Editor’s note: This year the ELCA celebrates 50 years of Lutheran women’s ordination in the United States, 40 years of the ordination of Lutheran women of color, and 10 years of Lutheran LGBTQIA+ individuals’ freedom to serve (elca.org/50yearsofordainedwomen). In this eight-part series, these leaders share their joys, struggles and gospel hope.
This was going to leave a scar.
After experiencing another racist encounter at an ELCA event, I felt discouraged and disillusioned. Unsure what to do next, I wandered through a sea of white faces, unable to discern friend from foe. When I saw my colleague, Sandra Holloway, she asked me what was wrong.
Bursting into tears, I demanded, “Where is the ELCA that looks so good on paper?”
Handing me tissues, Sandra placed her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and prophesied, “Girl, this church needs you.”
I contested, “Are you sure?”
“Did you hear me? I said, this church needs you,” she repeated. “There’s room for you in the ELCA.”
That was over 10 years ago, before I became an ELCA pastor. I would doubt and cling to Sandra’s words for years to come.
Answering the call
I had wanted to be a pastor since discovering, at age 15, that women could serve in this role. At an Assemblies of God youth group, I heard Jeanne Mayo, a youth and young adult ministry specialist, preach on the Spirit’s transformative power. She said that we, as transformed people, could transform the world. That day I had an encounter with Jesus, and I was all in!
At 19, I landed in a Foursquare Gospel church, where I met Helen King Hollingsworth. Ten years later, in a twist of fate so strange it had to be God’s work, I found myself in the ELCA. Its leaders had called Hollingsworth to be mission developer of Fontenelle Community Church in Omaha, Neb. They hoped that, with God’s help, she could revive the congregation, which had nearly died because of white flight. She invited me to join her in this new endeavor; I joyfully accepted. I was immediately touched when I learned of the ELCA’s commitment to gender justice and racial equity. As a black woman, I thought this must be where I belong.
Right after joining the ELCA, I felt God pulling me to ministry in Africa. With Sandra’s help, I answered the call to serve as an ELCA missionary in Namibia.
This decision changed my life.
For two years, I served as executive secretary to the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia. Not only did I fall in love with Africa, but I also fell in love in Africa, meeting and marrying Benhi !Khabeb (! indicates a click consonant). He has been a constant source of support in my ministry. He joined me in the U.S.—where, as a Bridges Scholar, I finished my undergraduate studies at Carthage College, then earned my Master of Divinity degree through the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC).
Today I serve as a pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.
Challenges and hope
Growing up in Omaha, I learned that I would encounter situations and individuals that would attempt to hinder me because of my skin color, my gender, my socioeconomic status or all three. Racism and sexism are prevalent in our society, and because the church is a microcosm of society, I’ve experienced racism and sexism throughout my ministry.
But racism and sexism are no match for the transforming power of the Spirit. God is not bound by society’s “isms.” God calls all of creation—including women, women of color and people from the LGBTQIA+ community—to share God’s love.
The ELCA should be multicultural because the body of Christ is multicultural. Yet there were several occasions during seminary when I was forced to enter a theological conversation through the vantage point of the dominant culture. I could be either an African American or a Lutheran but certainly not both.
Theologian Albert Pero said it best in Theology and the Black Experience (Augsburg, 1988): “It is like living with two souls … being black by day and Lutheran by night.” I’ve experienced this painful reality in my first call, to a rural parish; in my second call, to a suburban parish; and even today, in an urban, progressive congregation.
Fortunately, while I was at LSTC, theologian Linda Thomas introduced me to womanist theology, which uses the experiences of African American women as a point of departure for engaging theology. Through womanist theology, my circle of support is ever-expanding, and for that I give thanks. It gives me strength and hope, and helps restore my dignity as a child of God, redeemed by love.
It is impossible to acknowledge every person who has helped me on this journey. Certainly, it takes a village to raise a pastor. That’s why it is important to acknowledge these pivotal anniversaries.
Writing this article has brought me to an ocean of gratitude. God has worked through many powerful Lutheran women—such as Bonnie L. Jensen, Barbara Lund, Angie Shannon, Valora Starr and Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld—so that I might proclaim the gospel.
Sandra Holloway, who has since passed on, was right. There is room in the ELCA for women, women of color, and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ in the ELCA. And yes, this church needs us.