In 30 years the nation’s increased racial and ethnic diversity hasn’t changed ELCA demographics, according to statistics.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. Census Bureau shows the total number of African-American, Latino/Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian American and biracial citizens as a group has more than doubled. While the most recent Pew Religious Landscape Study (2014) indicates several religious groups reflected this growth, the ELCA did not. That’s despite targeted efforts to reflect that diversity.
It has been a long road, with work left to be done, said Judith Roberts, ELCA racial justice ministries program director. But she’s hopeful, thanks in part to actions taken by the 2016 Churchwide Assembly in August. “The church is turning the corner in striving for justice,” she said. “At the assembly, it felt like the church was speaking boldly. It’s now up to each of us to carry out that vision. For the person in the pew, it comes down to encouraging us to ask, ‘Why do we exist?’ ”
Several memorials and actions approved by the assembly addressed anti-racism and relationship-building initiatives. These included “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery,” “African Descent Lutherans’ Lives Matter” and “Deepening Relationships with Historic Black Churches.”
“We’re nine months out from when the Churchwide Assembly passed memorials that deal with racial and ethnic diversity,” Roberts said. “People hear about these things. They hear about the work that’s being done. They just don’t necessarily know of the direct link—that these actions come from Churchwide Assembly. We can try to make sure that people are making that connection.”
“Despite many advances by people of African Descent within the ELCA and society, racism and racial discrimination … continue to manifest themselves in inequality and disadvantage.”
—African Descent Lutherans’ Lives Matter
Seeking real relationships
Assembly actions gave momentum to efforts to address racism, segregation and inequality directed at people of African descent, said Lamont Wells, director for evangelical mission for the Metropolitan New York Synod.
As president of the African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA), Wells works to connect congregations to the “African Descent Lutherans’ Lives Matter” and “Deepening Relationships with Historic Black Churches” memorials. These documents are to aid in exposing and healing old wounds.
“I love the church. I love being Lutheran,” Wells said. “But I am being dishonest with myself if I don’t tell the church these things that are keeping it from being all that it can be.”
Wells is involved in efforts to ensure that the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church will become the ELCA’s first historically black church full communion partner.
“If that is to be so, I want it to be a real relationship, not just something to talk about,” he said. “We share the common histories of how the United States’ mainline churches excluded people of color, especially blacks. This relationship is an opportunity for the ELCA to acknowledge its part in that history and begin a process of healing.”
“WHEREAS, our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for the unity of the people of God, that they may become completely one ….”
—Deepening Relationships with Historic Black Churches
To that end, Wells advises ELCA congregations to seek relationships and partnerships with neighboring AMEZ congregations or other historic black churches.
Emphasis of assembly actions could help more people see African-American Lutheran pastors are trained to serve any congregation. “Too many of our synods have not had a single black pastor serving in a white congregation,” he said. “We need to shift our thinking, and that will require retraining our church call committees to look at the person, not the race.”
This is seen as an ongoing challenge in the ELCA, with a membership that is 96 percent white. The Pew study lists the denomination among the nation’s least diverse religious groups.
Since its beginning, the ELCA has struggled to become a church reflective of the nation’s demographics, said Inez Torres Davis, Women of the ELCA’s director for justice.
Talks that led the three predecessor bodies—the American Lutheran Church, Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and Lutheran Church in America—to merge were marked by a desire to one day increase the number of members of color, she said. This required exploring the presence and nature of racism, she added. So in 1991 the ELCA held its first conference on racism and justice in the church.
“There is a lot of sensitivity around the ‘r-word,’ ”Davis said. “People tend to think racism is a specific kind of behavior. We’re not looking for the racist in the room; we’re looking for systemic and institutional racism.”
In 1993 the ELCA approved the social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture.” It said: “People will come from the east and west, north and south to eat in the reign of God (Luke 13:29). … [D]iversity of cultures is both a given and a glimpse of the future” (elca.org/socialstatements).
