Editor’s note: Each ELCA Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministry has developed a mission strategy unique to its needs and aspirations. In this monthly series, we will feature the presidents of each ELCA Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries association and highlight their work around cultural diversity and anti-racist action.
As president of the ELCA’s American Indian and Alaska Native Lutheran Association, Joann Conroy is committed to lifting up the voices of native ministries, educating others on their rich history and diverse cultures, and raising awareness of their ongoing contributions to the ELCA.
“We are people who are Spirit-led, and our voices are important to the church body,” said Conroy, chaplain at the Good Samaritan Society in Maplewood, Minn., and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.
The association represents roughly 30 congregations throughout the U.S., including close to 5,000 members.
“When I go out and speak, I find many churches and congregations within different synods that aren’t aware this ethnic association exists [or of the contributions of its diverse ministries],” Conroy, a rostered minister, said. “We have ministries that are reaching out to the homeless. They provide food and shelter. They have food pantries. They provide safe spaces. According to their financial means, they provide scholarships at a local level to students going off to college.
“Some congregations are reaching out and doing prison ministry, and others are working with youth. They are raising up leaders from the native community. New voices are coming up, and their individual ministries are lifting them up.”
The Indigenous Liturgical Celebration and cultural education are the association’s priorities for helping break down stereotypes, Conroy said. Each ministry within the association represents a different tribe. “We all speak different languages,” she said. “There are similarities and differences in each culture.”
“When we speak through the gospel, we unite ourselves in Christ and our traditions with voices that cannot be forgotten.”
A challenge for many of its ministries is financial instability, which the association continues to address. “We want to walk alongside our ministries, to be aware of their needs and help them when they are reaching out, to assist with whatever needs to be done,” Conroy said.
The association is working to have small regional gatherings with American Indian and Alaska native ELCA ministries ahead of national assemblies “to hear their voices and take that to the larger ELCA gatherings,” she said.
Conroy visits many ELCA congregations, providing education on the damage wrought by the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, which was used by colonizers and religious leaders as moral and legal grounds to seize land and dominate indigenous people. The doctrine was officially repudiated by the ELCA in 2016.
It is important to educate congregations on how indigenous people were hurt by the doctrine and on the contributions of indigenous people, Conroy said.
The association is helping the ELCA be a “changing church,” she noted, adding, “a changing church is a church that wants to reach out to ethnic people, to people of color. We have many different gifts to bring.
“As an American Indian woman, I know and have lived suppression and discrimination in society and, sadly, in the church. However, when we speak through the gospel, we unite ourselves in Christ and our traditions with voices that cannot be forgotten.”
Follow the American Indian and Alaska Native Lutheran Association on Facebook.