The denominational merger that resulted in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America culminated on January 1, 1988, after several years of hard work by a group of 70 leaders known as the Commission for New Lutheran Church (CNLC…oh we do love our acronyms…) That is personally significant to me as I was a Senior at Luther Seminary anticipating joining the first class of pastors to be ordained into the ELCA.
I was a late arriver to Lutheranism. I didn’t join a congregation until 1982, just before my junior year in college. It was a congregation of the American Lutheran Church (ALC) although I didn’t notice that at the time. I spent summers at the time with my Dad north of Seattle and I joined the church that they attended. I didn’t consider joining any other congregation or denomination. I was white and half Norwegian. So were most of the people there.
I didn’t have an African American friend until I got to college. A kid from Montana lived right next door. We were good friends for awhile until I messed that up, due to the nature of how our friendship worked, not to issues of race. I also had some African American teammates on my basketball team.
I remember a time in a political science course where I teamed up with an African American woman to argue on the “for” side regarding affirmative action in a class project. Intuitively, I knew that it would be impossible for me to argue against affirmative action. Why? Because I grew up poor and I was very sensitive to the benefits which richer families had and the challenges that faced me.
And I actually had it pretty good. I didn’t know the words “white privilege” but I benefited from it every single day of my life.
Thus it was that I found myself in the seminary, listening to professors snipe critical thoughts about the prospects of a new Lutheran church, hearing inside jokes when with a professor and the “guys” about the good old days when women weren’t allowed to attend seminary. I knew it my gut it was wrong and I knew it ran far deeper than gender and diversity. I knew it was the death rattle of an old way of being that would valiantly struggle to hold on to life as they knew it.
I did my internship in Cheyenne, WY. We had two African American members. The husband in a biracial marriage and a delightful old lady who thought my job as an intern was to take her grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments. Since Cheyenne was an Air Force town we had quite a few African Americans down at the YMCA where I played ball. I was invited to play on a city league basketball team where I was the only white player. One time a teammate came to church…he never came again. I remember feeling so embarrassed at the culture shock that greeted him when he stepped through the door. All he told me later was “Man, I didn’t really feel right in there.” Enough said.
I was more than excited to be ordained into a denomination that wanted to do more than simply acknowledge that it was a 97+% White church with an immigrant heritage. The goal of encouraging (and enforcing) diversity in this new church body was brutally criticized as a “quota system” which is not even a barely shaded racist rant. I remember the early years as strident voices looked for every way possible to criticize “Higgins Road.” I knew again in my gut that racism and the loss of white privilege and power was what fueled the vehemence.
My first call in Houston was to Zion Lutheran Church. Zion was a host congregation to a Latino mission congregation. Prior to my arrival it seemed that the relationship was basically landlord/tenant, out of sight and out of mind, and periodically they sold tamales after worship to raise money. We tried to build bridges but our attempts were half-hearted. We could have done so much better. Looking back now it is clear to me that they should have called Pastor Castenada to be on their staff rather than looking for a cheap first year seminarian with a family to help them “reach young families to make sure that our church doesn’t die.” Of course no one said it that way…
My second call was to Covenant Lutheran on the far west side of Houston. After a couple of years it was obvious that we had outgrown our site and needed to buy land and move. As we moved toward that day we entered an agreement with a Philipino United Methodist Church. We gave them a sweetheart deal and shared our space for over two years before we were ready to move.
Yes, we had outgrown our church BUT we figured out a way to share our spaces to host two congregations in the same tiny space for over two years. We had joint worship services on Christmas Eve, Holy Week, and I preached at their Easter Sunrise service. Again I came away convinced that openness to diversity, though challenging, proves a blessing to all.
I moved on to a short stint in the synod office. Immediately I discovered that we had more people worshiping in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese every weekend than in Spanish. How could I have served in our synod for over 20 years and not known that? We only had three African American congregations in the entire synod, each largely ignored. The OVERWHELMING VAST MAJORITY of mission dollars went to white suburban mission congregations. At one point when I counted, 17% of our clergy were female.
We looked like a church that gave lip service to diversity but took very little action.
I am writing this today to acknowledge that Bishop Rinehart has worked valiantly to lift up the reality of diversity. The synod staff has included persons of color. Assistants Don Carlson and Blair Lundborg have done everything they could to bring more female and persons of color into our synod. But there is only so much they can do.
I am also writing this today because the congregation I am now blessed to serve, Faith Lutheran Church, has responded wonderfully to the challenge of becoming a multicultural church. We worship in two languages every weekend. The staff of our church and school includes both males and females who are African Americans, Latina’s, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Caucasian. We serve breakfast and lunch every single Sunday to create spaces for people to get to know each other as well as providing a nice service to families who get by on meager incomes. I know this is hard but I know this can be done in every single one of our congregations. I can’t prove this but I think that if everyone had really embraced the invitation to focus on diversity we would see a very different reality in the ELCA today.
All of us must recommit ourselves to the goal of transforming communities of faith to be reflective of the communities within which God has planted them. We need to WANT that, to OWN that, and to be INTENTIONAL ABOUT IT if we are ever going to see lasting change. If we don’t do that we will miss out on the blessing of being challenged and seeing the Gospel as it is rather than how we have recast it to serve ourselves.
Enough of that and, at some point, the days will come when someone will turn out the lights on the last ELCA congregation in town, we will sell our properties to others who are willing to serve their local communities, and everyone will be better off.