In the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last summer, ELCA congregations across Minnesota have considered the ways in which they were engaged with racial justice. Congregations at the epicenter of the protests that followed Floyd’s death have coordinated significant relief efforts in the community. Others have met the situation by deepening existing commitments made to racial equity and neighborhood service. Still others have sought to establish ministries or plans that address systemic racism.

Last fall, the Minnesota Council of Churches announced a statewide project to bolster such work. The council—which represents 25 denominations, including the ELCA—launched a 10-year “truth and reparations” plan addressing the state’s racist history, including “truth and reconciliation” commissions; diversity, equity and inclusion trainings in congregations; and reparations to communities of color.

Ann Svennungsen, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod, and Patricia Lull, bishop of the Saint Paul Area Synod, presented the council’s plan at the fall Conference of Bishops meeting. “The Minnesota Council of Churches, the largest network of Christians in our state, voted unanimously to initiate a statewide conversation about the effects of racism in Minnesota,” Svennungsen said. “We will lead a process of truth-telling, education and accountability, and reparation.”

While the project’s efforts are just getting underway, they reflect the unique moment Minnesota congregations are facing after the unprecedented events, protests and conversations of 2020. They also indicate a foundation laid over recent years by congregations joining together to solidify relationships and serve their neighbors. One such partnership is the robust one between Redeemer Lutheran in urban North Minneapolis and Westwood Lutheran in suburban St. Louis Park.

In 2007 the congregations began a partnership, said Jason Van Hunnik, a pastor of Westwood, that was due partly to his relationship with Kelly Chatman, then a pastor of Redeemer. Then in 2010, the congregations began planning events together, including Maundy Thursday services in which the two worship together.

But two years ago, Westwood began to seriously grapple with race. “I think the phase before that was a lot of groundwork, based on a relationship with Redeemer,” Van Hunnik said. “That relationship was significant in tending the soil for when we made that bigger move.”

Chatman emphasized the importance of establishing such relationships as equitable ones. “What Redeemer did is, in many ways, taught and partnered with Westwood and other congregations in what it meant to accompany community—and Black and Brown voices—rather than save,” he said.

“Because of the accompaniment model, and the ways that Redeemer partnered with Westwood—and by ‘partner,’ I mean both bodies bring something to the table—it was never about Westwood coming and saving Redeemer.”

“If you want to get serious about racism as white folks, your theme should not be ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but ‘Who am I?”’

Chatman said programming was equitable, and service to the neighborhood and the community was equitable. “It was not about white folks coming and doing for Redeemer or the community,” he added. “It was in partnership that we did after-school programs or cookouts or block parties and worshiping together.”

After Westwood’s 2019 Lenten season—with the theme “Who Is My Neighbor: Conversations on Race”—a congregational racial equity team was established. The team met with advisers of African descent to help discuss and evaluate its efforts.

“Their feedback was critical to what we did,” Van Hunnik said. “They essentially said, ‘If you want to get serious about racism as white folks, your theme should not be “Who is my neighbor?” but “Who am I?”’

“In other words, in a system of white supremacy, the focus shouldn’t first of all be on people of color. The focus is about how systemic racism works, how white folks have participated and benefited from it, and how to begin confronting it.”

Since then, Westwood has brought on a racial equity consultant, crafted a racial justice statement, coordinated service efforts following Floyd’s killing, hosted guest lectures and studies, done evaluative work on its worship and programming in regard to race, and continued to work with Redeemer.

The congregation is currently working to establish a child care center for low-income families, which Van Hunnik said was born out of looking at their community and asking, “How do we connect the dots around racial equity and affordable child care?”

For Chatman—who now serves as executive director of the Center for Leadership and Neighborhood Engagement and as adviser to the Minneapolis Area Synod bishop—engaging the neighborhood is central to racial equity, as well as to the future of the church.

“The model of membership where the identity of the congregation is exclusively the people who are sitting in the pews … sabotages the ability to see the value and the worth of the people that are surrounding them,” he said. “We’re not going to become more diverse by attracting people that are already Lutheran. It’s in the dynamic and the diversity of the neighborhood.”

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

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