“You can ask the bishops anything, but we thought tonight we would talk about race…”

This week, I ventured to my first year of First Call Theological Education, a required continuing education for new pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. As someone who isn’t particularly interested in the “professional” aspect of our work, and who can’t sit still, these events tend not to be my cup of tea. On the other hand, I was excited to meet new people, and to connect with old friends and colleagues. Gathered at this event were clergy from elite cities all across the East Coast, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to Maine.

Our church for the last six months has been dealing with repercussions and guilt over the reality of a member of our church, Dylann Roof, committing an act of white terrorism against our brothers and sisters in an AME church in Charleston, SC; two of whom were educated at one of our institutions. This has been followed by well-hyped webcasts, and a promise to “start a conversation in the ELCA regarding race.”

This guilt and conversation continued into our first night in Connecticut, where we had a chance to dialogue with some bishops from our region (who they are is not of importance in this scenario). From what I understand, in the past, this has been an open format that has allowed for dialogue. There were many things on the minds of the clergy in that room: from stressful calls, to changes in local seminaries. But, race was brought forward as the topic of the evening.

First, some background. On top of the ELCA struggling with our association with Dylann Roof, we also were recently revealed as the whitest and least diverse denomination in America. This has brought forth a great deal of handwringing, and a great deal of white guilt over our inability to deal with the structures that we participate in that continue to perpetuate this (I include myself here).

So, what I want to do here is to do write while this is still fresh in my mind. I want to bring you into the fold of what an *actual* conversation about race is like amongst leaders in the ELCA. I write this not to shame anyone, as I was grateful for the honesty in the room, but as an actual barometer of where we are in our life together.

We were given an *hour* for this conversation. One. Hour.

Our evening began with twenty minutes of older, white male, bishops explaining to us their understandings of racism, how it’s hard conversations, and how we should be “pastoral” in this conversation, and that this starts with interpersonal relationships. I was both glad for their honesty and frustrated by another “conversation” about race. It was quickly apparent that what they meant by “pastoral”  was to treat our congregations and parishioners with kids gloves on this topic, for fear of raising up a mutiny. This was after, in other breakout sessions, hearing about how it was ok if a parishioner might leave over a conflict over a broiler…

This, in so many words, is the definition of white fragility.

And our bishops were showing clearly their own as well as advocating for a system of fragility that can’t handle such a conversation.

After that, my colleagues (in a room that was overwhelmingly white, but with people of color present), began to speak using the words “we” in conversations about what “we” must do, even though it was entirely apparent there was no “we” in the room: there were white pastors, and then there were those who weren’t. One of my colleagues from New York asked the Bishops pointedly whether they were ready to move beyond interpersonal relations as the main issue in race, and deal with white supremacy present within our institution.

God bless them, but the bishops were both silent and clueless. It was clear that we want to walk the walk, but are not ready yet to do the work inherent in the systems and hierarchies of our church that are complicit in racism.

Other colleagues raised issues of income disparity, of personal stories (moving ones), and so on and so forth. By the end, it was apparent that emotions were high and people were frustrated by a variety of issues.

On the second night, we returned to the conversation with the bishops, this time in a circle, and again with racism the topic. This time though, we sat in a great deal of silence. That is until one colleague, a person of color, who spoke about his anger about people using the word “we,” and raising questions and anger within himself about his identity as a Lutheran pastor and his belonging in this place. Then, another colleague, an African-American woman, a trained anti-racism trainer, stood up, and very bluntly said that what we were doing was ridiculous. We had one hour over two nights, and in anti-racism training, it was at least 4, and usually 8, over two days.

Others shared moving stories, including friends from difficult situations regarding historical white parishes in places of color in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New England. Then a woman stood up to tell us about what happened at Southern Seminary after the shooting in Charleston. For the sake of my peers, I won’t share the details in public, but needless to say, it was not good, and was appalling.

I finally decided to stand up and pointedly ask the bishops about their white fragility, and fear about this conversation (which I did). But first, I wanted to share two stories. First, I shared how after the shooting in Charleston, that night I went to the prayer vigil at the AME Zion Church in Jamaica Plain here in Boston. I share this story, not because I was proud of being there, but mostly because I went in desperation, not knowing where else to go. When I was there, I was with my friend and colleague Tiffany (an African-American woman), and I will never forget sharing with her that Roof was a member of our church. The pain in her face is seared into my memory forever. What strikes me about that night was that while I was just an intern, other than Tiffany, none of my white brothers and sisters who were Lutheran clergy in Boston were present. In fact, it was mostly white women who showed up, there were few other white males. That embarrassed and continues to embarrass me.

Because we didn’t show up. And that’s a refrain, not an exception.

Then, I shared how my own congregation has struggled with racism in its own life, particularly in the past, and how we think it’s uncommon. But, actually I am just lucky to have anonymous surveys like this one as proof that it’s not uncommon:


As we closed the evening, I went and sat with a new friend who was visibly angry. And we both reflected on two basic facts of the two nights: not once did the bishops say they had their clergies’ backs in this conversation, nor did they say they were ready to stand in the mess and fight for racial justice.

