished work for a free, just and democratic America.

We close by noting one source of our own “audacious hope” in the determined will of President Barack Obama to find, after all, more than one way to address Gettysburg in November of 2013.

One way was to produce his own recitation of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

And his other way was to compose a handwritten letter of his reflections on that address.  President Obama addressed racism and slavery:

He [Lincoln] knew that even a self-evident truth [“all men are created equal”] was not self executing; that blood drawn by the lash [A reference to Lincoln’s reference to slavery in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865] was an affront to our ideals.

And then President Obama called on all of us to devote ourselves to the unfinished work for a free, just and democratic America because…

“…it is through the accumulated toil and sacrifice of ordinary men and women — those like the soldiers who consecrated that battlefield — that this country is built, and freedom preserved.”


[1] Codie Eash, “Douglass at Gettysburg, 1869” (Unpublished Manuscript, 2021).  Codie Eash is the Director of Education and Museum Operations, Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum and Education Center 61 Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg, PA., 1732

[i] Frederick K. Wentz, “Foreward” in Michael A. Dreese, The Hospital on Seminary Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburg(Jefferson, NC, London: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2002), 1.


Rev. Dr. Leonard M. Hummel is Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology at United Lutheran Seminary (Gettysburg/Philadelphia) and currently serves as Hospice Chaplain/New Ulm Medical Center, New Ulm, MN and as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey.  In 2017-2018, he was the Visiting Professor of Religion at Augustana University and the Visiting Scholar at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  At Gettysburg Seminary, he was Co-Project Leader of the Templeton Foundation funded AAAS grant, “Science for Seminaries.”  His co-authored book, Chance, Necessity, Love: An Evolutionary Theology of Cancer was published by Wipf & Stock in 2017.  He is a co-editor of Gettysburg:the Quest for Meaning, (Seminary Ridge Press, 2015) and was the Faculty Liaison to the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum.  A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he has lectured in South Africa and widely elsewhere on race and religion in the American Civil War.  Hummel is a graduate of Haverford College (A.B.), Yale Divinity School (M. Div., S.T.M.), and Boston University (Ph. D. in Religious and Theological Studies).

Dr. Teresa L. Smallwood, a native of North Carolina, earned a B.A. degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she majored in Speech Communications and Afro-American Studies followed by a Juris Doctor degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1985. Answering the call to ministry, she earned a Master of Divinity degree at Howard University School of Divinity in 2010, followed by a PhD degree from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2017. Her PhD concentration in Theology, Ethics, and Human Sciences informs her multivalent methodological approach to racial justice. She was the Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate Director of the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dr. Smallwood now serves as the James Franklin Kelly and Hope Eyster Kelly Associate Professor of Public Theology at United Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, PA. Dr. Smallwood is licensed and ordained to public ministry in the Baptist tradition and most recently served as social justice minister for New Covenant Christian Church in Nashville, TN under the pastoral leadership of Rev. Dr. Judy Cummings. 

We Live in a World… by Apu Seyenkulo, Linda Johnson Seyenkulo

Dr. Apu Seyenkulo lives and works in Charlotte, North Carolina – living a busy and fulfilling life as a physical therapist entrepreneur and creative. But as a Black woman, these last weeks have been rough, and like so many under duress – like George Floyd – she reaches out for her mom and she answers. Yet her mother – Rev. Linda Seyenkulo – is not only an ocean away in Liberia, working as a missionary in tandem with her husband the Rev. Jensen Seyenkulo, Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, she is also white. How do this mother and daughter care for one another and their mutual fear with such difference and distance between them? Read and learn and share.

Francisco Herrera, PhD student and Interim Blog Editor

black tape

Apu Seyenkulo, daughter:

We live in a world…

We live in a world where I can’t sleep because I am traumatized by fear. Fearful that my brother, sister, boyfriend and/or friends will walk out of the house and not return.

As my brother was driving home the other night, we were on the phone catching up; talking through the Bluetooth, driving less than 6 blocks home and doing nothing wrong. Through the phone I hear my brother say “Oh my gosh”… I go silent. I hear a police car’s siren/horn “Whoop, Whoop” sounding like its inside of my brother car. The fear… the anxiety… the terror that flowed through my body is indescribable. Followed by silence. Silence you could cut with a knife. Hearing my brother’s breath accompanied with “they are gone”… I could have dropped me to my knees in relief.

The awkward silence that followed was filled with me thanking God that he wasn’t murdered for driving home while black.

We live in a world where it is exhausting to check social media or watch the news. We are afraid we will see another black person killed, yanked out the car or sprayed with tear gas. We are afraid to hear the words of our leaders, hoping they are not supporting the injustice that has been endured for…forever.

We live in a world where we are to go to work, attend Zoom meetings and discuss upcoming celebrations like we are not affected by the trauma in the world right now. We are expected to focus on our daily tasks; acting as if we are in a headspace that is the same as our white counterparts.


We are not okay. We are tired of not being heard. We are tired of being referred to as “thugs”. We are tired of being scared to drive. We are tired of being afraid of the people that should be protecting us. We are tired of a broken system. We are tired of acting like everything is okay. We are tired…

I hate violence. I hate people getting hurt. I want people to be empowered to change this broken system.

Regardless, there is one thing that needs to be understood…


Black Lives Matter. This IS a thing… the world we live in needs to act like it.



