Editor’s note: We’re sharing a reflection by Diane Hochhalter about attending her recent synod assembly that originally ran on her website, Storied Treasures.

Last weekend my husband and I attended the Eastern North Dakota Synod Assembly of the ELCA. Over the two days, I heard pastors speak who came originally from Peru, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. I heard prayers said in the Native American language of Lakota. Hymns sung in Vietnamese filled the air. A Roman Catholic bishop delivered the homily. I witnessed the ordination of a pastor who is from South Sudan.

This is not the Lutheran church I grew up in.

It is so much more beautiful.

The stereotypical stoic Nordic Lutheran Church congregation is transforming into one of a multitude of heritages, stories, languages and colors.

The church is inside and outside of walls. It is generations deep and of displaced refugee status. It is male and female, straight and gay. It is Hispanic and Nordic and Asian and Native American.

If I am honest with myself, the diversity I experienced that weekend did not always sit well with me. Upon hearing of a group of undocumented teen entrepreneurial Lutherans who are succeeding and tithing part of their income, the word “undocumented” hung in my ears, tolling its ugly sound. All of the white privilege rationales I tell myself attempted to cry out in my brain, trying to tell me all the things that were wrong with this success story.

This is not the Lutheran church I grew up in. It is so much more beautiful.

To be brutally honest with oneself is hard. To lay my opinions and the stories I tell myself out on the table and accept that some thoughts are racist and incorrect, unacceptable and completely un-Jesus-like is incredibly hard. But as the Catholic bishop pointed out, only out of discontent does change begin. To wrestle with the icky feeling of realizing the unjustness of some of my own stories is the only way to truly change.

I heard one refugee teen speak of hiding in the bush of the Congo to escape being killed by gunfire when he was 6 years old. I thought of my own 6-year-old splashing around in the pool and my tears fell. He will never live in constant fear of being shot as he walks the streets of our small town. This teen did not come to America to “live off our system,” as we may say about “those refugees.” He came to America for a chance to survive. Plain and simple.

We like to define ourselves by the titles, labels and stories we tell ourselves. To challenge any of those is not comfortable. We want to be right, not wrong, and if we change our story, maybe our initial beliefs were wrong? Lord knows we hate to be wrong. But it is only when we choose to sit in the discomfort of a viewpoint that makes us uneasy that we can grow. A pearl is the beautiful result of an incredible discomfort. Acknowledging that maybe we actually have some unloving thoughts and judgments of others is the first step to growth in becoming a church that is truly one, together.

When we maintain our static beliefs as to what we feel the church or Lutheranism should look like (the Lutheran church of our youth), we maintain an outdated and dying model. When we focus on the similarities that bind us rather than the differences that isolate us, we learn and grow. It is only through acceptance and evaluation of our own hang-ups, curiosity for those different from us, and love for all our neighbors that we will grow and change into a compassionate, diverse and global church.

Diane Hochhalter
Diane Hochhalter is a photographer from Valley City, N.D. She blogs at storiedtreasure.com.

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