Like many Lutheran programs, ELCA outdoor ministries have faced challenges in determining the most effective way to serve, and be led by, people who are often marginalized, said Don Johnson, executive director of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM). But thanks to a new grant-funded initiative, he expects that to change significantly.

“The grant will provide the financial resources to actually do something about it, rather than simply dreaming about what we might do,” he said.

On Feb. 4, the ELCA announced the initiative Total Inclusion! Widening the Welcome at ELCA Outdoor Ministries. The program, made possible by Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, is designed to equip and empower outdoor ministry organizations as they move toward more intentional welcome of people who historically have been marginalized in the church—especially people of color, people with disabilities and people who identify as LGBTQIA+.

Total Inclusion! is a collaborative effort between the ELCA and LOM, the association of camps and retreat centers affiliated with the ELCA. Through the initiative, grants will be awarded to LOM organizations that demonstrate the will, capacity and vision to better include, serve, develop and uplift leadership of participants living with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ participants and participants of color.

The initiative is divided into two phases: The first, in 2020-21, will focus on educational opportunities for outdoor ministry leadership; the second, in 2021-22, will provide financial resources to support the plans organizations develop during the first phase, including both Leadership Grants and Widening the Welcome Grants for ministries taking initial steps toward inclusiveness.

“Total Inclusion! will help all our ministries manifest the love of Jesus with all people, whether or not they have a prior connection with the ELCA.”

Yehiel Curry, bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, served on the think tank that helped conceptualize the program. The group began by dreaming together, then focused on how to execute that vision, said Curry, a board member of Rescue, Release, and Restore, an organization focused on camping experiences for African American youth.

“We started out dreaming about how the particular gifts and skills that are sometimes concentrated in certain areas might be shared throughout outdoor ministry,” he said. “What Total Inclusion! will do is give those experiences to a wider range.”

Ross Murray, an ELCA deacon, also served on the think tank. Total Inclusion! will help outdoor ministries understand the barriers faced by marginalized communities, said Murray, director of the Naming Project, a faith-based organization focused on serving LGBTQIA+ youth.

Through the initiative, he said, “We will explore the roots of those barriers, and explore what changes, little tweaks and major overhauls can be implemented to make our camps more fully welcoming, inclusive and safe.”

Johnson agreed: “Camps and retreat centers have a knack for making people feel safe, welcomed and included. Total Inclusion! will help all our ministries manifest the love of Jesus with all people, whether or not they have a prior connection with the ELCA.”

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John Potter
John G. Potter is content editor of Living Lutheran. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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