Linda Johnson Seyenkulo, mother:

We live in a world…. My daughter and I, same world, different experiences. She wrote the previous piece.  She is biracial.  My husband, son, and other daughter are people of color. 

I am white . My reality is different than theirs. They are flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, and so my reality changes.  When my daughter writes “…traumatized by fear. Fearful that my brother, sister, boyfriend and/or friends will walk out of the house and not return” I feel that fear in my gut. 

Anti-racism training taught me the power racism has over us: power over people of color; power to privilege white people;  power over all of us to destroy us. I define racism as race prejudice plus the misuse of systemic power.

Apu’s experience is racism’s power over  people of color.  She spoke her experience eloquently.  In her description racism makes people of color daily be discounted,  anxious, fearful for safety and fearful of death. It is the air she, our family, and friends breathe.

For most white people this is racism we understand: it affects people of color and many of us feel we are not a part of it.

White friends read her writing; they were moved. As a white person, I can read what she wrote, feel moved, sad, or guilty. Then I can move back to my life without changing.  I can decide what she wrote is not true because it’s not my experience.  Racism affects us white people collectively in those ways.

But Apu is my child, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone as is her brother.

Because of  them, their father, their sister, her boyfriend and colleagues/friends of color, I know my privilege and my participation in the systems they suffer from. 

Knowing this does not make me better than other white people. I do not understand all about racist privilege. What it means is I continue to learn how racism affects me and my privilege.

hands lords peayer tint tint

As a white person racist privilege forms me. Here are ways it works for me: (Repeat the refrain after each sentence.)

It is assumed I am intelligent until I prove differently.  

Refrain: “It’s just how it is…because I am white.”

If I do something wrong, no one attributes it to me being white. Refrain:

In my denomination, I can be a pastor to any ethnic group; no one asks how long I’ve been Lutheran.  Refrain:

If I go to the doctor, my condition will be taken seriously. Refrain:

No one follows me around a store when shopping. Refrain:

The police protect me and serve me. Refrain:

If I pass a counterfeit bill, it will likely be assumed it was accidental or I will be arrested and released on my own with a court date:  Refrain:

Encounters with police are respectful. I may be charged but I can expect to come out alive.  Refrain:

 I can hear about George Floyd’s death and my first response could be “not all police officers are bad.” (they are not but the first issue is that a man is dead.)   Refrain:

I can choose to not preach on racial issues because it’s uncomfortable. Refrain:

The list of racism privileges for white people is long, much longer and deeper than what is here.

Much of what I began to learn about racist privilege is because I am white with children and a husband who are people of color. I learned because of them and that is privilege in itself.  I also know when I am alone, I am treated differently than when I am with my family. The air I breathe changes. 

And this is my shame: sometimes when I am alone as a white person (without my family) it feels like a relief!  This. Is. My. Great. Shame. 

Being white I can choose to stay in shame and guilt. Many of us would like to do that. It keeps us from losing privilege. To my white brothers and sisters, as a start,  I  encourage you to take a note from my courageous, gifted daughter: think out loud, on paper. 


Start with: how does racism privilege you as a white person? 

Read, learn about systemic institutional racism.  Get involved with organizations working for institutional anti-racist change.  Give money to anti-racist justice organizations.  Stop changing the subject.  Listen to, believe people of color.  Check out non-white literature, media, arts.  

And VOTE in ways that will change the system.

For those of  you who read Apu’s experience and said, “I don’t know where to start.” 

Start here. 

Don’t stop.

It’s a matter of life and death. 

It is our work.


Giving thanks to God for our lives and this world we live in… we are:

Dr. Apu Seyenkulo (far left), Doctor of Physical Therapy, serving as a Pediatric Physical Therapist located in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I am an avid physical fitness buff,  artist, author, and entrepreneur.

Rev. Linda Johnson Seyenkulo (second from right), ELCA pastor serving in Liberia, West Africa in theological education.  I am a reader, singer, writer. I have worked in anti-racism organizing/training for many years. I was Dean of Community at LSTC, 2003-2008.

A shout-out to our family: Bishop Jensen Seyenkulo (middle), Kenata Seyenkulo (far right), and Yongor Linnea Seyenkulo (second from left), who make our lives rich and meaningful—and educational.

I Woke Up Tuesday Morning – Trevon Tellor

Trevon Tellor had just completed his sophomore year at Augsburg University when George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. As protests erupted in the city, he quickly got involved in protests – eventually working as a protest medic. Here is his testimony from those intense, passionate days from last week – his testimony as an activist, student of history, a black man, and a Lutheran. Read, comment, and share.

Francisco Herrera – Interim Editor, Ph. D. student


I woke up Tuesday morning and was immediately met with the snuff film that was passed around social media and major media outlets.

The first thing I had to see that morning was a man with skin like mine on the ground with his breath, God’s light, slowly snuffed out of him. My heart sank and tears welled in my eyes. I’ve begun to grow numb to the killings of Black people in this country; there’s too many to keep track of now. But this was different, 8 minutes of a man begging for his life. I wanted to scream at the video, “Do something, don’t just stand there and video tape it! You can stop him!” I sobbed, I raged, my mind drifted to daydreams of broken windows, burning buildings. I called out of work and grieved. Later on that day through my screen I had to witness people I see in class, people I care about, get brutalized by rubber bullets and tear gas as they protested against police brutality and murder. The many sins of the Minneapolis Police Department were crying to the heavens with vengeance.
Throughout the course of the week I went out every day but one to go to the frontlines. I encountered rubber bullets, tear gas, and flashbangs thrown at myself and other protestors without warning, often resulting in the injury of many other protestors. I heard of some pretty horrific injuries, but I never saw them the first couple days I went out. I felt empowered as I saw people in my city coming together.


