Last Saturday, October 20, over 200 Lutherans from various backgrounds came together in Chicago to worship, tell stories, sing, lament and celebrate. The Conference was called “Decolonize Lutheranism” and it was a day to push past cultural baggage and stereotypes to lift up what it is to be a follower of Christ who belongs to the Lutheran tribe.
The idea of such a conference began to come together in the mind of Francisco Herrera, a Ph.D. student at the Lutheran School of Theology in the summer of 2015.
He wanted to create a space where diversity in the Lutheran church could be celebrated.
Then last spring the #DecolonizeLutheranism hashtag appeared. You can read more about that here – Social Media Campaign Challenges Lutheran Stereotypes. Herrera realized this was the Kairos—the opportune time to take this past food and bring people together to explore what is really at the heart of Lutheranism. At that time plans came together to plan a Decolonize Lutheranism Conference.
Working with his friend and fellow Ph.D. student Iren Raye, they came up with a structure for the day. “What I hate about conferences,” Herrera remarked, “is that we run around from session to session and never have time to process what we just heard. I wanted this to be different. I wanted this to be about the people who were gathered, not just the people who called them there.”
According to Iren Raye who took care of most of the administrative details, “Our main goal of the gathering was to be the church we wanted to be. And yes, that happened.”
They were hoping to get 50 people together. “Suddenly it was over 200 and we had to close registration!” they noted.
The day was structured around the church liturgical year.
Each session represented a Church season, with a theme based on that season. The session began with a reading from the Augsburg Confessions, a litany, hymn and brief meditation by different speakers, then there was time for small group discussion. Two long breaks were built into the day to give people a time to process, relax and renew. There were candles and prayer stations available. Chaplains were available for prayer and to help those who may have had triggering experiences or were overwhelmed.
The small group discussion followed the Mutual Invitation process.
We began with Advent and this from Article VII.2-4 from the Augsburg Confession:
“For true unity in the church, it is enough to agree about the teaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rituals or church ceremonies that have been set up by humans, should be the same everywhere.”
Pastor Kwame Pitts, Pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in South Holland, Illinois, spoke of longing for transformation. “How often have you gone through the motions of waiting for transformation during Advent and come to Christmas to find that nothing has changed at all?”
People of Color, she reminded us, are tired of being stared at when they enter our buildings. They are tired of being asked, “How long have you been Lutheran?” when they have been Lutheran all their lives.
We were reminded that transformation is something that God means to begin here, in our lives, in this world, in this moment.
For the session on Christmas and Epiphany, we pondered what it meant for Jesus to be born into this world has human and divine.
In the Incarnation, Jesus enters a world where he fits perfectly on the one hand but on another, does not conform or fit at all.
Jesus is “mestizo” (a Spanish word used of those born of both European and Native American descent), observed Pastor Paul Bailie from Iglesia Luterana san Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas. He is the only white person in his congregation which is on the border with Mexico.
We sang the song of Los Posadas about the holy family seeking refuge and being turned away until they are finally welcomed.
During this session, we were asked to write down the oppressions and sins we want to be smashed and transformed and pinned them to piñatas.
Then we went out and smashed them open. First, the children hit the piñatas and that was cute.
But then came the adults who had experienced pain and rejection from their church.
“I am not strong but I am angry,” said one woman before she smashed the piñata open.
After lunch, it was time for Lent, with Confession & Repentance. We heard these words from Lenny Duncan, a seminarian at Philadelphia.
“As an emerging leader of this church, and as one who has felt the lash of the whip of racism, I declare to you the forgiveness of your sins, and invite you to engage in this world ahead with an open ear and heart.”
Then there was a time of storytelling about ways people have been rejected and ignored by the church, Duncan named the sin of racism as well as the church’s complacency and slowness to respond.
“Racism is not just a sin, it is demonic!” he declared.
For this session, people had brought cultural icons that represent stereotypes of what Lutheranism is (like boxes of green Jell-O and paintings of white Jesus) and placed them on the altar. Then the altar was stripped.
“We aren’t taking away your heritage. We are just moving it to the side to see the cross, the meal, grace more clearly,
Then we moved into Easter with the 4th Article of the Confession on Grace.
“Our churches also teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own power, merits, or deeds. Rather, they are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith.”
Francisco Herrera led this session by leading us in singing “Amazing Grace” and talking about what it means to give, receive and live in Grace.
“Grace is hard because that is not the way the world works.” Herrera acknowledged.
“But when the world punishes us for showing grace, all we can do is say ‘Here we stand.’ On grace. Because grace is all we have. We can do nothing else. Because of this glorious grace.”
After dinner, we came together one last time for a Pentecost Eucharistic celebration. This session was all about red, fire and the Holy Spirit. The stripped altar was dressed in red by worship assistants in red.
The presider, Tuhina Verma Rasche, Associate Pastor of Grace Lutheran, Palo Alto, wore a bright red dress and red elbow length evening gloves.
“I could not stand here in an alb. God gave me this body—flaws and all. I love my body because it is a gift from God. Christ came to us in flesh and blood because we are flesh and blood. Christ’s body met at the intersection of human and holy. So do ours. We were redeemed in flesh and bone.”
This is only a small snapshot of the day. John Fry, Youth Ministry team member at St. John, Cedar Falls, says this about the day:
“This was a truly amazing event put on by amazing people. It was a life-giving experience and I could feel the spirit moving in our sessions and conversations all day. I look forward to the continued discussions that come from this event! Also, the music is still coursing through my veins!”
As Iren Raye says:
“There was a lot of loss felt after everyone left. But the work continues. We are dispersed back to our communities to be that church. The Holy Spirit is with us.”
Next year #Decolonize17 will be held November 3-4 at The Lutheran Philadelphia Seminary.
*Note there were MANY more people involved in the planning and running of this event that I could not mention them all.