Nearly 800 women from around the world gathered in Phoenix to attend the Women of the ELCA (WELCA) triennial gathering Sept. 21-24, under the theme “Just Love.” The body’s Twelfth Triennial Convention was held there the preceding week, Sept. 18-21. With six years having passed since WELCA’s last in-person gathering, there was much to celebrate in being together.
At opening worship, a “Thankofferings” service was offered, with Irma Bañales, director for evangelical mission in the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, preaching, and Deborah Hutterer, bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod, presiding. The energy and joy flowed to the streets outside the Phoenix Convention Center after worship and the opening plenary. Participants feasted at a reception and danced under the night sky.
“The gathering is always an uplifting experience for me,” said Gloria Sharp of Jefferson City, Mo. “Worshiping, communing and singing together around the theme ‘Just Love’ with so many of my Lutheran sisters was certainly a highlight. We heard [at the gathering] that living out ‘Just Love’ is risky business, but that’s what we are to do.”
“The gathering is always an uplifting experience for me.”
Throughout the three days, the gathering’s theme was examined through the lenses of immigration, migration and human trafficking. In worship, Bible study, plenary speakers’ remarks, “Just Love Laboratories” and workshops, women were able to delve into these topics from many angles. Servant events allowed participants to donate blood, make quilts for Lutheran World Relief, join a “run, walk and roll” 5K to benefit the WELCA initiative Raising Up Healthy Women and Girls, knit and crochet breast prostheses and donate in-kind gifts for Phoenix nonprofits.
Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a Native American theologian and the director of public ministry at Nativity Lutheran Church in St. Anthony, Minn., led Bible study each day. Reflecting on the parables of the good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25), Sherman-Conroy pointed attendees toward the sanctity of all people and life. “Remember the people of the land and don’t forget their stories or struggles,” she said in her remarks. She gave thanks that we’re not a single story; rather, “we are deeply woven into the fabric of life.”
“You are doers”
A common refrain was that women of the ELCA know how to get things done. Vance Blackfox, ELCA director for Indigenous ministries Ministries and Tribal Relations, observed that “women of the ELCA are committed to justice—and you are doers.” Blackfox led a workshop and spoke in the plenary about the Truth and Healing Movement, which seeks to increase ELCA Lutherans’ understanding of how colonization has impacted Indigenous people.
Author Jacqueline Bussie spoke at each plenary, her words and stories stressing hope. “The first step to making all things new is dancing as if they already were,” she said in her remarks. Bussie recalled a time when she failed to “just love,” her honesty and vulnerability opening up a conversation on seeing the connectedness of our neighbors and the varying stories we all hold.
“Love talks” from young scholars in the ELCA International Women Leaders program informed gathering participants about economic and political realities affecting people around the world. Women from Indonesia, Liberia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Poland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe highlighted the challenges surrounding immigration and trafficking globally.
“Women of the ELCA are committed to justice—and you are doers.”
Throughout the gathering participants could be found meeting new friends and sharing their experiences. The streets outside the convention center were filled with decorative hats and matching shirts from synods. Women handed out bookmarks and recipe cards from their local congregations.
The “Just Love” gathering opened doors for women to love our neighbors here and abroad—neighbors who are forgotten and whose stories need to be told. Participants and presenters acknowledged that there’s much work to be done but expressed gratitude to God for the women of the ELCA who commit to showing up, praying and dancing in the streets to proclaim a just love for others.
The next triennial WELCA gathering will take place in Des Moines, Iowa, July 16-19, 2026.