Quickly supply drop offs were set up for protestors outside of the 3rd precinct on the first day at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation a few blocks from the 3rd precinct and other various locations around south Minneapolis. When I walked by the front of the church it was incredible. In the grass out front were stacks of cases of water, there had to be at least 30 cases, and bins filled with granola bars, and other snack foods. This continued to grow day by day as grocery stores shut down out of fear of being looted. With no hesitation people opened up their pantries, drove to the suburbs for food and drove as fast as they could to Holy Trinity and the other neighborhood drop off points set up regular people who happened to live near each other.

It was a modern feeding of the 5000, maybe not a divine miracle, but an incredible task that people across the metro accomplished in little time, with little hierarchical organization.

Like the people Christ ministered to that day we were hungry after witnessing the gospel, we did not tell the people to go out of town to buy food (Luke 9:12-17). No, we fed each other with what we had, and lo and behold we had enough.

Holy Trinity food collection on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

We did not panic, we did not despair, we trusted in the body of Christ, our community, to provide for us. Our communities were being abandoned by the people who swore an oath to “protect and serve” in favor of concentrating their forces to brutally repress protestors. But we did fine without them, the vision of abolition, a police free world, was being built before my very eyes.

On Saturday my partner and I went down to the 5th precinct with medical supplies in case people were hurt by the police. The protest during the day was beautiful, we took kneeling moment of silences, with our raised fists in the air for George. I couldn’t help but see that there was indeed a liturgy of the street. A constant cycle of sermons, protest chants that replace the usual hymns of our churches, the silence as prayer. I felt at home, my own church may be closed due to the pandemic, but I found another one in the street. Around 6:30 pm we went to the medical station outside of the then-looted K-Mart to help set it up, we pulled fence lengths and signs together to create a clinic with people we had never met. Supplies were brought in and some were even expropriated from the K-Mart employee break room by a masked scavenger.

We readied ourselves for the worst, knowing that police had been getting increasingly aggressive.

I paced back and forth, rifling through our supplies that were dropped off to our bay, unwrapping what I could to save time when it hit the fan. I smoked a nervous cigarette with another volunteer medic who was a lifeguard, we were afraid of being arrested, we couldn’t afford the fine. Yet, we both felt it was our duty to stay, it was too late to back out. 15 minutes after curfew when protestors were sitting on the ground up the block at the 5th precinct, we saw the flashes and tear gas appear in the horizon. They ran to us, people were limping, bleeding, a girl’s hands were burnt black because she threw a tear gas canister back at the police to save her friends.

It was horrific.

My station only had time to treat one mans ankle, who was busted up by a hard-plastic baton round. All of a sudden the other medics were screaming for us all to put our hands up. In front of us across the street were black armored police, pointing riot guns at us.

They fired, rubber rounds hit medics and patients, my partner got hit with a ricochet in her jaw.

Everyone who could still move ran.

Protest medics on Saturday pouring milk into the eyes of a protestor to counter-act the pain of tear-gas.

I was horrified, the police had just shot at medics, clearly marked with red crosses on our clothing and our station, the sign of not only first aid but also of my faith that had moved me to come protest and help. While I’m sure many saw the cross on their clothing as nothing but a signifier of being a medic, I also saw it as a testament to what I was there to do: heal the injured, stand for the oppressed. I may not be ordained yet, or even in seminary, but being with our beloved community and serving them was our ministry, Christians and non Christians alike. As I ran from the police I was terrified, literally running for my life, there were reports of armed white supremacists chasing people as they fled, and police were circling in vans and cars, sometimes arresting people, sometimes just shooting at them with rubber bullets.

I couldn’t stop asking myself, and those with me “Why did they do this?” Were we not protected under a symbol for first aid, and a symbol for triumph over evil? In war this would have been a war crime, but somehow in the streets of our “Christian nation” this was allowed.

rubber bullet
rubber bullet, left, and the wound it left on a journalist, right

Now many will decry these protests and use the burning of the 3rd precinct as justification for the horrific actions taken by the police at the 5th precinct and the nearby medical station. But remember this: no amount of property destruction amounts to the violence that was dealt to human bodies, the body of Christ, God’s creation by MPD. When the 3rd precinct was burning, I admit I smiled, no officers were hurt as they had evacuated and a community temporarily took back their community from an occupying force. I do not consider this a tragedy, but rather an echo of prophecy.
The prophets verbally lashed and threatened their government for its injustices, telling tales of destruction that would come as long as the status quo stays unchanged (Isaiah 10:1-4). With a clear message like this from Isaiah, how can we as Christians be surprised when the oppressed lash out against their oppressor? Our authorities have turned away from God, not in the sense that they are not Christian, but in the sense that their priorities and positions stand in direct opposition to the call of Christians everywhere.

gestapo_mug_shots_of_sophie_18_february_1943-no_source-probably_german_federal_archive-hans - Tanja B. Spitzer
Sophie and Hans Scholl’s Gestapo mugshots.

