As we near the end of May, we are speaking with Lutherans who are and identify as Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Island heritage. We are honored to share the stories of our AAPI siblings in Christ. Today we are speaking with Hephziba Penumaka.
Responses have been edited for publication.
How are you connected to the ELCA?
I became connected to the ELCA when my parents, Israel Penumaka and Sarah Geddada, were called by the Metropolitan New York Synod as mission developers for a South Asian ministry startup in a declining ELCA congregation in Floral Park, N.Y. I have been active in the ELCA since then by serving on the Lutheran Youth Organization (LYO) Executive Board for four years, attending the National LYO Gathering and the Youth Gatherings, serving as a servant companion in 2015, being interviewed by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton for “We Are the Church” in 2015, participating as a young adult group leader for the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, and attending the 2016 Churchwide Assembly as a voting member. I am also currently serving on the AAPI Education Team Planning Committee, where we are creating anti-racism resources for AAPI congregations and communities, and the AAPI Nominating Committee. Finally, I was approved for the ministry of word and sacrament in 2021 and am currently trying to find a call. I am also in the process of writing my thesis for my Master of Sacred Theology as a distance-learning student of United Lutheran Seminary.
What aspects of AAPI culture do you see reflected in your church community?
Our congregation is a mix of Caucasian, South Asian, East Asian, South American, Jamaican and Caribbean Islanders. However, most of our church community is South Asian, specifically from India. We have a mix of Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil-settled Sri Lankans and Malayali. It is amazing to see our members dressed in their traditional attire, the food they share at fellowship, the languages they speak during special worship services and our conversations about our culture. I have learned so much about how their traditions have shaped their faith and experiences living in this country.
When do you feel most connected to yourself and your culture in a worship environment experience?
I believe the presence of Indian Americans present in my worship environment is what makes me feel most connected to myself and my culture. Although the ELCA is predominantly Caucasian, there are a few congregations with Indian Americans like me. I am a sixth-generation Lutheran and attend Lutheran churches whenever I visit India. There are at least six large Lutheran churches in my father’s hometown of Rahmundry, and each church has several services that hundreds of people attend. The presence of Indian Americans in Lutheran churches tends to be few here, so it’s always a pleasure to see others like me in the United States and to learn about what drew them to the Lutheran faith. I also enjoy hearing hymns and God’s word in my native tongue, which is Telugu.
What gives you hope?
The gospel is what gives me hope. When I see the injustice of this world and the suffering of people, I rely on the beautiful truth that God loves us so much that he gave us his only son as a sacrifice and freed us from the bondage of sin and death so that we can have eternal life with God. What wonderful love God has poured out for us. I love to spend time in my home congregation of St. Paul International Lutheran Church because of the way the architects designed the sanctuary. A large wooden cross hangs from the ceiling, basking in the warm sunlight that pours in from the glass windows on the left side of the church. When I enter the sanctuary, I can feel God’s presence and glory. At night, when the low-lit lights fill the sanctuary, you can now see two other crosses, which are the shadow of the wooden cross. This view always marvels me because the shadow crosses remind me that it was supposed to be me on the cross, but Christ took that sacrifice upon himself out of love. So ultimately, the gospel, which is about love, is what gives me hope. This love is unlike any other in this world because all humans can have selfish intentions for loving us, but God’s love is selfless. Knowing this gives me the strength to endure the hardest and most challenging trials that come my way and encourages me to love others.
How do you believe the ELCA can better support and uplift AAPI voices and perspectives?
I have been part of the ELCA for 23 years and have played an active role for the past 15 years. During this time, one of the challenges I see is a lack of representation of AAPI in leadership. When I felt a calling to God’s ministry at 14, the only Indian pastor in the Metropolitan New York Synod was my mother. Now I see more and more Indian female pastors present, which is wonderful. Unfortunately, we aren’t given many chances as leaders because we are viewed as the model minority. The model minority stereotype tends to be docile, submissive, uncomplaining and rule followers. As a result, people expect us to fit into this stereotype, and whenever we speak up, we are seen as intimidating, too strong or trying to play the race card.
Therefore, we aren’t given opportunities as our other siblings of Christ. Along the same lines is that women of color, especially AAPI, tend to have a hard time finding a call in the ELCA. I am struggling to find a call outside of my synod because I have identified as South-Asian in my rostered ministers profile. I have noticed that churches in certain regions reject me based solely on my identity rather than on my identity in conjunction with my gifts and ability to serve the church. I believe that if the ELCA wants to meet its goal of 10% diversity within the church, then it needs to have more leadership that represents diversity such as AAPI members who feel called to lead and serve.