Don King believes that if a church is working right, it’s multicultural.

His congregation, Hope Lutheran, fits the bill, reflecting the diversity of its Cleveland Heights, Ohio, neighborhood. King doesn’t take credit – Hope was already a mix of European and African American members when he was called as pastor in 1999.

Hope started to transition from all-white to multicultural in the 1970s following the integration of its neighborhood in the 1960s. “I inherited a congregation that looked a lot like the community,” King said.

Over the years, King has taken care to sustain Hope’s traditions of multicultural fellowship and outreach. Hope houses an independent preschool and opens its space for a variety of community functions, including election polling. At those times, members are on hand to offer coffee, treats and a warm welcome.

“We want to be seen as an inviting place,” King said. Hope’s glass entryway, for example, is covered with pictures from congregational events to “show what we do with our ministry. Anyone coming toward us sees the kind of congregation we are,” he said.

Congregations like Hope contribute to the ELCA’s number of members who identify as African/black descent, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino/Hispanic, Arab/Middle Eastern and American Indian/Alaska Native. Together these groups comprise 4 percent of the denomination’s overall membership. An analysis of the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study ranked the ELCA as the second least racially diverse denomination out of 30 selected religious groups.

ELCA leaders have expressed the desire to see more congregations reflect the demographics of the communities they serve, but examples remain relatively rare.

In addition to underrepresented ethnic groups, ELCA membership lags in a variety of other areas, such as diversity of age, income, education and immigration status.

According to the Pew study, more than 60 percent of ELCA members are 50 or older. Those younger than 30 represent 12 percent of members. Fewer than one-quarter are parents of young children. Most ELCA members earn at least $50,000 annually, and nearly 90 percent can trace their roots back more than three generations in the United States.

Hope is among congregations that skew such statistics. Approximately 42 percent of active members identify as African American or black. Income levels run the gamut. Few white members have young children, but Hope’s programs draw neighborhood youth.

King strives to ensure Hope is “working right” by being intentional in embracing diversity. Worship is distinctly Lutheran and inclusive of many cultures through use of all 10 worship settings in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Likewise, King strives to ensure assisting ministers and acolytes reflect the congregation’s diversity.

“When you enter this congregation, you’re seeing a congregation that’s multicultural,” he said.

Rooted in outreach

The same is true of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, Minn.

Prior to the late 1940s, it was a white congregation nestled in the city’s African American business district. The area, the “Rondo Community,” was racially mixed from the beginning, said James Erlandson, Redeemer’s pastor. But the congregation didn’t reflect this diversity in its earlier years.

After World War II, more African Americans migrated to the Twin Cities, many settling in the Rondo Community. Some joined Redeemer, and by the late 1950s, 25 percent of its members were African American.

“There are several generations that have been here because of relationships, children growing up together here, being confirmed, being in the youth group,” said Erlandson, who is of European descent.

Today the congregation and neighborhood remain multicultural. While Erlandson said Redeemer doesn’t have a multicultural strategy, he believes members consciously embrace diversity and support an authentic, inclusive worship experience. The congregation uses traditional liturgy and, like Hope, worships with music from a variety of cultures.

Redeemer emphasizes community outreach and offers space and programming for neighborhood residents, including young people from Hmong, African American, Somali and other groups. Erlandson said their hope is that when people attend group meetings or a youth program at Redeemer, they are more likely to return for worship.

That’s what brought Raymond Hayes to Redeemer in the 1950s.

Then 5 years old, Hayes’ interest was sparked by a sign advertising Redeemer’s vacation Bible school. Although his family belonged to a nearby African American congregation, his parents allowed him to try Redeemer’s program.

“I went there and liked it. I liked the kids,” he recalled.

While he appreciated his original congregation, Hayes said he felt drawn to the friends he made at Redeemer. His parents let him go there for worship services and then join its youth choir. Eventually his parents followed him to Redeemer, where they quickly became respected members.

Almost 60 years later, Hayes is president of the council.

Like Hayes, Kayla Wright, 17, grew up in an ELCA congregation. Today she is counted among her congregation’s leaders: she belongs to the youth group, mentors others, works in the community garden and assists with campaigns for justice.

Because she’s African American, Wright said she has encountered people outside her congregation who have questioned her right to call herself “Lutheran.”

