Tasked with the role of ministering in a church that is 96% white, any pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who is a person of color other than white has a special role to play. They have a two-fold job – to change the structures of the church and society that keep people of color at risk, as well as doing what they can to protect and defend people of color wherever they are at risk. The Rev. Dr. Katrina Foster – pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, NY – reflects on this reality with a mix of personal anecdote, riffs on the apostle Paul, and how combating white supremacy needs to be a top priority for all white Christians. This has been a crucial part of her ministry, and her observations are as poignant as they are jarring. So please, read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
My honorary daughter called me from Chicago recently. My ringer was turned off. I was in a training for an anti-racism curriculum to be included in the Diakonia class I teach. She tried Whatsapp and texted me. When I turned my phone during our lunch break, I saw all the activity.
I called her back. Usually when we talk, it is very substantial, but also fun, funny and easy.
When she answered the phone, I knew she was scared.
She told me about a disturbed man who came to the church where she works. She’s not yet ordained, but she was the closest thing to a pastor there that day.
So she met with him, listened as he described the storms in his mind and all that scared him. She listened as he said he had a gun in his car.
She got the gun away from him.
And now, she was calling because she was scared, not of the man or even the gun. She was terrified of what could happen if she, a young woman of color, called the police to ask them to come get it.
She called around and I did too, to find a white, male pastor who could call the police and facilitate the hand over of the gun. It felt like it took forever. I was ready to fly from New York to Chicago to do it myself.
Lest you think she had no reason to be afraid as a woman of color with a gun, please remember Philando Castile was in legal possession of a handgun and was shot and killed while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four year old daughter.
Remember, Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times when he tried to pull his wallet out to show the police his identification when they mistook him for a rape suspect.
Remember, Stephon Clark who was killed in his grandparents backyard when police thought he had a weapon. He did not.
In my nearly 24 years of ordained ministry, I have had many occasions to call the police, usually my local precinct, to come get a weapon or drugs I had taken from someone or that had been given to me. Not once did it occur to me that the police might think I was doing something illegal. Not once did it occur to me that I would be accused of breaking the law.
Not once did it occur to me that I could be seen as a threat. Not once.
That is the very definition of white privilege. As a little, white, middle aged woman, I am not seen as a threat. I am not assumed to be guilty of anything. I have never been afraid of the police. I enjoy all the benefits and privileges of citizenship.
My honorary daughter could not assume she would be safe. She could not assume she would be seen as innocent. She could not assume she would not be shot. She is a well educated, thoughtful, powerful, amazing law abiding American born citizen of this country. None of this would guarantee her safety. Long ago, she was convicted in the womb and must prove her innocence always.
In Jesus and the Disinherited, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman draws out the primary contextual difference between Jesus and Paul. The difference was Paul was a Roman citizen, Jesus was not. Paul “was of a minority but with majority privileges.”
I have often puzzled over Paul’s promotion of government as it is. His urging of people who were slaves to remain in that position and not rebel seemed out of character when set side by side with his radical theology of inclusion and recognition of women in leadership roles.
For most of my life I simply assumed Paul favored the status quo, government as it simply is, etc., because he expected Jesus to come back very soon. Why bother changing the world, systems of oppression, if Jesus was coming back any moment now?
I think that mindset was probably true. His life as a Roman citizen and the privileges afforded him made him more comfortable under Roman rule. His fellow non-Roman citizen Jews chafed and rebelled under this oppression and had no expectations of benefits or blessings from the government.
I have been thinking about this difference between Paul and Jesus as I have been reflecting upon what happened to my kid. We are both American citizens, we are both baptized, we are both well educated, strong, and on and on.
The color of my skin affords me the full blessings and benefits that white citizens expect. The color of her skin puts her in danger first, makes her suspect, makes it less likely she will be afforded the blessings and benefits of citizenship.
I failed Greek the first time I took the class in seminary during the summer intensive. I barely passed my second attempt. But, I did fall in love with some Greek words, one in particular: metanoia, μετάνοια.
Metanoia is often translated “repent.” There is another meaning which is to change how one looks at things, to change one’s mind. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
When I studied sociology as an undergraduate student and took classes in subjects like Race and Ethnicity, Social Stratification and Criminology, I was able to begin questioning the lies I was raised with about white superiority and the inferiority of all others.
When in seminary and I learned about biblical criticism and sat through lectures that tore apart my simple faith and replaced it with a real relationship with Christ, I was equipped to question our role is systemic racism and misogyny and a social religion that kept god on our side over and against all that I was raised to fear.
When I began serving my first call in the Bronx, I saw the transformative power of faith in the lives of everyday, kitchen table saints. I experienced the renewing power of worship in our lives together. I came to understand I could not go back to old ways of thinking and believing. I could no longer have a pocket sized, MAGA Jesus. I needed this poor, Palestinian, iterent Jewish Rabbi whom I came to believe is the Messiah.
I needed this non-citizen of the Roman Empire who changed the world, created hope, healed, fed, led and called us to go and make disciples of all nations.
I needed Paul at his best when he taught us to trust in the one “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
I needed to metanoia, to change the way I looked at the world and the way I thought.
I must try to convince you and continue to convince myself, that we are called to speak, to work, to pray, to labor and to make justice.
I must convince you and continue to be convinced myself that the world can be different than what it is right now. I must convince you and continue to believe for myself that we are better together than apart. I must continue to convince you that my kid’s body matters because Black Lives Matter.
I must keep praying and working, and hoping and believing. “Not talking about race does not make the matter of race disappear. It only sustains the culture of race that continues to take the lives of our children.” (p. 227 Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God Kelly Brown Douglas)
After the white male pastor came and got the gun to the police, and I knew my kid was safer, I went to my church to do some more work. I sat at my desk to something, but I could not sit and read, or reflect.
I went and laid in front of the altar, staring up at the Crucifixion/Lynching scene, staring at the angels on the ceiling. Screamed and sobbed in rage at Jesus. Seethe prayed at God who knew what it was to have a child murdered by the state.
I have no happy ending to this essay, no answer to these omnipresent yet invisible reaches of systemic injustice and racism, no way to let us off the hook.
This is what I have, clarity that God is still calling us to DO JUSTICE, LOVE KINDNESS AND WALK HUMBLY. Clarity that when we pray THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH, that is a command we are called to follow. Clarity that the most frequent command in scripture, DO NOT BE AFRAID, is still spoken by angels to us in the midst of all that is too big.
I do not have certainty of how to fix all that is wrong, I have clarity that we, Jesus people, are called in the church and without, to not give up and to hold onto hope.
Friends, no matter what, be encouraged, pray and work.
Katrina D. Foster earned a B.A. in Religion/Philosophy and Sociology from Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. She earned a Master’s of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. She earned a Doctorate of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, May, 2008, focusing on Stewardship and Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Now in her third decade of ministry in both the parish and the street, she began serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, Greenpoint, Brooklyn – where her work was the focus of an award-winning short documentary by The Front entitled “Working Women: The Urban Pastor.” And since May of this year, Pastor Foster will be one of the presenters in the PBS series The Great American Read – presenting 1984 by George Orwell.