The African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA) and the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) gathered for a joint assembly July 22-26 in Cherry Hill, N.J., commemorating ADLA’s 30th anniversary and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Under the theme “Like a Mighty Stream, Let Justice Roll: Absalom, Jehu, and Beyond,” notable black thought leaders challenged participants’ minds and missions throughout the 16th ADLA biennial assembly.
Author, commentator and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill charged the assembly to change the question around mass incarceration from “Who did it and how do we punish them?” to “Who was hurt and how do we heal them?” Valerie Bridgeman, founder and president of WomanPreach!, commended the assembly to go deeper in the work for justice. “Justice is not just giving people bread,” she said, “but looking at systems keeping people from having food.”
Author and University of Rutgers professor Brittney Cooper reminded the assembly of the church’s place in this work for justice. “Right now,” she said, “the church isn’t leading the conversation about justice. The church isn’t leading the conversation about truth, and we should be.”
The assembly also featured jubilant, authentic worship in the African American tradition. “Do you get the significance of black people in two liturgical traditions, coming together to worship freely as people of color in a liturgical tradition, to freely be black and Lutheran or Episcopalian?” Kimberly Vaughn, assistant to the bishop for multicultural ministry in the New Jersey Synod, commented after closing worship. “We had an unscheduled, unscripted, untimed praise break … and no one shut it down. That moment alone said it all for me—why we gather as the ELCA African Descent Lutheran Association and the Union of Black Episcopalians.”
“The church isn’t leading the conversation about truth, and we should be.”
In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, performer Kelly Glow led the assembly with songs from her latest release, “Glow with Grace—Luther’s Small Catechism: Hip Hop Edition.”
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and six ELCA synodical bishops were also present at the assembly. Eaton and Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry served together at the assembly’s closing worship, with Eaton presiding and Curry preaching.
‘It’s about conviction’
Seminarian Jia Starr Brown said, following the assembly, “I needed the reminder that I am one of many courageous, powerful, resilient and faithful people of African descent! I am overjoyed to be a new member of ADLA; knowing that I am uplifted by this family energized me and gives me further affirmation as a leader of color in the church.”
The assembly elected Angela Shannon as national vice president and re-elected Tracey Beasley as national treasurer. ADLA’s ministerium elected Jonathan Hemphill as chaplain. They join Lamont Anthony Wells, national president; Krystal Hamlett, corresponding secretary; and Annette Sample, recording secretary, as officers. The assembly also acknowledged the re-establishment of an ADLA chapter in Atlanta, which will join other chapters in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City and Philadelphia. In addition to members connected to these chapters, there are also national ADLA members across the country.
As members returned home from the assembly, they were charged with living out ADLA’s objectives, presented by Wells: 1. connecting across the African Diaspora; 2. strengthening leadership and congregations; 3. focusing on health and wellness; and 4. developing ecumenical relationships.
“In so many ways, we have literally come this far by faith … now it’s time for us to go from fellowship to a mission-minded movement … our method is love,” Wells said to the assembly. “We declare [that] African spirituality is a gift, a gift that is unique to us and must be shared by us. Today, we should be honored that God is using our gifts in spaces like our denominations that are not always kind to us. But it’s our desire to be church together.”
ADLA members left the assembly renewed and charged with direction to continue the work Lutheran leaders of African descent have been engaged in for 30 years.
In reflecting on the relationship-building, affirmations and challenges experienced at the assembly, Hemphill, the newly elected chaplain, said, “Black Lutheranism is alive and active … I am a black Lutheran. I don’t separate my blackness from my Lutheran identity, because for me, Lutheranism is never about race, it’s about conviction.”