She’s received the same reaction about her congregation, All Peoples Gathering Lutheran, Milwaukee, where African Americans comprise the largest population. People have asked her: “How can All Peoples be Lutheran if only 35 percent of members are white?”

Wright understands a broader definition of Lutheran: “[All Peoples] is the only church home I know. It’s not difficult for me belonging to a multicultural congregation, but for others, it might be. I don’t like that people categorize me as not being a ‘true Lutheran’ because I’m not ‘the right skin [color].’ ”

Dianne Breitmoser of Jacksonville, Fla., didn’t necessarily believe Lutherans were supposed to be white like her. But she did find a sort of comfort in sharing a cultural background with fellow parishioners. For 40 years she belonged to a large, affluent Lutheran congregation with a predominantly white membership.

But at some point, Breitmoser began to feel something wasn’t right. “I was needing to be fed, and I wasn’t getting it at my former church,” she said. “I had to get out of that comfort spot – step out of the box and see if I was really going to the church that fulfilled all my needs.”

She became intrigued by St. John Lutheran, a small congregation in Jacksonville’s historic Springfield neighborhood. The congregation was involved in community revitalization and boasted a garden labyrinth. St. John also had become known for its fundraising efforts and outreach programs.

The multicultural membership was somewhat new to Breitmoser. So, too, were the pastors, who are of African American descent. Victoria L. and William C. Hamilton Jr., then lay mission developers, were charged in January 2000 with renewing the congregation.

At the time, St. John’s membership was European American and the average age was 74. “The surrounding area is 86 percent African American,” William Hamilton said. “[St. John] was like a white island in the midst of a black community.”

In their first year of ministry, worship services averaged 12 attendees. Another 17 were on the sick/homebound list. Seven attended Easter worship.

Some 16 years later, St. John has grown to 113 members who represent diversity of ethnicity, age and income.

As a result, Breitmoser encountered a lively multicultural congregation. African Americans comprise nearly half the membership, European Americans a third, and others who identify themselves as African, African Caribbean, Asian, multiracial, Latino and American Indian.

“There was a lot of diversity; that just goes with the neighborhood,” she said. “My husband and I went there a few times, and we just loved it.”

Although Breitmoser lives nearby, she said many white members drive in from the suburbs out of love for the congregation.

“I leave saying to my husband, ‘I know I’ve been to church.’ I feel it. I didn’t have that before; I wasn’t feeling it,” she said.

People find a home at the revitalized St. John because the congregation is realizing its potential, Hamilton said. Despite its small size and smaller bank account, the congregation offers comfort to those who frequently encounter hardships.

“The median income in this neighborhood is $15,000 to $20,000,” he said. “It’s Jacksonville’s highest at-risk community in every way imaginable. … St. John is a safe, healing place for life transitions.”

Welcoming the stranger

Providing such pastoral care requires patience and the willingness to learn from failure. King reminds himself of this when his efforts at Hope don’t yield the results he hopes. He believes more emphasis on innovation related to growing multicultural congregations would be helpful.

“It seems the ELCA knows more about what to do with monochromatic congregations than it does with multicultural ones,” he said.

The problem may lie in conflicting definitions of “multicultural.” For example, ethnic specific ministries are often characterized as “multicultural,” King noted, perhaps because they add to the ELCA’s overall diversity.

“The ELCA knows how to plant an African American congregation, but what about a multicultural congregation? I don’t even know how to plant a multicultural congregation,” King said.

Being truly multicultural opens people to a deeper understanding of many situations and contexts, said Erlandson of Redeemer.

“We’ve had to be welcoming and accepting and be able to relate to people who come from no church background, are low-income, coming out of domestic violence and so on,” he said.

This includes being mindful of how language can serve to exclude, Hamilton said. He has witnessed situations where prospective members with jobs deemed “suitable” were frequently introduced as “an asset to our church.” He believes congregations must constantly ask, “How do we reach out to people who are different from us?”

The answer thus far, Erlandson said, has been social events that reach people who simply won’t attend worship services.

For Hope, Redeemer and some others, it was also important to become Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregations that actively welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seekers and believers. “RIC designation is a facet of multiculturalism,” King said. “It says we really are embracing diversity as a congregation.”

‘Unintentional apartheid’

In terms of demographics, the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod would seem poised for nurturing multicultural congregations. After all, it boasts the diverse cities of New Orleans and Houston.