And second, never did they simply utter this:

We agree that #blacklivesmatter.

And that was that. Two hours.

I am glad for the conversation, and for my colleagues who worshipped and were healed afterwards. I was glad for the honesty and the forum, but was disappointed by so much. As someone who was raised in a racist environment, and struggles with it in myself at all times, we could and should be doing more to train our leaders and our bishops.

And while it’s fresh and I don’t have a whole lot more to say at this time, I do want to say this: that despite the resources of WELCA’s Today’s Dream, Tomorrow’s Reality, available to us, we winged it on our own. Which might be its own indicator of something.

We didn’t need another conversation, we (clergy and bishops) needed anti-racism training

I’ll close with what Inez Torres Davis, the Women of the ELCA Director for Justice, wrote recently:

In “Confronting Racism,” the live webcast with ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and William B. Horne II, it was suggested ELCA members begin having conversations about race. This concerns me. Women of the ELCA has been training women how to have such conversations for decades. I fear having conservations with no structure might cause more harm than good. Before more people of color die in churches, the streets or jail cells, we need guided conversations about race, conversations that can move us forward.”

If you are interested in being trained by an Anti-Racism facilitator, please contact Today’s Dream, Tomorrow’s Reality, here.

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Christian Scharen · January 28, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Which is why I am in this for the long haul, digging deeper into both how to be in real relationship with African Americans (and people of color) and to inhabit a life of micro-protests against the white privilege I embody and–despite my desire to the contrary-employ. As my AME pastor colleague Jennifer Baliey said (in part about me) on Facebook today, “White Christian liberals need to wake up to the fact that they are also indicted in upholding the status quo that allows this demon to define and infiltrate institutions and spaces of worship. Killing the God of White Supremacy will require absorbing critiques of accountability like the one Candace wrote this morning as an opportunity for deeper learning no matter how painful the truth might be to hear.” Our little ELCA congregation in Minneapolis is slowly, intentionally, trying to build a relationship with St. Peter’s AME just to the south of us. It isn’t really optional. We can’t stay the way we are and claim we are following our Lord and the Reign of God he announced and embodied. Thanks for your honest post, and for your continuing witness to the church the world needs us to be.

    LE Peters · January 29, 2016 at 4:45 am

    Am not Lutheran, but know you come in many sects. How sad that your bishops haven’t made use of one of the preeminent whie antiracism organisers in the country, your own Rev. Joe Barndt.

Tim Larson · January 29, 2016 at 1:19 pm

Have a joint service together and celebrate one another…. My congregation worships together with Fellowship of Love Missionary Baptist Church (one of our building partners) every 5th Sunday morning — or when a pastor is on vacation. We have a service together this Sunday. Make friends. Be hospitable. Isn’t that what Christian brothers and sisters do? It’s what we do at least. And it’s fun!

Aaron Decker · January 29, 2016 at 5:27 pm

I am proud to serve on the staff of the ELCA Region 7 Leadership Guild. For better or worse, it is one of the most meaningful things that I get to do in ministry. For some unexplainable reason, I have found my way onto the staff of this project in three different ways. I serve on the central planning team, as well as the worship team, and for the last two years I have also been a workshop leader (tracks or adventures, call them what you will, a rose by any other name…). Despite my presence in so many components of the event, I cannot speak officially as a staff member, but can only speak for myself. The staff has a wide diversity of opinions and ideologies, and I cannot speak for them all. But I need to speak.

There are lots of things I want to say. I want to say how very much work goes into planning this event, how invested those of us who create and shape this event are, how many times we come together throughout the year to prepare for its execution, how deeply we enter into prayer and discernment together to try to figure out what the Holy Spirit thinks is most important for us to do. I want to say how very different, and much, much better, this event is than the time I first attended as a participant in my first year of professional public ministry. I want to say how difficult it is to shape the two hours of the event that we refer to as “Bishop’s time,” and how much our regional coordinator worries about the proper care and handling of these judicatory leaders in this event. I want to point out how wonderful the workshops were, how joyful and meaningful the worship was to many of us, how many great conversations took place with so many new and idealistic rostered leaders present, and how powerfully this event inspires me in my own ministry. Though I cannot remember at all what caused us to think that we should address the deep, powerful, evil reality of racism in our nation in such an informal way in two hours, I want to say that I opposed the idea from the start, feeling that this wasn’t the right venue, but confess that I didn’t speak up because I trusted my colleagues and felt I was perhaps mistaken, a product of a racist culture, avoiding the issue. As that’s a big paragraph already, I won’t continue, but there is plenty more I want to say.