The 1993 statement included a goal to draw 10 percent of ELCA members from “African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Native American” communities by 2003. The target seemed ambitious for a church with a membership hovering near 98 percent white. While the ELCA implemented numerous actions to achieve it, increased diversity remained frustratingly elusive.
Church leaders have since shifted to diversity goals that encourage congregations to reflect their communities, Roberts said. This involves strategies to identify opportunities in the surrounding community.
Discussion within congregations can reveal new ministries, she said. Questions about justice and inclusion of underrepresented groups can help congregations see new opportunities.
This, in turn, fosters dialogue. Roberts suggests hosting congregational forums and asking such questions as: “How can we focus on who we are as a church and a nation in a time of divisiveness? There aren’t American Indian tribes in our area, but are there groups for indigenous communities we can reach out to? What would it look like if we begin a dialogue with a historic black church? How can our faith and theology heal broken-ness? What’s getting in the way?”
Roberts believes ELCA members are ready for such talks: “Congregations are already responding to the memorials from churchwide—taking and using them to engage their congregations and communities. The assembly put the church on a better footing to respond and … have congregations feel empowered.”
A bishop’s perspective
“Our synod is unusually diverse already. … At last year’s [Southwest California] Synod Assembly, 22 percent of the voting members were people of color or first language other than English. We’re proud of that, but we still don’t come near to the diversity levels of the city in which we are embedded.
“A few of our congregations have done very well through the generations in absorbing new people in the neighborhoods around them; others continue to struggle with that. We need trust and faith and courage to invite people different from us to be part of our congregations, and openness to the new things they will bring.
“There are more Uber drivers in Los Angeles than there are ELCA Lutherans in our whole five-county synod; we represent a small stream within a great sea of people. But we Lutherans represent a powerful religious message and a culture of devotion and service that has survived for half a millennium and spans the globe. … We just have to proclaim the gospel more forcefully and serve our neighbors more courageously.”
“Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery”
During the 2016 Churchwide Assembly, voting members approved a variety of memorials from the ELCA’s 65 synods. Several touched on the church’s response to societal issues of race, ethnicity and culture, including the “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.”
The doctrine of discovery drove centuries of European exploration and colonialism from the mid-15th century on. The belief in Christian superiority and power was used to legitimize claims on lands inhabited by indigenous peoples, including ancestors of ELCA members of American Indian and Alaska Native heritage.
The 2016 Churchwide Assembly overwhelmingly approved memorials from 20 synods and affirmed “that this church will eliminate the doctrine of discovery from its contemporary rhetoric and programs, electing to practice accompaniment with native peoples instead of a missionary endeavor to them, allowing these partnerships to mutually enrich indigenous communities and the ministries of the ELCA.”
To follow ongoing initiatives, follow the ELCA American Indian/Alaska Native Lutheran Association on Facebook.
ADLA to gather in July
The African Descent Lutheran Association biennial gathering will take place July 22-25 in Philadelphia. The event is a joint assembly with the Union of Black Episcopalians.
The event will focus on a Reformation commemoration through the lens of the “African Descent Lutherans’ Lives Matter” and “Deepening Relationships with Historic Black Churches” memorials.
Racial justice resources
“One Body, Many Members”: ELCA Racial Justice Ministries has reissued this congregational resource, a faith-based study of race, culture and class.
Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries: The ELCA offers mission strategies and other tools related to African Descent, American Indian and Alaska Native, Arab and Middle Eastern, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Latino ministries. There also are resources on anti-racism advocacy and dismantling racism, white privilege and power.
“Talking Together as Christians Cross-culturally: A Field Guide” and “Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues” are both available in English and Spanish.
Today’s Dream; Tomorrow’s Reality: Women of the ELCA coordinates anti-racism education trainers through the network Today’s Dream, Tomorrow’s Reality, which has representatives in most synods. For more information, contact your synodical women’s organization or Women of the ELCA.
The organization also provides free, downloadable materials at welca.org. These include a racial justice bibliography, studies and the free discussion guide “How to have helpful conversations about race in the church.” A five-part anti-racism Bible study is available at welca.org/resources.