Christ prioritized human lives over commodities when he flipped the tables in the temple and drove the moneychangers out with a whip. Christ was not just angry that they were using the temple to collect money, he was angry that the temple was being used to oppress the poor. How can we as Christians condemn angry protesters today for turning to destruction, when the Lutheran Scholl twins themselves destroyed property with graffiti as they resisted the Nazi Regime? We as church can stand against violence but we must remember that the violence we stand against has always first and foremost been concerned with God’s creation, life, and breath. Not police stations, not super Targets, not K-Marts. Do not let the shocking videos and pictures of burning buildings change what this is about: a cry for human lives, a cry for freedom and liberation.

As church it is our duty to stand with the oppressed, provide both materially and spiritually for them as we have been called to do since the time of the Hebrew Bible even in times of riots.


Born in raised in Bloomington, Minnesota, in the fall I will be a junior at Augsburg University in Minneapolis studying Sociology and Religion. I hope to go to seminary after undergraduate school. I returned the faith and the ELCA after my religion 100 course (something few have ever said).

Living Stones – Rev. Justin Thornburgh

So how to respond as a Christian leader when dire human need and foolishness and arrogance mix into a toxic brew of death? Pastor Justin Thornburgh of Emerson Avenue Baptist Church in Indianapolis has an answer: become a living stone. Please read, comment, and share!

Francisco Herrera – Interim Editor, PhD student

Indianapolis, Indiana

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5)

I’ve been sitting with these words all week as I’ve been preparing my sermon for Sunday. Something about them has been rattling in my bones. I couldn’t name what it was though until I started looking through my Facebook feed on Wednesday afternoon and I began to see the news of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. I began reading the familiar story of a black man living only to end up dead; chased down and lynched.

And then, just several hours later in my city of Indianapolis, Dreasjon Reed was murdered by police after being shot with a taser and running away. And to spit on his corpse one of the officers said, “Looks like you won’t have an open casket, homie.”

And I began to seethe.

I began to seethe and I woke up in some kind of mood.

CORRECTION Georgia Chase Deadly Shooting
Protest for Ahmaud Arbery.

States are opening up which will lead to more people dying (IN’s projection is up over 500% due to reopening). White people armed with assault rifles have taken to protesting because of their lack of ability to get a haircut or have a beer at the bar. They threaten and intimidate legislators who are actually trying to save lives, all the while the authors of the falsely called pro-life movement cheerlead a death march. A death march that leads to cashiers and security guards be sneezed upon and even killed.

All the while, as the white militant terrorists are storming state capitals, young unarmed black men continue to be lynched by the state, and children are still in damned cages.

Natalie Hijazi

These death dealers are littering the ground with gravestones; monuments to their worship of Mammon and Moloch. In their wake lives are destroyed. Children are left without parents; parents without children; lovers without their beloved. They leave their stones strewn across the road to silence and to scare; to intimidate and annihilate. Gravestones cover the ground.

Ahh, but here’s the thing, here’s the thing, when the powerful, tell Jesus to shut the rabble up; to pay attention to the signs along the road; to see the gravestones of those whose lives did not matter and to remember his place, Jesus turns it around and tells them that even if the people are silenced the very stones will cry out (Luke 19:29-40). The symbols of death will cry out and say their names.

And so, I was thinking about this week’s text from 1 Peter when all of this washed over me. What does it mean to be a living stone in the time of pandemic?

What does it look like when white supremacy is running rampant and unchecked privilege is killing people?

What does being a living stone look like when black and brown bodies are daily left on the side of the road, dead?


I’d like to think that it means that, resting on the cornerstone of Christ, we are being called to say their names. We are being called to join with the voices of the dead and dying and raise up a voice that proclaims life. I’d like to think that being a living stone built into the spiritual house means check our privilege if you are like me a cis-white man. I’d like to think that it means that we do everything in our power, having been ourselves called precious in God’s sight, to fight for the dignity of all of those lives left out and left behind.

The week’s reading concludes with these words, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1Peter 2:10) We have received mercy. We, living stone who have could have been cast aside have been shown mercy and been given a place in the work of God Realm.

Oh, and when we get that we are living stones, my how the world begins to change.

The church I serve is on the eastside of Indianapolis. For those who don’t know Naptown, the eastside is the side that people don’t want to go. I’m sure you can guess why. Our congregation rests in the highest poverty zip code in the county. Even before the pandemic, our unemployment was above the average, abandoned homes dot each block, overdoses and gunshots are regular occurrences. It can be rough, but it is also the most beautiful part of town because as this neighborhood has been ignored many have refused to be still.



There are many living stones in this neighborhood.

One is the director of our food pantry, who has used their imagination and ingenuity to not only deliver meals to people every day during the pandemic (over 2,500 to date) but has created an efficient, safe, and dignity providing pantry. And when why they do it, why do they every day drive around the city to pick up meals to deliver they say because someone did it for them. Someone lift them up when they were on the side of the road. They were hungry and someone showed her mercy. And now, this living stone daily shows mercy to those in our community.

Because in a time like this, a time full of fear, full of misinformation, and ignorant rage we the only things that can make a change.

The pretentiously pious politicians have had their turn and and have showered shame upon the hurting and the vulnerable. The prosperity proclaiming preachers have had their turn and they shred the Gospel with every turn of phrase. Now is the time for the living stones to cry out, to organize, to rebuild, to create, and to fight to bring about God’s Realm.