But I can’t, mustn’t say these things. (This is not one of those situations where I want to say them without saying them. I really need to reject all of those sentiments right now.) Because focusing on any of those things right now would be defensive posturing. And if I learned nothing else this week, I learned what a problem that is. I watched an important church leader, having had months to prepare for leading a conversation on racism, instead go on the defensive, monopolize a quarter of our time with inanity, pretend to beg for help understanding as if he were not an adult capable of using, for example, a library, and after the year we’ve just had, insist that he still had no idea what the words “institutional racism” meant. And I was—well, there’s no better word for it—disgusted.

As a leadership team, after the Pew Research Center’s survey on racial diversity in mainline denominations, after the many (Charleston was close to home, but there were so many more) events of 2015 that made national news, after being disgusted by our own racism and having no idea what to do about it, we felt that it would be a terrible oversight to ignore racism at this event. We felt that this event has always been a chance for rostered leaders to step outside our contexts and deal with what was really going inside us instead. We felt that we needed to take action, and this was a way to do it. And we—well, at the very least, I, as there were those that spoke against it—felt that it was important to hear what our bishops had to say, simply because they were bishops, in touch with large geographical regions of our Church, able to stand on the balcony and see what was going on better than we could, and connected through the conference of bishops to the whole ELCA, despite their being, in our region, old(ish) white men and women. We consulted with trusted colleagues of color for their insight, and then went ahead with our plans.

And we failed. We failed pretty miserably. It is tempting to insist that “at least we tried,” but the results stand for themselves. As the whitest church in the country, we have so very, very far to go.

[Eurocentric] Lutheran theology reminds us to sin boldly, but believe more boldly still. I want us to know that when we fail so badly, God’s grace allows us to dwell not in the failure, but in Christ, and to learn from our mistakes, repent, and try again. This is true. And yet, black parents who send their children off to school each morning wondering if they’ll ever see them again cannot afford our continued failure. Black men wasting away their lives in prison because of the color of their skin cannot afford our continued failure. Latino children, citizens of the United States by birth, whose parents are deported in the middle of the school day, who come home to an empty house and have no one to even cook dinner for them, cannot afford our continued failure. Asian Americans, continually ignored in discussions about people of color, stuck living on the margins because they cannot even get a voice in the conversation, cannot afford our continued failure. And if I’m being honest, white people, whose souls are decayed by their own racist attitudes ingrained in them from birth, even in the most accepting family contexts, cannot afford our continued failure.

We usually don’t begin the conversation about next year’s Region 7 Leadership Guild until about May. This time, however, we are already talking about using a significant portion of the time for professionally-facilitated anti-racism training. I cannot promise that will come to fruition; I am only one voice, one still wondering if this is the right venue, wondering if we are leaving out those among us who are people of color by co-opting the event for the training that those among us who are white need to heal our addiction to power and supremacy. But I know that our regional coordinator is already looking into options and organizations we might bring in, and I certainly hope that the WELCA materials will be part of that. I would eagerly invite any wisdom others have into this question, and I am a little awed that I personally have the responsibility of having a voice in that planning.

In the meantime, it behooves all of us to do everything we can to live into what we express every Sunday, that again after supper, He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for ALL PEOPLE for the forgiveness of sins.” If we fail to do so, fail as miserably as we did at the Guild this week, we are failing to be the Church.

Grace and Peace,
Aaron Decker

P.S. Another resource: I’m working with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to bring their faith-based anti-racism training to the Central Massachusetts Conference of ELCA churches, for lay and clergy training alike. The conversation has fallen a little flat, but I’m pressing for it again, and hopefully it will happen this Spring. They see it as their mission to provide this training for the whole Church in New England, meaning of course the Episcopal Church, but they are very open to the idea of doing it with their Lutheran partners. Other ELCA folks reading this in New England might consider trying the same.

David Flowers · January 30, 2016 at 6:10 am

I was at a meeting recently, in Milwaukee, where race and the welcoming church was discussed. A young person described how important it was for church to be comfortable and comforting. That is what the white institution called “church” and its leadership aspire to I think. That’s what pays the white controlled clergy and leadership salaries. Comfortable patrons. The suffering of innocents, the systemic injustice and outrageous treatment of millions, right here in America, is something to be discussed in comfortable settings. We help, sure, but our personal comfort comes first.
So, what I say is – lean into discomfort if you call yourself Christian. The way white people are conducting “Christianity” supports the perpetration of injustice and suffering on millions of people of color. What is an intellectual discussion for whites is a visceral and dehumanizing experience for people of color. White people and Church leaders need to get out of their head and pick up their hearts. Lean into the discomfort – Ask those who suffer what they need – and do that – instead of just offering what is comfortable to extend. Lean into discomfort – listen to those who suffer – we’ve been doing it wrong. Jesus will be their for you.

This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg · February 2, 2016 at 3:37 pm

[…] Friend, blogger, and pastor Eric Worringer shared thoughts about “What an *Actual* Conversation on Race is like in the ELCA.” […]

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