I’m a Lumbee American Indian and an ELCA pastor. For a long time I struggled with my sense of belonging in my community and in the church. As I grew older, that changed.
In 1950, at the age of 18, my father left his Lumbee American Indian community in North Carolina to find work in Detroit. After the Korean War ended in 1953, he began working for the city’s water department. Years later my father met and married my mom, a person of European descent from Hamtramck, Mich.
Growing up in Detroit, I didn’t know any other Lumbee in my community. I saw my Lumbee family once or twice a year. I wanted to fit in with them but wasn’t sure I did. I saw my mom’s family often but wasn’t sure I fit in with them either. Whether I was at church or school, there was no one else who shared my urban/American Indian identity. I didn’t see myself represented in the leadership of the majority white church.
My father taught me and my siblings about our tribe and what it was like growing up in his community. I was proud to learn about the Battle of Hayes Pond, where 500 Lumbee disrupted a Ku Klux Klan anti-Indian rally in 1958. Some of the Lumbee only had rocks and sticks to use against the KKK’s firearms.
It was very important for me to hold on to my identity as an American Indian, but I didn’t know how to embrace the community in which I lived while still holding on to my Lumbee heritage.
When I attended Wayne State University in Detroit, I met other American Indians and built strong relationships with them. I also met other students and heard how they had navigated growing up in communities where they were the minority.
Through experiencing the richness of diversity at camp, I learned I had something valuable to offer the church and the world.
During the summers while I was in college, I worked at Living Water Ministries, an ELCA summer camp in New Era, Mich. Its mission is to bring together all God’s children to experience Christian community, grow in faith, develop leadership skills and serve others. It partners with community organizations that serve people of color. The camp brings in staff from all over the world through the ELCA’s international camp counselor program and an international staffing agency.
Living Water requires counselors to participate in anti-racism training. It also created space for us to discuss ethnic differences—working there helped me see that there is room at the table for each unique person. Through experiencing the richness of diversity at camp, I learned I had something valuable to offer the church and the world.
At camp, I finally understood I am claimed by God, as a child of God, through baptism. This understanding allowed me to see that my unique heritage as a Lumbee Native American was to be celebrated. I now know that each culture also has a unique perspective to share with the church that needs to be heard. I now feel empowered as a child of God, and as a Lumbee Native American, to share my heritage and my faith, not separately but in union.
This month I’m serving on the leadership team for MYLE, the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event in Houston, which takes place before the ELCA Youth Gathering there. I’m really looking forward to our theme, ONE, which will build a conversation around being together in Christ while acknowledging the gifts and unique backgrounds we bring to the table. Youth—some may be the only people of color in their congregations—will discuss how they can use their gifts in the church. I hope youth will find the same connection between their cultural identity and baptismal identity that I did at camp—this changes everything! It certainly changed everything for me.