In 1987 the constituting convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) adopted the goal “that within 10 years of its establishment its membership shall include at least 10% t people of color and/or primarily language other than English.”
Despite the good intentions, we have not made any progress toward that goal. According to a 2015 Pew Report, the ELCA is now one of the least racially diverse groups in the US with only 1% of our membership including African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans.
It’s clear we need more than good intentions to be the church that God intends us to be, a gathering of people of every tribe and race brought together by God’s grace.
Many ELCA members may not be aware that there is an ELCA organization that has resources and is ready and willing to help congregations learn how they can reach out to their diverse neighbors. The African Descent Lutheran Association was founded 30 years ago by Black clergy and lay Lutherans. Their stated goals on their website are:
- Ensuring the inclusive, educational, social, and economic equality of all African Descent Ministries and leaders (lay and clergy) within the ELCA.
- Achieving equality of rights and eliminating gender and race prejudice in the United States through non-violent principles of direct action, advocacy, and a collective voice and ministry of presence against any injustices.
- Seeking enactment and enforcement of the ELCA’s constitutional commitments of diversity and growth of leadership and ministry particularly for people of color, women, and other marginalized groups.
- Informing the Church and world community of the narratives and adverse effects of racial discrimination and mobilizing local chapters and Synods to eliminate these practices.
- Educating members, supporters, and sponsors on the rich history of people of color that has helped advance the Lutheran Witness in America and consistently around the world.
- Their organization is open to anyone committed to these goals and their Biennale Assembly is open for anyone to attend. This past week, I was graciously welcomed and was privileged to participate in a very educational and inspiring gathering.
For the first time, the Lutherans met with the Black Episcopalian Union and shared meals, speakers, and worship together. One of the sessions was a time to learn about the long history of Blacks in both the Lutheran and Episcopalian churches.
Along with plenary meetings for voting members, there were “Empowerment Luncheons” with speakers like CNN contributor, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and Rev. Leah Daughtry, CEO of 2016 Democratic Convention.
One of the keynote speakers, Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer Michael Coard, remarked, “You all are going to make my Grandma happy. You all make me want to go back to church. You are doing what Jesus would do.”
Other speakers included Professor at University of Rutgers. Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, Academy Dean and Associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible and Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
There were workshops like “Identifying and Responding to God’s Call,” “Dismantling Racism,” “Trauma Informed Ministry,” and “Decolonize Lutheranism.”
Along with inspiring and challenging speakers, there was worship with powerful preaching every day.
Sunday evening Lutherans and Episcopalians attended Eucharist together at the Lutheran Church of Holy Communion in Philadelphia. Northern Ohio Synod Bishop Abraham Allende preached. Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Bishop Claire Burkat and Bishop Daniel Gutierrez of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania were Co-Celebrants.
Tuesday evening we gathered at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia. The Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church preached and ELCA Presiding Bishop, The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presided over communion.
The theme of the Assembly was “Rolling Stream, Let Justice Roll… Absalom, Jehu, and Beyond.”
The Rev, Absalom Jones was the first African American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church in the US in 1804. The Rev. Jehu Jones was the first ordained Lutheran African American Pastor. Both pastors were active in social justice and saw the connection between preaching the Gospel and working to improve the welfare of black people, as well as working to achieve a more just society. Their early work models the continuing work of the African Descent Lutheran Association and Union of Black Episcopalians today.
“ADLA is moving forward on behalf of a movement of people of African descent that still need answers to the crucial political and moral questions of our time,” notes ADLA President, and ELCA Director for Evangelical Mission, Pastor Lamont Wells, “We are ready to address the need for our beloved denomination to overcome systemic oppression and ecclesiastical violence against people of color.”
To move toward a more ethnically diverse church requires that we move beyond talking to ourselves and enter into conversations and listening to others. The people of the African Descent Lutheran Association love Jesus and love the ELCA and are eager to have those conversations. You can find more information and Resources at African Descent Lutheran Association.