We talk. We listen. The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) took these words from ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton to heart. Following the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that killed nine people, Eaton urged members of the ELCA and the entire Christian church to talk, listen—and act.
“Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities,” Eaton said. “We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all, pray—for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.”
In response to that call for dialogue and justice, LSTC started “We Talk. We Listen.” This blog was launched under the recommendation of public theologian Joan Harrell, with Linda Thomas, a professor of theology and anthropology at LSTC, at the helm as editor.
With a focus on racial issues, as well as topics concerning women, people who identify as LGBTQ, the poor, people who live with disabilities and others who are systemically marginalized, “We Talk. We Listen.” is a compilation of diverse voices, experiences and reflections. It’s a collaborative dialogue between students, faculty and members of the wider ecumenical community.
“[The blog] is living out Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s commitment,” said Thomas, who also serves as chair of LSTC’s diversity committee. “We are trying to give voice to people whose transcripts are hidden. It privileges those who can articulate their story, or people who work in theological education or religion who raise important questions.”
Having recently celebrated its first anniversary, the blog has quickly become a popular outlet and resource for LSTC students, ELCA clergy and members of the entire Christian church as they navigate the waters of racial and societal tension and injustice, both in their own contexts and beyond. Francisco Herrera, a doctoral student at LSTC and the blog’s manager, said “We Talk. We Listen.” receives 4,000 visits per month on average, with its peak at 14,000 in April.
“Now people see us as a resource,” he said. “They look to us to begin the process of interpreting and addressing these issues. We are a place for reliable reflection.”
Diversity = Christianity
Herrera’s passion for diversity concerns emerged out of his experience as he struggled with his Latino identity in the 80s and came out as queer in the 90s when homosexual inclusion was highly stigmatized. It wasn’t until 2001 that he joined a church in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was studying music at the time. He said his experience of true inclusion at that particular church finally moved him to become a Christian.
“There were 47 different nationalities and 39 different languages represented among the congregation. We said the Lord’s Prayer in our own language,” Herrera said. “This was the first community I truly belonged to, and they were crucial to my understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the world.”
Now Herrera is an integral partner in dialogue around diversity at LSTC. In addition to his work with “We Talk. We Listen,” he is also a member of the diversity committee alongside Thomas.
“We talk about race, but also ability and disability and sexual orientation,” he said. “Professor Thomas makes sure every person on campus is included despite what the conditions are that make their experience difficult.”
The need for dialogue
“We Talk. We Listen.” is just one of the ways LSTC is answering the call to join in dialogue around topics such as race, gender, sexual orientation and poverty. While the United States and the world continue to experience deep-seated tension and unrest around these issues, faculty like Thomas believe these conversations are of utmost importance at seminaries that train future church leaders. And in the ELCA, an overwhelmingly racially homogenous denomination, they say this work is especially paramount.
“Students, even in a predominantly white setting, need to have conversations and do so in a formative way,” Thomas said. “LSTC has made a commitment to cultural development, and we have a public church curriculum. If faith is public, then diversity is central because of the diversity God created, not only humanity but all life.”
Thomas said LSTC will also provide anti-racism workshops starting this year, and she hopes her and her colleagues’ work will continue to play a vital role in the life of LSTC, the church and the world.
“We must do this because of our call to committing our lives to Jesus Christ, the triune God,” she said.
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