Editor’s note: At its June 2019 meeting, the ELCA Church Council adopted a “Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent.” At the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, leaders from the African Descent Lutheran Association took the stage with council members as well as members and staff of the working group that drafted the letter of repentance for the church’s complicity in slavery and “the ELCA’s perpetuation of racism.” Also during the assembly, the “Strategy Toward Authentic Diversity in the ELCA” was adopted. This strategy consists of a report and recommendations on how the ELCA can exhibit and formulate goals for authentic racial and ethnic diversity.
As the ELCA works toward a more authentically diverse future, congregations have been tackling this issue head-on in their contexts. This article shares the learning, uncomfortable conversations and growth happening at Cavalry Lutheran Church in Minneapolis through the personal reflections of two women leaders—Yolanda Denson-Byers and Shari Seifert.
It wasn’t that long ago when I wondered why my denomination is 96% white. Why, when the country is not 96% white and we are called to be the one body of Christ, is our denomination still so white?
As a European American woman, I wanted to explore the answers to these questions through deeper relationships with people of color and indigenous people in our church. As I heard their stories regarding the harm done to them inside the church, my heart broke wide open.
I was devastated as I came to a greater understanding of why so many of our siblings in Christ don’t feel welcome in the ELCA. While their stories aren’t mine to share, I recognize that the important work of making the church less harmful to people of color and indigenous people is my work to do.
It’s not enough to say, “We are sorry.” We must put actions behind our words. We must take a moral inventory of our wrongs and make reparations for the same. The solution to any problem is first to admit that there is one. Today, as European-descent members of the ELCA, we must admit that racism is a sin against God and our neighbors and that God is calling us to do everything in our power to make things right.
I am a member of the Race Equity Committee (REC) at Calvary Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. The REC started in 2010 as a task force. One way that we are trying to make things right is by learning about race in America and the impact of white privilege. Through this journey, Calvary has been intentional about creating a place for white people to listen and for siblings of color to speak and be heard, facilitating an understanding of the effects of white privilege in our church.
This year, utilizing a Dismantling Racism Works article by Tema Okun titled “White Supremacy Culture” and working in partnership with a local group called Multifaith Anti-Racism, Change and Healing (MARCH), the REC has been exploring how we both resist and collude with white supremacy. Our vision is large. Through REC, Calvary seeks to see and understand the personal, systemic and institutional racism that we swim in, to become actively anti-racist Jesus followers, and to become a church that is safer and truly welcoming for our siblings who are indigenous or people of color.
Over the years, we have been working steadily to reach and engage more of our congregation. This programmatic year, we had more than 60 people take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), and as a congregation, we are working on our Intercultural Development Plans (IDP) together. We have also committed ourselves to the tradition of inviting people of color and indigenous people to preach and lead adult education.
We know that we must be teachable and humble to succeed in our goals. Therefore, we were thrilled when Yolanda Denson-Byers, an ELCA pastor, agreed to preach and teach at Calvary. We had heard of her reputation as a powerful preacher who touches hearts and is also a skillful and experienced teacher.
When Shari invited me to preach and teach at Calvary, I immediately began to pray about this important work. I contemplated what I might share with her church, knowing that they are members of the ELCA. It occurred to me, as I prayed, that I have to start this work by proving that racism and white privilege are real.
This is the place from which I always began when I was teaching the course “Race in America” at St. Cloud (Minn.) State University. It was there that I came to the startling discovery that many of my students believed that racism had been solved during the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and had nothing to do with them at all. I often spent the first third of my semester-long class convincing my 18- to 22-year-old European American students that racism was still a problem and that white privilege was real. I always began this work by introducing them to Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
This article is written by a feminist, European American female who discovered that, just as there are privileges afforded men in a patriarchal society, there are also privileges afforded European Americans in a white supremacist one. As McIntosh attempted to understand this reality, she made a list of all the privileges that she enjoys simply because she is white in America.
Upon reflection, I wondered if it would be possible to harness this work within the ELCA, to help my European American siblings within the church understand the intrinsic privileges that come with being white and Lutheran in America. My anti-racism training at Calvary was an opportunity to explore this curiosity while at the same time developing a curriculum that could be used throughout the denomination.
I began my work by brainstorming all the white privileges I could think of that my European American siblings were enjoying in the church but I was not. Next, I asked a group of women of color in the ELCA to do the same exercise. Finally, after introducing McIntosh’s article at Calvary, I invited the assembled adult-education group to do the same.
The list included in this article comes from all three sources (see below). It is by no means exhaustive. I know there are many people of color throughout our denomination who will add to this list. I pray that our European American siblings will not only hear the pain involved in making such a list but also commit themselves to becoming actively anti-racist and doing everything possible to dismantle these white privileges within the church.
It is not enough to feel bad or to say “sorry.” As an African American ELCA pastor, I am asking white folks to do the work of dismantling their privilege so the ELCA can be a safer place for all of God’s children.
Yolanda and Shari
While the white privilege list is not meant to be exhaustive, it is meant to spur deep conversation within our churches. It is our prayer that predominantly European American ELCA congregations will begin to pray—and then act—to become anti-racist Jesus followers, committed to dismantling white privilege both inside and outside our churches.
These will simply be empty words without meaningful action put behind them by European descent Lutherans in the ELCA. We invite you to join us in this liberating work that will help make this declaration more than empty promises.
May God continue to bless each of us to be the hands, feet and smile of Jesus Christ in the world! May we become missional leaders and churches, committed to creating a world, and especially a church, where all God’s children are seen, appreciated, valued and protected.
So be it. Amen.
As a European American in the ELCA
- I can wear whatever I want to church without judgment.
- I am not likely to wonder why people choose to introduce or not introduce themselves to me on Sunday morning.
- The music I hear in church will be familiar and will likely be written by European Americans.
- When theologians are cited, they are likely to share my ethnic background.
- On Sunday morning I can choose to stick out or blend in.
- No one has ever told me that my church is down the street or on the north side.
- It is not likely that people will talk over me when I am trying to share.
- When I show up at church, no one assumes that I am there only to receive financial assistance.
- No one questions my intellect or seeks to discern how “educated” I am.
- People are rarely surprised by the fact that I am employed or by my choice of career.
- If I show up at church with a person who does not share my ethnicity, I will not be asked to justify the relationship.
- When I am asked to serve in a leadership position, I do not have to wonder if it was to fill a quota or to prove the church’s commitment to diversity.
- When I visit a church for the first time, it is unlikely that I will be asked to participate in that congregation’s annual membership photo so that my ethnicity can be represented.
- When I read Scripture in church, no one congratulates me on being “so articulate.”
- I do not need a European American at my side in order to be recognized, seen and valued.
- When I visit, people do not ask me, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”
- When I am in church, people do not look at me weirdly or make me feel as if I do not belong.
- When I enter a room, it is unlikely that people will say to me, “I don’t see color.”
- When I visit a congregation, I can assume belonging. No one will question whether I am a “real Lutheran.”
- When I am in an ELCA church, I can assume that I will feel a sense of belonging and acceptance.
- In most ELCA congregations, the format and worship style will feel familiar to me.
- When I enter the church office, I am not given directions to the food shelf unless I ask for them.
- When I look at the leadership of my church, it is very likely that the pastor, council president and congregation council members will share my ethnicity.
- At potlucks, I will recognize and enjoy most of the foods brought.
- When people associate the ELCA with Scandinavian countries or make “Ole and Sven” jokes, I do not feel left out.
- When I see a picture of Jesus—or the disciples—on the wall or in the stained glass, they are very likely to look like me.
For more information, visit elca.org/racialjustice.