This fall, when ELCA Lutherans of African descent gathered from around the country—and beyond—for the ELCA African Descent Ministries “Reclaim” conference, a refrain was heard throughout the weekend: “In all my time in the ELCA, I can’t remember being in a room like this.”
A curated gathering, Reclaim was held Sept. 14-17 in Minneapolis with the objective of helping participants feel embodied, emboldened and liberated in their identifies as Lutherans of African descent in a predominantly white church.
“My main goal was for us to be in community,” said Nicolette Peñaranda, program director for ELCA African Descent Ministries, of planning Reclaim. “For people of African descent, we are very tribal in tradition. So, with all of us being spread all over the country, it was most important that we had sacred ground for us to be rejuvenated and replenished.”
That sense of connection was palpable during the conference, which included preaching, worship, shared meals and workshops. “What an experience!” said Lynelle Emanuel-Christian, a member of Lord of God Sabaoth Lutheran Church, Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. “Meeting so many people who shared my passion and curiosity, we exchanged many ideas and experiences with each other.”
“In all my time in the ELCA, I can’t remember being in a room like this.”
Areas of focus for Reclaim’s workshops, held at Central Lutheran Church, and other programming included building and strengthening community, teaching new skills, sharing resources and rejuvenating gathered leaders, whether rostered ministers or lay members.
Emanuel-Christian said she was excited “to hear speakers who are experts in their areas in the ministry and to come away with new and exciting resources for our congregation. Being exposed to new and exciting ideas relevant to my goals and interests to spread the word of God was mind-blowing.”
The conference’s name, Peñaranda said, stressed the importance of gathering Lutherans of African descent to reclaim their space together in the face of challenges. “This event was about reclaiming our time, our energy, our voices—all of these things that were lost due to the pandemic and white supremacy.
“We are also in a place as a church to really get organized. We need to be in formation so that we can grow our community in more holistic ways and be of one accord. That is my prayer for my community.”
The strength of the network
Reclaim can be traced back to 1996, when the ELCA hosted the event “Proclaiming the Power,” gathering lay members and rostered ministers of African descent to discuss worship and evangelism. In 2000, “Proclaiming the Power II” was held as a series of regional events to strategize and refine a vision for African Descent Ministry in the ELCA. In 2005 the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted to approve the ELCA African Descent Strategic Plan, which continues to guide the work of ELCA African Descent Ministries.
These “Proclaiming the Power” events and the ensuing strategy and resources inspired a resurgence of regional ELCA gatherings for people of African descent. Reclaim is the first such event of a planned series to be held over the next three years.
Lawrence J. Clark, II, who guided the vision for ELCA African Descent Ministry for years as chair of the ELCA African Descent Strategy Team leadership group, served on the Reclaim Planning Team. “My hope is that the Reclaim participants will share [encouragement] with other colleagues and members to attend one of the other regional gatherings in the future,” said Clark, who is pastor of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Chicago.
“The gathering left me on a high, filled with hope and challenge,” Clark said. “We heard from some amazing preachers and teachers, engaged in dialogue around intergenerational matters of contention, networked, fellowshipped, learned and were equipped with new skills—and were able to rediscover and reclaim skills we have known and possessed.”
Among the workshops offered were “Family Dynamics: Deepening Relationships Within the Black Community,” “Reframing Sex: Exploring Sexuality and Spirituality,” “Stewardship Matters,” “Know Your Worth” and a listening session for the Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church.
“The gathering left me on a high, filled with hope and challenge.”
In her workshop “The Power of Narratives,” Jazmine L. Brooks focused on the idea that the stories we tell ourselves and God dictate how we live our lives. “There’s nothing more important than the stories we tell each other, because we live our lives by those stories,” said Brooks, pastor of Macedonia AME Church in Accomac, Va.
“One of the most powerful tools people who want to wield power use to control others is narrative,” Brooks said. She encouraged participants to reclaim such narratives and make them their own.
In a workshop focused on Lutheran African Descent men in ministry, Jonathan Hemphill led the group in an exercise in which a ball of string was passed from one participant to another while each shared their experiences in ministry. As each speaker held the string and tossed the ball to the next person, the conversation created a web across the room.
“There’s more strength to the web when we do this together,” said Hemphill, assistant to the bishop for congregational life in the Southeastern Synod. “Hopefully the strength of the network will carry you through—but it’s only as strong as those holding on to it.”
Receiving their flowers
At an evening banquet, held at Redeemer Lutheran Church, attendees were commended for their work and ministry. Peñaranda spoke about participants’ unique accomplishments and areas of ministry, calling them forward to receive bouquets of flowers.
“Some people in ministry go to their graves without receiving their flowers,” said Peñaranda, who emphasized the importance of people acknowledging such work before each other.
A sense of celebration and shared appreciation permeated the banquet, which included worship and live music. “Reclaim gave me so much hope,” Emanuel-Christian said. “I was so inspired and enjoyed the conference atmosphere, the growth that had taken place—and that we had some fun along the way.”
Reflecting on the weekend, Peñaranda said she was “most moved by the unfamiliar faces.” She was thankful that participants trusted the church enough to attend “an event that hasn’t really happened in 20 to 30 years.”
Clark agreed: “I am truly thankful for the Reclaim planning team, which was a group of well-versed planners, and for the Rev. Nicolette Peñaranda, as we together rediscovered—no, reclaimed—whose we are and who we are: unashamedly African Descent and unapologetically Lutheran.”