Baptized in Tear Gas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist is the story of ELCA Pastor Elle Dowd’s spiritual journey. It was a journey that would take her from the Des Moines suburbs to Sierra Leone where she adopted her daughters, to a protest in Ferguson where she was beaten, strip-searched, and locked up, to seminary, ordained ministry, and author.  She is currently a pastor of South Loop Campus Ministry in Chicago.

Most of her story centers on her experiences while protesting the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where she witnessed and experienced police brutality as well as the joy and hope of Christian community.  

This book is a good choice for mostly white congregations who want to learn more about how to resist white supremacy and advocate for racial equity.  It may not be the best *first* book on this topic because it is challenging and it is a story of her radicalization but if people are willing to be open-minded to learn how someone made that journey, it could be.  It may not be the best book for those who cannot even acknowledge racism is a problem in our country.  But this is the book for those who do and are wondering what to do next and how to avoid the pitfalls many white “allies” run into.

It is a good book for white moderate church people to read because that is exactly what Pastor Elle was.  As she acknowledges in her preface, “I know that white people tend to listen better to other white people.”  Unlike many other books about racism written by white people, she also understands the danger of centering whiteness in the antiracist movement.  She deals with this tension by naming it right in the beginning and throughout the book honestly addresses how quickly we as white people assume we know better how to address racism than the people who have experienced and suffered from it.

Throughout the book, Pastor Dowd successfully navigates the tensions between her experiences as an activist with white privilege.

Thus, she can describe the personal sacrifices and suffering she experienced while acknowledging her Black activist friends had far worse experiences.  She is honest about the tension between how exhausting activism is and the absolute need for self-care, while recognizing for Black people there is no option to put aside racism for a time as there is for white people.

Pastor Dowd is not just an activist, she is a theologian and is able to put all her experiences within a solid Lutheran theological framework.  The title, “Baptized in Tear Gas” says it all – What happened to her in the Ferguson protests was a transformative event.  It changed her.  Despite all the terrible things she saw and experienced, she also found joy and hope that there is a better way.  Each chapter concludes with theological reflection questions as well as suggestions for action.  Again, we are encouraged to navigate the tension between reflection and action.

 If your church group decides to take on this book, they will be confronted with that tendency we have as white liberal church people to address a problem by *studying it* (as your group is doing).  This book will help them move beyond study to action.

If your group does take on this book, when you are done, encourage them to go back to the preface where Pastor Dowd lists the names of people of color and learn from them.  Because of our own comfort level, we may need to start by hearing about racism from other white people like us, but we will never be able to move forward until we are willing to learn from those who live it.

How to purchase the book.

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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.

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