Houston is particularly noteworthy. According to a Rice University study, the city tops a list of U.S. metropolitan areas with the most equitable distribution of America’s four major racial and ethnic groups: whites, Hispanics, African Americans and Asians.

Since the 1960s, Houston’s population has grown an average of 20 percent per decade. It’s now the nation’s fourth largest city. At 41 percent, Latinos comprise the city’s largest demographic. The overall white population is 33 percent, down from 63 percent in 1960.

But congregations there tend to remain ethnically segmented, said Michael Rinehart, synod bishop.

“Frankly, I don’t know that we [have a] multicultural congregation,” he said. “A multicultural congregation is one where multiple ethnicities worship in their space. It’s one where we have opened our minds, and decisions are based on who’s already there and who’s not there yet. It’s engaging your surrounding community – even if it feels a little uncomfortable.”

Gulf Coast churches tend to have predominantly white membership and adhere to traditionally European cultures, Rinehart said. Congregations sometimes draw members from other ethnic groups. In addition, some predominantly white congregations share space with those of other cultures but refrain from worshiping together.

“If I have an African American family visiting my congregation, that doesn’t make me African American and it doesn’t necessarily make me multicultural,” said Rinehart, who is white. “If I have a white theology, white style of worship [and] white organizational structure, it’s very hard for me to think my way out of that.”

Such homogeneity extends to the synod’s ethnic-specific ministries, Rinehart said.

“One of the biggest challenges is that Lutheran – primarily European – congregations were organized using northern European ways of organizing,” he said. “Theology tends toward the northern European Christendom mentality, so worship, architecture of buildings, spaces and so on are of a northern European influence. … To imagine doing things differently is very difficult.”

When new ideas and methods are introduced, the reaction might be, “That’s not Lutheran.”

“These are opportunities to stretch our faith,” Rinehart said. “We must emphasize grace through faith and not a particular kind of worship.”

Erlandson has viewed new cultural influences as opportunities to incorporate diversity in worship. For Thanksgiving worship, he called on Redeemer’s American Indian members to share elements from their traditions: burning sage and Four Directions Prayer.

Sometimes people with strong ties to the once dominant culture resist such contributions. Changing that reaction and creating a sense of open and welcome has been Harlan Johnson’s mission.

“All my life, I have had a passion for two things: connection and equity,” he said. “The idea of connecting and partnering with people, to me, that’s what Jesus is all about. We need to be able to talk to each other, listen with our heart and talk with our heart.”

Passion led Johnson to travel to Mississippi in 1964 for what became known as Freedom Summer. He later joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in India.

Eventually he returned to his hometown of Rockford, Ill., and to Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Now in his 70s, he champions many causes, including engaging other white people in dialogue about anti-racism advocacy.

Although he’s something of a de facto inside man, he worries his message isn’t received. “I haven’t figured out how to reach the vast group of white people who don’t get it,” Johnson said. “There’s a fear, I think, about having conversations across the barriers. They’re afraid they’re going to be seen as racist.

“There’s also a lot of discomfort about dealing with the fact that these other citizens in our community are receiving so much less than anyone else in terms of opportunities in life.”

Johnson coined a term to describe a key problem: “unintentional apartheid.” The first word, he explained, takes away some of the shame. The latter is meant to shock people into action.

Breitmoser of St. John now understands that her decision about choosing a new congregation raised eyebrows among others of European descent. Some have even asked why she’d do such a thing. Doesn’t she want to go to a white church? Don’t African Americans want to worship with other African Americans?

Her response is simple: Color isn’t a factor in choosing whom she spends time with. She has no interest in limiting her circle to those perceived to be her “kind.”

“We all bring something,” Breitmoser said. “The diversity means something. We’ve created a great church. We accomplish things that surprise bigger churches. They want to know how we do that.”

Last summer, St. John members took turns delivering the weekly sermon. For Breitmoser, it was an opportunity to explain her appreciation.

“I talked about how loved I felt to be included in this group of people,” she said. “With all the problems that have existed in the South over the years … as a white person, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be welcomed as I was. And here I was, standing up in a mostly black congregation, feeling loved and accepted.”

Karris Golden
Karris Golden is a professional writer-editor and a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She lives in rural northeast Iowa with her daughter, Zoey Golden Neessen.

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