There will be sacrifice. It won’t be easy. Some of us will need to have our edges chiseled so that those parts of us loosen — our power, our privilege, our over-inflated egos—so that we align with the plumb line of God’s justice. But when we do, when the living stones cry you and are fully part of the temple of Christ, in the words of Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come.”

justinJustin Thornburgh is a 2012 graduate of LSTC and is serving as pastor of Emerson Avenue Baptist Church in Indianapolis, IN – where is an active faith leader with Faith in Indiana, part of the national community organizing network Faith in Action. He is a husband and father of three. If you would like to support the ministry of Emerson Avenue Baptist Church and the myriad ways we support our neighborhood in mind, body, and spirit – click here.

That We Might Have Life: Black Healthcare Matters in the COVID-19 Pandemic – Rev. Lamont Anthony Wells

Rev. Lamont Anthony Wells, Program Director for LuMin/ Campus Ministry and National President of the African Descent Lutheran Association, shares a stirring post as the COVID-19 virus makes its mark on Holy Week services across the United States. With a word of judgment against the many systems in this country that oppress black people and people of color, as well as a word of charge to the rest of the church to address these problems head-on – he adjures the faithful of our country to vigilance and action as the spread of the epidemic exacerbates life and danger for the most vulnerable in among us.  Read, comment, and share.

Francisco Herrera – Interim Editor, PhD student

Virus Outbreak Pence

Just as we entered Holy Week 2020, we heard some of the most grim news from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams who told the American people on Palm Sunday that “this (week) is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment” as COVID-19 infections continue to rise.

Many leading public health officials have described the week of April 5th 2020 ( Holy Week) as potentially the hardest and saddest week of increased deaths related to the coronavirus.  This pandemic has affected the entire world in very alarming ways.  It has also continued to spike the globally uncured diseases of racism and xenophobia.  The University Health Services at the University of California, Berkeley recently retracted a statement (@tangcentercal) advising students that “xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” is a normal or common reaction. This shows the high level of insensitivity and present day normalization of racism even from a school who’s demographics report that more than 30% of the student body is of Asian descent.

This institution’s culture and ethics in communication should be far above the curve for understanding racism of any kind as an unacceptable reaction to this pandemic.  But like many institutions, it continued to be complicit in the propagation of systematic and systemic racism. This must stop. Especially at a time when we are finding that people of color are and will be affected fatally by this pandemic at disproportional rates.

In fact,, reported that early data shows African Americans have contracted and died of coronavirus at an alarming rate. In the very city that hosted the African Descent Lutheran Association’s (ADLA) August 2019 Biennial Assembly (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 coronavirus cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is only 26% Black (as of 4/3/20).  This level of disproportionate rates of infection and death is a direct result of economic, political, and environmental factors that have been growing for decades.  These factors along with so many other sociological trends have put Black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable and battling pre-existing illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, HIV, and asthma.

ADLA has ramped up advocacy  efforts to pressure the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to release race data related to the coronavirus. The CDC typically tracks widespread demographic data with all virulent outbreaks, but has provided little information  about race during this current pandemic.  This data is and will continue to be important to address racism and other disparities to healthcare access.


“You Do It to Me” – John Petts

If (this) Holy Week 2020 will begin the deadliest season (to date) of this pandemic, then America will experience a devastating loss of Black lives.  Now more than ever we must be reminded that Black Lives Matter.

We must also acknowledge that government and religious leaders have requested and strongly encouraged the nation to “shelter in place” and remain at home.  However, that becomes a very privileged request when many people do not have the same levels of resources to do so.  For instance, imposing curfews, demanding lockdowns, or even expecting people to stay at home without canceling rent, helping to secure adequate food and all other related bills is an unjust request.   With the impending rise in unemployment, this pandemic has created a greater wealth divide in access to basic income and adequate housing for all.

The CARES Act and stimulus package(s) will assist some people in this season, but it will not greatly protect the most vulnerable who are at higher risks related to this pandemic.

Holy Week 2020 should bring us all into a greater understanding of the realities of death and access to life in our nation and world.  We as people of faith easily grasp the understanding that Jesus died for all of our sins and brings us to eternal redemption.  He did it so that we might have life and that life more abundantly (John 10:10).  We are reminded, that God so loved the world and (God) gave us Jesus so that we wouldn’t perish but have access to eternal life. In the same way we celebrate access to a better life with Jesus, we must claim access to healthcare as a human right that provides a better life for all.  This COVID-19 pandemic is uncovering major disparities in access to health care. With the rising death tolls, we need high quality public health care that is guaranteed to all and not just as a private marketplace.


Many of the sociological trends (health, economic, etc.) affecting people of color globally and nationally can easily be seen among the participants, members, and leaders of color in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  For far too long, we have watched our friends and colleagues (especially of African Descent) die and grow gravely ill because of health conditions like those mentioned above.

The economic inequities among many of the ELCA’s congregations often reveals the most impoverished communities having to do so much more with fewer resources. Many rostered leaders of color are still struggling to pay health insurance premiums and deductibles out of meager church budgets and inconsistent paychecks.


We as a Church can do so much more to reverse these trends and inequities.  We need to continue to increase our support and advocacy for people of color who are disproportionately affected by this pandemic and are in critical need of help.

Let’s take up this cross that we bear right now in 2020 and follow Jesus who has led us to a better life for all.

thumbnail_FA8E4011-39C2-4606-BA51-BD06D77FB2D6Rev. Lamont Anthony Wells is the Program Director for LuMin/ Campus Ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). LuMin is a network of over 240 colleges and universities. He is also the National President of the African Descent Lutheran Association (ELCA). Pastor Wells is a graduate of Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, both in Atlanta, Ga; and has studied at Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell University. As a dynamic speaker, Rev. Wells is frequently called to share prophetic messages of ecumenism and social justice which motivates him as a leader and community organizer.

