The Truth Shall Set You Free

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.

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The Skin I’m In

I was called an oreo when I was growing up. In the African American community this was not a term of endearment. It didn’t refer to how sweet I was. Rather it was social nomenclature that described my perceived character. In layman’s terms this word described me as one who, though I was black on the outside, was really white on the inside. As you might imagine this was not just about color. This term and those who used it were referring to my physical appearance and my norms, behaviors and mannerisms. For some reason I was viewed as an outsider within my own community and to this day, I am teased by family and friends alike in regards to my seemingly “non-black” behavior. Truth be told, this had a devastating effect on my identity…

This way of thinking brought so many other things to mind. For one, I wondered what it meant to be black and how someone like me who comes from a black family and was raised in black neighborhoods and went to predominately black schools (even graduating from a Historically Black College & University) was seen as not “black enough”. Black history and knowing my roots was very important in my home. My mother was an educator who took seriously her role in passing down traditions, knowledge, and untold stories of our culture.

I often thought that maybe peoples’ interpretations of me were connected to my faith tradition. I was raised in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is a predominately white denomination; however the churches of my childhood were black Lutheran churches. Many friends in Texas asked if Lutherans were Christians (to this day the irony of this question makes me chuckle) and when I invited them to church they were taken aback by our worship style when compared to their Baptist/Nondenominational/traditional black denominational way of worship. But once again, even in my church community, black traditions and culture were important and uplifted.

Education was very important to my parents and I was a voracious reader. We traveled extensively during my childhood, taking a family trip every year. My parents made a point to include historic sites and cultural information on every trip. I was well spoken and well rounded, being involved in everything from academic enrichment opportunities in the summer to the requisite tap/ballet/dance trifecta. I finished high school with honors, graduating number eleven in my class of 454, was a Varsity Cheerleader, National Honor Society member, and belonged to host of other clubs and organizations.

Going to an HBCU was important to me. I wanted to be a part of an institution of higher learning that infused African American history, culture and traditions into the DNA of their curriculum. When I arrived at Spelman College in the fall of 1999, I finally felt like I found a place where I belonged. I was surrounded by intelligent, articulate, and vivacious BLACK women. But I soon realized that the world outside of our gates still viewed us as the other.

This “otherness” has been with me as long as I can remember. In my darkest hours, I’ve begun to realize the damage that was caused by those who ridiculed me for who I was, making me question my identity, my worth and my purpose. I’m now at a point in life where I fully embrace the skin I’m in. I fully embrace who I am as one who has been crafted in God’s very own image, gifted for a purpose.

My hope is people judge less and love more.

My hope is that we can broaden our perspectives on what a particular race/ethnicity/culture is like.

My hope is that we realize how damaging it is to ostracize and criticize anyone because of their individuality.

My hope is that we all can grow in love, grace and acceptance of our selves in order to fully love and accept each other.

Love,

Me