by Anne E. Basye—
“I can’t breathe.”
These three words catapulted anti-racism work to the top of the ELCA agenda last summer.
Anti-racism work has been central to the ELCA since 1993, when the churchwide assembly voted to approve the social statement Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture. Since then, congregations, synods, colleges and the ELCA churchwide organization have steadily worked toward celebrating differences as blessings rather than as a means of oppression and discrimination. Training by synod teams helped thousands of congregational leaders grasp the issues and structures behind racism. More than 3,500 people signed an online pledge to commit to study, prayer and action to become an anti-racist individual in an anti-racist church.
Yet video footage of George Floyd, a Black man, dying at the hands of Minneapolis police officers showed how much work lies ahead.
“Anti-racism work is not an inoculation,” says Gwendolyn King, an ELCA pastor who co-chairs the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod anti-racism team. “You can’t get a shot and say you’re done. You have to go back, learn more history and have deeper conversations. It’s a journey very much connected to who we are as followers of Christ bringing about the kingdom.”
Some on the journey are listening to new voices, building new relationships and advocating for justice. Those just starting the journey are confronting tough questions.
“HOW DO WE RESPOND?”
When George Floyd’s death prompted protests, Carla Wilson, an ELCA pastor, heard plenty of questions from members of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: I don’t know what to do or how to help. How am I supposed to feel? How is Jesus calling me to respond?
“For people living in all-white communities or rural Pennsylvania, this feels very immediate and necessary, but it also feels like, In what way is this my struggle?” Wilson says. “How do I get involved in a way that is authentic and supportive?”
The congregation’s first step was to launch a racial justice and equity small group.
Wilson is Black. The group leader, Kristen Albert, is white. She says the group wanted to explore why the congregation is not reflective of its community, how it got that way and why it stays that way.
“What do we need to learn to be able to understand how our church fits into the whole complexion of whiteness in a rather diverse community?” Albert asks.
First, they explored the nature of power, privilege and leadership. Then the 14-member group began studying The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. Tisby’s account of how early slaves in North America had to acknowledge that baptism freed them “in spirit” but not in body “blew us away,” Albert says.
“Grappling with the very real relationship between the church and racism, we went back to the words of Jesus,” Wilson says. “In every example, he says we are to practice love, and that love looks like justice. We are to seek justice for neighbors and support people who are speaking and advocating for justice.”
That also means proclaiming justice from the pulpit. Monthly, Good Shepherd pastoral staff “preach justice, love, support and care for our Black and brown neighbors,” Wilson says. “If we were too nervous or ambiguous to do this, we would be undermining everything else we do.”
Keith Spencer, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Florida, talks about racism in his sermons because members are “inundated with all kinds of narratives that evoke fear and falsehood,” he says. “We have a responsibility to help people navigate what is going on in the world by lifting up the church’s narrative of justice, grace and peace.”
Last June 17, Trinity commemorated the Emanuel Nine Martyrs, killed by a gunman at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. The online service of lament prompted 43 members and friends to discuss, online, Dear Church: A Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US by Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor.
Participant Adria Gitto has a daughter of Jamaican heritage who is adopted and sometimes feels like she sticks out as a Black person in a white family.
“What struck home for me was how we as the American church have embraced this concept of Jesus being a white person, not recognizing that he obviously wasn’t,” she says. “We might tell my daughter over and over again that she is made in God’s image, but Jesus is depicted as somebody who looks like me.”
LEARNING ABOUT SYSTEMIC RACISM
Just after George Floyd’s death, people from 12 congregations joined six online conversations on race organized by the anti-racism team of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. Prayer, scripture, videos and America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis guided their sharing and reflection. Stories were personal and often intense.
“I went to school with African Americans, have them as neighbors around the corner in my development and pass them in the stores,” said one participant, “but knowing their pain, their daily fears, their worry about life: I had no clue.”
To find those clues, many congregations and synodical women’s organizations spent last summer discussing books at the top of the bestseller list: Waking Up White by Debby Irving, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, Dear Church and America’s Original Sin.
These are challenging texts. “We are a racialized society, and we have a history,” says ELCA pastor Gwen King. “If we know that history, we can have much more effective conversations regarding race within the church.”
Beloved Community, an Anglican and Lutheran minis- try in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, explored anti-racism using the “Sacred Ground” curriculum by Episcopalian Katrina Brown, a descendant of slave owners who has written for Gather. Meeting online every two weeks from July to October, they discovered that online video-conferencing let members and people from as far away as Maine “be more
intimate than they would ever be in person,” said Jane Johnson, an Episcopal priest who serves Beloved Community.
One woman, whose congregation was debating whether racism even exists, turned to an online group sponsored by the East- Central Synod of Wisconsin’s women’s organization. That group’s organizer, SWO president Deb Martin, lives in Oshkosh— which was once one of many “sundown towns” that encouraged or required Black people to leave town by dark.
Martin led a discussion of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. “I am a white person speaking to white people that there is systemic racism,” Martin says. “I am still learning, but I want to facilitate getting more people to understand what that means and what our part is in changing it.”
Members of Northwoods STaR Ministries, a rural, multi- point ministry near the town of Medford, Wisconsin, “thought we understood some things about racism,” ELCA pastor Evelyn Panula Weston says. Reading and discussing Waking Up White by Debby Irving, “we realized there’s a lot we didn’t know,” she explains. “The book is changing our perception of what is happening. We hear the news stories differently.”
LISTENING TO VOICES, EXPERIENCES AND EXPERTISE
To Anita Warner, pastor at Advent Lutheran in Morgan Hill, California, “hearing differently” means “opening up to comprehending the lived experience of Black and brown people in this country, and the everyday violence in many forms that they have to navigate.”
Fifty Advent members began cultivating openness by participating in anti-racism training four years ago. A book discussion opens each council meeting. Council members have worked their way through many of the titles listed above.
Advent leaders listened carefully to Latino neighbors as together they co-developed the Beloved Community Arts Center, which offers affordable music and arts classes to mostly Latino children.
“Inviting our neighbors to take the lead and set the direction of programming helped us learn how to practice just relationships,” Warner says.
A 90-minute white caucus let Desta Ronning Goehner explore when she first realized she was white, when she first noticed racism in the world and church, and when she first noticed that whites believed they were better than people of color.
Listening to four ELCA leaders of color helped Goehner, director of congregational relations for California Lutheran University, shape and host an online caucus for white people in congregations in ELCA regions 1 and 2.
“I was looking for honest feedback from people who have lived the experience of being a person of color in the ELCA,” she says, “and we paid them for their time. The wisdom that comes from their lived experience makes their labor of sharing the trauma and experiences worth paying them. We can’t assume they’ll do this for free.”
“What do you wish white people in the ELCA knew?” she asked them. Using their feedback, she constructed an action/reflection model that she hopes will encourage “white people to gather, share stories and listen to the stories and experiences of people of color in the ELCA to help move us into a new space of understanding oppression, racism and white supremacy.”
Listening to one another during a shared weekly online Bible study is helping two Dallas congregations build a new relationship. Emanuel Lutheran in downtown Dallas and St. John’s Lutheran in the south Oak Cliff neighborhood “saw each other at synod events but didn’t really know each other,” says Emanuel pastor Cindy Carroll. Now the two congregations take turns leading the Wednesday evening study, which focuses on spiritual gifts.
“We are a predominately Black church, and the congregations we partner with are primarily white,” says St. John’s member Madeline Richard. “Focusing on biblical and spiritual learning, we are all learning from one another. And it’s nice to know we are all praying for one another and not against one another.”