These Times Call for a Prophetic Church – Rev. Kenneth Wheeler

In a truly stirring address to our reader one of the most august voices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rev. Kenneth Wheeler, weighs in with a passionate reminder of how Jesus call for love and justice animated the very soul of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and by extension must continue to do so today. So on this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, take in this reflection and ask God where you are to be sent!

Francisco Herrera – PhD student and Interim Editor

Dr. King and Coretta Scott King being booked for arrest.

Edgar Hoover who was the Director of The F.B.I. during Dr. King’s life called him the most dangerous man in America. He said that because he believed although wrongly that Dr. King had Communist ties. But although Hoover was wrong about Dr. King having communist ties he was right in calling Dr. King dangerous.

He was dangerous because his message was a prophetic message that challenged a Nation’s assumptions about truth and power. Power that defined itself in the misguided notion of white supremacy that would violate and denigrate the personality and humanity of African-American people;

Many of our churches and our Pastors have lost the capacity to be dangerous because we have lost our prophetic voice and we have lost our prophetic voice because we have cleaned Jesus up and made him antiseptic and sterile so that the crosses we wear around our necks are just decoration.

In times like these we need for the church to recapture its reputation for being dangerous.

In times like these we need the church to be a drum major for Justice. In times like these we need a prophetic church – called by God to be God’s mouthpiece, called to declare “thus said the Lord.” Called to speak a Word and let the chips fall where they may, Called to march into the palace of the King and tell him, “Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream” (Micah 5:24).

Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah were prophets who functioned in the 8th century BCE in Israel. They were speaking to a social and economic context very much like the times in which we live. There was a huge gap and a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The majority of wealth was concentrated in the hands of the ruling elite while the poor were scraping to get by. And most egregious was an unbridled greed and arrogance that made those in power callous to meting out justice fairly and evenly. And so when we read these words in Isaiah 58 we understand the basis for the harshness of the prophet. He says to them that God will not honor your worship because it is a sham. “You gather into your houses of worship and on your fast days you cover your head with ashes and sackcloth but you refuse to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free” (Isa. 58:4-6). Prophets don’t fleece their people.

Prophets aren’t governed by public opinion polls. By the nature of their call they will often create enemies especially those who are in seats of power. Their prophetic task will mean that they will find themselves alone and alienated from family and friends. Near the end of Dr. King’s life he found himself standing isolated and alone when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam.

Dr. King marching against the war in Vietnam.

In 1967 Dr. King delivered perhaps one of the most important speeches of his life. Delivered at Riverside Church in New York, it was entitled “A Time to Break Silence.” – and it he made official his opposition to the Vietnam War and the reasons for his opposition. Dr. King was widely criticized for this speech from every corner, including those who had been very close to him during the Civil Rights movement. Some folk would call him a traitor because they saw this speech as an attack against President Lyndon Johnson, who had been deemed as a great friend to the Civil Rights Movement. Time Magazine called the speech demagogic slander, and The Washington Post went so far as to declare that Dr. King had diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.

King’s opposition to the war was rooted first and foremost in his understanding of a faith that saw the sanctity of life all life. War and particularly the Vietnam War and we could add the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and are fundamentally destructive to this divine principle. King saw faith as real and that is why he clung to the principle of non-violence. Non-violence was a practical and pragmatic way to live out the words of Micah 6: . “The Lord has shown us what is good and what does he require of us? But to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

All of life he said was interwoven; inextricably bound. Justice was indivisible. Violence is fundamentally a threat not only to justice but to community. Our commitment must be to justice, to building communities that provide for fairness and economic health that reach across all communities for where justice reigns peace reigns.

Too many young men and women have lost their lives over insignificant things like some insignia that bears the name of some athlete on a shoe or a jersey that somebody wants and would be willing to kill for because we have come to a place in our culture where things have become more important than a human life.

Several years ago I preached on the Southside of Chicago, in a neighborhood of where a week prior a father was in a van changing the diaper of his six month old infant when someone pulled up who obviously knew the father and let out a barrage of bullets – five of them ripping through the body of that baby. Our associations have consequences. The people we hang with if they are dealing in unsavory things have consequences and sometimes the consequences are tragic and ugly.


When I was a Pastor at Cross Lutheran in downtown Milwaukee, I remember the cold-blooded murder of a mother, gunned-down like a dog as her young teenage year old son watched and then cradled his mother in his arms as she lay dying. Her life was taken for the contents of her purse.

Every time I think about the concealed-carry law I have to wonder what were those lawmakers thinking not only when they proposed it but when they passed it.

Dr. King talked about the need for somebody to exercise common sense. In a climate where our urban centers night after night continue to experience horrific and devastating acts of violence why do we need to put more guns in circulation and risk putting more and more innocent people in harm’s way? More importantly, what does this law teach our children about how they should settle conflict?

Jesus reminds us that if we choose to live by the law of retribution, an eye for an eye the result is blindness.

We’ve become comfortable as a people with the makeshift memorials that dot too many places in our neighborhoods that mark the spot where another one of our children have become the victims of gun violence.

And much of the responsibility for the violence that we witness I believe must be borne by the policies of a nation that have historically disregarded the humanity and dignity of communities of people because their skin color was red, black, or brown.

