“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.