I’ve written before about my beloved albeit broken community; about my church and why I continue to be engaged with a community of faith. I am a member of and leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one of the largest Protestant denominations in this country. My church has approximately 3.8 million members in around 10,000 congregations across the U.S. and the Caribbean. This church is a historically white church, founded by a German Catholic monk named Martin Luther. He never wanted to start a new church, he wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Luther felt like the church was not speaking in the language of the people and that the church had lost it’s prophetic voice and leadership within society. His 95 Theses marked the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation. In 2017, Lutherans around the world will mark the 500th anniversary of this historic event. My church is a church that was born out of truth-telling, risk taking and prophetic imagination.
I’ve always claimed this church as my church. I often say I am a bit of a unicorn – a Black Puerto Rican, third generation Lutheran. I was baptized, confirmed, married, educated and called to ministry in this church. At the founding convention of this church, there was a vision that the church would be 10% people of color within 10 years of our inception. This percentage has not come to pass and we’ve actually declined in the number of members of color within the church. There were always small pockets of communities of color within the denomination and people of color who were members of largely white congregations, but as a whole, we have not been good at addressing the cultural divisions that our church continues to embody.
So here I am, a young Black woman who is a leader in a predominantly white church. The past year has been difficult for me to reconcile my cultural identity and my denominational identity. I have long been a defender of the Lutheran church even as I have experienced the structural racism and brokenness that the church exhibits.
I’ve been asked if I went to college by members of this church. Not what college I went to, but if I went to college.
I’ve been told that my ability to articulate theological concepts is impressive.
I’ve been asked if one can touch my hair while being in a professional setting.
I’ve been ignored in congregations that I go to visit until people realize “who I am”.
I’ve been asked when I became Lutheran, because surely a black woman could not be born into this tradition.
I see how leaders of color are viewed and cannot get calls in congregations because “they aren’t a good fit” (read: we are a white congregation and we don’t know how to have a leader of color.)
There have also been microagressions – things that happen in subversive ways that undermine my leadership and authority – that are too many to count. At times I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or because I’m younger or because I’m Black. I’m always left wondering.
I’m always cognizant of the way I present myself in mostly white spaces. I think about who’s going to be there, what expectations they might have, how I talk about race and politics, what I wear, what my facial expressions are and how I am present. It’s a lot easier to notice my absence when I’m the only one or one of a handful of people of color at events. I listen to how people talk about people of color who are “difficult to work with” or Black women who “happen to be angry” or women of color in leadership who are “controlling”. I pay attention to these things and I choose to show up in a certain way. To be gracious and humble. To be witty and intellectual. To speak truth but wrap it in love so that it’s more palatable. Like most people of color, I live what W.E.B. DuBois called Double Consciousness everyday of my life. I know without a shadow of a doubt that there are at least two worlds that exist – the white world and the world of people of color. We have to translate language, social norms and behaviors in order to “fit in” and survive.
As details came out of Charleston last week, my heart shattered into a million pieces. At first it was simply because Black people were killed. Then it was because Black people were killed in their church home. Then it was because Black people were killed in their church home as they engaged in bible study and welcomed a stranger. Then it was because Black people were killed in their church home as they engaged in bible study and welcomed a stranger who was a white young adult. Then my world came crashing down around me as the news became public that the white young adult was a member of an ELCA congregation and that two of the people who were killed were graduates of an ELCA seminary.
It hit me like a ton of bricks: I am a part of a church that raises racist white people who then kill people of color who are educated in our institutions. That may seem like an oversimplification to some, but this truth broke what was left of my heart and I plunged into despair.
My thoughts began to swirl and I’ve literally had a headache for over a week.
I have been claiming a church as my own that’s not actually my church. My cultural practices and ways of being are not seen as authentically “Lutheran”.
I have been defending a church that has never repented of the systemic racism that is present within.
I have been leading within a church that is blind to it’s own white privilege and the ways that white supremacy work; that has a hard time actually naming racism as sin.
For the first time in my life, I felt like the church that I deeply love and has raised me was actually not my church.
As all of this was unfolding within me, I was scheduled to be at an event in an official role. I arrived to the event hanging on by a thread and being in a majority white community reminded me that as much as I want this to be my church with my people, that it’s not. During the opening worship of this event, I waited desperately to hear a word of lament; to share in communal grieving; to experience a moment of collective acknowledgement for what was going on in the world around us. I felt like the ground that I walk on had fundamentally shifted and that everyone around me was proceeding with business as usual.
In this moment, I posted my feelings on social media. I shared that I was at an event where we began with worship and I was looking at a shirt with the Palmetto Tree and Moon (images that are on the South Carolina state flag and license plates) and that it was ironic. Nothing was being said verbally about Charleston and worship went on without a mention, a moment of silence, a word. And it became clear that as much as I love my church and the people of my church, we can be so blinded by our inward focus and navel gazing that we miss crucial opportunities to actually show up.
This set off a bit of a firestorm. I later learned that my supervisor, who was also attending the event, was approached by leaders who were extremely upset by my post. The tension began to bubble up and I was set to address the group the next morning. When it was time for me address the community, I made mention to how I felt the night before and shared that I felt like, for the first time, this church wasn’t my church. I later found out that people felt personally attacked by my statements. I was called out for “being a public leader who should be careful about what she posts.” I was approached by a leader who said that they didn’t feel like Dylann Roof had accomplished his goal of creating a race war but that I made them feel like they were now in a race war due to my comments. I was told that I hurt the community deeply. I later found out that another person was asked to remove one of their tweets that was in response to one of my tweets and that “guests should be gracious in this space.”
I was told that I should give the community the benefit of the doubt because we are supposed to be allies. That I should wait to hear the community’s response to things at a later time in the event. That I didn’t understand how the community functioned. It was then intimated that we must not be in relationship because of what I’d done. This struck me because I never thought we weren’t in relationship. I thought that I was in a relationship that I could share how I was authentically feeling and that people would provide the space for that to happen.
It is inevitable that this post will cause more tension and conflict. But here’s one thing I know for sure – once you know the truth, it will set you free.
I am not in the business of hurting people. I am not in the business of being mean spirited or hateful. I am in the business of being authentically who I am and leading with truth and love. I shared my feelings and was then told that by doing so I disrupted a community. And I’m struggling with this. And you, dear shadow lovers, know what I do when I struggle. I write.
So this is my truth:
I am a Black woman called to leadership in a predominantly white church.
I will continue to call a thing a thing and speak truth.
I am not despairing because I know that many have gone before me who have endured much worse for much longer and kept the faith.
My hope does not reside in this church, it resides within the promises and power of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I still deeply love my church, in its varied expressions and with its varied strengths and its varied weaknesses.
In the midst of all of this, I can only think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I pray that as a collective body, as the church I desperately love, that we will continue to seek the truth so that we can all experience liberation and abundant life.