The sin of racism has perverted our religion, our courts and our body politic. This is the first violence and it is the violence that we must work diligently to eradicate whenever we see it and wherever it raises its ugly head.

I have come to the conclusion and we all need to come to understand that poverty is more than about individual choices and circumstances. To see poverty in this way is to miss the forces and the policies that are made by people outside of the community that often impact the poor in ways that keep them poor.

Hospitals who choose to close their doors and leave a community already desperate for good health care that’s economic violence.

Factories that choose to shut down and move to another region in the country or to move out of the country because they would like to increase their profit margins by paying lower wages and fewer benefits to people who would just be happy to have a job – that’s economic violence.

We close schools in the most challenged communities, in communities that need quality education the most, and who could benefit from having the most creative, seasoned and compassionate educators and we build prisons – that’s violence to the nth degree and we ought to be up in arms about that trigger that somebody is also pulling every day.


Dr. King  opposed this war on moral grounds, on religious grounds – as a matter of his own faith and how he understood the mission and ministry of Jesus but he would also make a powerful connection between the injustice of that war and any war for that matter that diverts valuable resources from the poorest of the poor in our own Nation.

In his own words: “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men in my own country, I have told them that guns and violence will not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked and rightly so, what about Vietnam [and for 2020 – Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran?] They asked if our own Nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today; my own government. For the sake of these young men, for the sake of my own government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

And we cannot be silent.

Ultimately, the violence that is happening in our own communities with our children killing each other means that there is a work for us to do. We cannot give up on our children. They need us more now than ever. They need for us to care. They need for us to believe in them, to love them, to inspire them to dream. But most of all they need to see in us who are their elders a consistency between the values and morality we preach and teach matching the lives we lead.

On a larger scale we must work to build a community that is filled with quality schools and we must work to ensure that these schools are filled with educators who believe that every child is capable of learning.

We must work tirelessly to put people in offices  who will pay attention to our communities and to those issues that will allow our neighborhoods to flourish and our people to succeed.


Because there is violence in poverty. This is the first violence. Long and protracted poverty that has become entrenched so deep that it settles into the bones is violence of the worst kind because it scars the soul. It kills one’s dreams.

When I have listened to some of the King tributes in recent years I hear a King that is unrecognizable to me. He has been turned into some kind of fairy tale figure and we end up trivializing his significance in the struggle for justice and human dignity. If his life is to have any real meaning for this age we’ve got to take him out of the monument that we have placed him in, chisel away at that rock until we touch the humanity of who he was-find the soul and the faith that allowed him to lead a movement that challenged a violent and brutal system that everyday made a conscious choice to denigrate a people and squash their personality because of the color of their skin.


Equally, some of us have made Jesus so divine that we have made him untouchable. But that’s not the Jesus that I read about. My Bible tells me about a Jesus who went to the Temple and turned over tables and drove out those who were using religion to extort monies from the poorest members of the community. My Bible tells me about this same Jesus who came to his hometown and preached a message filled with the imagination of God:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor. He has sent me to announce pardon to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind. To set the burdened and the battered free and to announce: that this is God’s time to act.” (Luke 4:14-21)

This is the Jesus that King came to know. This was the work and faith of Jesus that inspired him. But this is the same Jesus that we confess as Lord and Savior. This Jesus the flesh and blood Jesus who ate with sinners, who touched lepers, who healed the sick, who fed the hungry masses, who experienced the disappointment of denial and betrayal by his friends, who so loved the world that he gave his life for that world that we might have life and that life abundant not just in the great bye and bye but abundant life on this side of the grave.

They did not march for naught. They did not march so that we could turn on each other like wild dogs, not able to see each other as the brothers and sisters we are.

They did not suffer the daily humiliation of being called out of their names, of being addressed as “boy,” or “girl,” when they were 40-50-60 and 70 years old by whites who believed that Black people were less than human and not worthy of being addressed by the title of Mr. or Mrs.  No! No! They did not suffer the kind of wounds so that we can humiliate and wound each other by using the “n-word” –   word that still carries with it a kind of vitriol and poison whose primary aim is to destroy and kill; They did not march, go to jail, bleed and die so that we could ever turn on each other and wreak havoc and leave a trail of fathers broken and mothers weeping not because their children have died for something important and noble but because we felt that somebody challenged our manhood ,or disrespected us with a glance or a stare that we took as a threat.

They did not march and struggle and suffer a daily humiliation by those who thought them less than human-not worthy of the freedom of a human being-the dignity of a human being.

We celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today but surely this day is more than just about one man or one man’s life. It is about many people, a movement that grew out of a clear view that people deserved to be treated with dignity and respect.

And when I think about this struggle it was a struggle rooted in love.

Love gives us courage to fight against what is unjust and dark and evil, but it also gives us the courage to fight for our own humanity as well as the humanity of others and finally it gives us courage to act on behalf of the community to build community-a community where there is justice and dignity and opportunities for every individual to reach their full potential. These are difficult days still. There are people still living under the burden of economic oppression. We are losing to many of our young black males to prison – which Professor Michelle Alexander is calling The New Jim Crow. Poverty in this community is a nightmare. People are suffering because justice is scarce. Drugs have become a scourge on our community wreaking havoc not just upon individual lives but upon families.


God’s ears are attuned to us. He hears our every groan. He hears our every cry.

And he’s calling out with His burning question: Who will go for us? The fullness of the Godhead is united in the question and united in the vision. Who will go?

Isaiah answered ‘Here I am Lord!” Send me.”

May it be so with you and me!

Get your courage up

There are some people counting on you and me to make our faith more than just about words.


wheelerBorn in Vicksburg, MS. 1952 raised in Jackson, the Rev. Kenneth Wheeler was educated in the Jackson Public School System. He received B.A. in Religion 1974 from Concordia College Moorhead, MN and his M.Div. 1982 Trinity Lutheran Seminary Columbus, Ohio – and was granted an Honorary Doctorate 2018 from Wartburg Seminary. During his rich ministry life he served 18 years as Assistant to the Bishop, Greater Milwaukee Synod (ELCA) as well as pastoring 16 congregations as a trained intentional interim. In his own words, “I have a passion for justice because I believe that Justice is a Gospel issue. I have been privileged to speak in a number of places across the country on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout my ministry and that continues even in retirement.” These days, he glories in time spent wonderful wife of 44 years, Cloria – along with their three adult sons and five grand-children. In retirement their enjoy travel, reading and spending precious time with his grand-kids.

Our Wait Is Not an Idle Wait – Rev. Kenneth Wheeler

Continuing our theme of What I am waiting for this Advent…” Rev. Kenneth Wheeler, sometime regular to We Talk. We Listen. gives us a special reminder of how “to wait” has very different meanings to very different people – and as a black man, the word “wait” carries the impossible wait of white indifference. So enjoy this last, precious reflection of the season, and we’ll be seeing you in Christmas. And of course, read, comment, and share.
Francisco Herrera – PhD student and Interim Editor

“Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.
They will spread their wings and soar like eagles; They will run and not get tired.”
Isaiah 40:31

The prophet Isaiah is writing to a people who know the enigma of oppression and captivity. Their land has been invaded by the Babylonians, their Temple has been left in ruins and they have been carted off to the land of their captors. The darkness for them is real and now the prophet speaks this word about waiting.

I grew up in the Deep South when segregation was legal. Our movement and our freedom as Black People were restricted. White People in that moment who held all of the power presumed to speak for us-presumed to know us and to know what was best for us.

When our people stood up to demand our freedom, to assert our humanity we would often hear from those who held the seats of power…



The word became an ugly word to me because coming from the mouths of our oppressors to wait meant to slow up, to slow down and cool off. We are doing all we can to make things right they would say just be patient but being patient and waiting meant doing nothing and doing nothing was not an option.But the waiting that Isaiah speaks of in this text is not a sit on your hands, do nothing kind of waiting.

It is not an idle wait.


This is a hope filled waiting because God is in the wait and God is active and acting in the wait. God is preparing to do a New thing. In the darkness a light shines and that light shines upon God’s people.

Harriet (2019)

My wife and I saw the movie Harriet over the Thanksgiving Holiday. It is the story of Harriet Tubman, a woman born into slavery but who never accepted the narrative that her white slave master told about her or her People. She was a woman of deep faith, a strong faith. She believed that God talked to her and not just talked to her but directed her in her effort to free herself and to free her people from the terrible and cruel reality of slavery. She would say, “No human being was meant to own another human being.”

In the spirit of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Moses and Jesus my trust and my faith are rooted in this God who hears our cry for deliverance, liberation and justice and who stands in solidarity with us in our thirst to be free and to live with the dignity that every person is meant to live with.

There are forces today just as there were in the time of Isaiah who claimed to have all of the power and who use that power to intimidate, humiliate and denigrate the personality of those that they deem less worthy and of little significance.

I wake some mornings feeling the weariness of these times from the daily assaults being waged against poor people, Immigrants and People of color. And when I am tempted to throw in the towel I hear the words of this prophet reminding us that God is the Creator of all that we can see.

He does not grow tired. He does not pause to catch his breath.
He energizes those who get tired.
For even young people get tired and drop out,
Young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.

I’m longing for a time when my sleep will not be interrupted by a nightmare of police violence that has happened to some young black male, not because he has broken the law but because his black skin has been weaponized.

I’m longing for some peace and reconciliation between the races before I leave this earth. And because my wait is a hope-filled wait I will continue to work for the kind of world that I’m longing for.


In the Season of Hope, Promise and Possibility,

The Reverend Kenneth W.


Born in Vicksburg, MS. 1952 raised in Jackson, the Rev. Kenneth Wheeler was educated in the Jackson Public School System. He received B.A. in Religion 1974 from Concordia College Moorhead, MN and his M.Div. 1982 Trinity Lutheran Seminary Columbus, Ohio – and was granted an Honorary Doctorate 2018 from Wartburg Seminary. During his rich ministry life he served 18 years as Assistant to the Bishop, Greater Milwaukee Synod (ELCA) as well as pastoring 16 congregations as a trained intentional interim. In his own words, “I have a passion for justice because I believe that Justice is a Gospel issue. I have been privileged to speak in a number of places across the country on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout my ministry and that continues even in retirement.” These days, he glories in time spent wonderful wife of 44 years, Cloria – along with their three adult sons and five grand-children. In retirement their enjoy travel, reading and spending precious time with his grand-kids.

My Testimony – Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas

Linda Thomas & Dr. Cone--Graduation June 1981_let
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.

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).

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.


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.


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.

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.”

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.


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.

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.

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).


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.”


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.

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 health.jpg

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.


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


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