Following are remarks I shared at the ELCA New England Synod Lay School of Ministry event today, where the theme was “The Church We Are Becoming.” I have debated about whether it is safe to share my story beyond today’s audience. Wisely or foolishly, I have decided to do so.
As we move towards being a church that is more diverse, I consider it important for us to learn to hear the stories of the lived experiences of people of all ethnic backgrounds so we can better understand what it means to be a diverse church. Today, I share my story with you of being an African American woman in the Lutheran Church and my hopes for the church we are becoming. Here is my experience “Living Lutheran.”
I am a child of an organist. This means, growing up, I went to church every Sunday of my life unless I was sick or we were on vacation.
When I was 8 years old, I proudly served as the Sunday School secretary. It is the first leadership role I can recall holding in the church. It was a very important job, which included a pretty responsible-looking clipboard from which I did my work. I maintained attendance and offering reports from each Sunday School class and I called on a person from each class to share what they learned that day.
From this point, my ministry quickly catapulted to include singing in the youth choir (please note: my love for music far exceeds my gift for music). I taught Vacation Bible School, served as acolyte and lector, read the church announcements, and led the youth group.
I went to a Lutheran elementary school, so even at school there was church.
I was confirmed with a great group of people, many of whom I am still connected with today on Facebook. I still remember our debates in two years of confirmation classes and have our picture in our white dresses and dark suits. I remember the words of Jesus from my confirmation verse: Matthew 6:33, ” But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
When I went to college and after my first semester my parents passed down one of their cars for me to drive, one of the first places I drove was to the Lutheran church near campus and I took a friend with me. There, I served on Church Council for the first time.
Not long after, I moved to a new city as a young adult, I scoured the web before I moved and, consistent with my type A personality, I developed a detailed list of Lutheran churches, complete with Mapquest directions, for my visits. Consistent with the ways of the Holy Spirit, my itemized list proved unnecessary after I visited the first congregation on my list and knew immediately it was for me. I never visited another. There I served as treasurer and young adult deacon, developed a singles ministry, and began discerning my call to ministry.
During this time, I served as a lay person on my synod’s Commission to Plant New Congregations, where I heard amazing stories from people called Mission Developers, who were called to develop or redevelop congregations.
A few years later, I found myself in a Lutheran seminary many miles from home and sensed a call to be just like those Mission Developers I had the opportunity to interact with years before.
Ultimately I was called to develop what has become a ministry with wonderful people, a ministry that strives to be a blessing to the community it serves. I was called to this place called Dorchester, a place I had never heard of before I received a phone call inquiring about my serving there, this place where I have seen God – the tangible, incarnate presence of God in the streets of this neighborhood, in the people I serve at The Intersection, in the ways the Spirit has moved in this ministry.
Rooted in the experience of my life and my family is the Lutheran church. Woven in the fabric of my life are beautiful stories of where I learned about Jesus’ love and grace, where my faith began to teach me how to engage the world, where I understood God calling me, where I made friends.
Yet, the toughest thing I have ever tried to be in my life is both black and Lutheran.
I have done tough things before – I’ve been to graduate school twice. My final semester in seminary, I simultaneously took 5 classes and worked 3 jobs. I’ve started a congregation from scratch. Yet, the difficulty of those experiences pale in comparison to my experience being both black and Lutheran.
My original topic for this session was centered on helping you discover the diversity in your own neighborhoods. I was going to make cool maps based on your zip codes and slides with neat graphics to show you how diverse your neighborhoods are and compel you to go out there and meet your neighbors and engage them in ministry.
But two weeks ago, I realized that this is not what I need to talk to you about today. So, I shared with your program organizer the need to change my topic. To instead share my story of being a person of color in this church. Because I realized that you don’t need me to tell you demographics to go find your neighbor and neat ways to go out and engage your neighbor. Instead, you need me to inspire you to hear the story of your neighbor. To truly hear. And to respond. And to see Christ in your neighbor. To hear Christ in their story. And when you do, you’ll discover you’ve known all along where the diversity is in your neighborhood and you’ll discover how to go out there and engage your neighbor.
So, there are no neat graphics and fancy maps today. Only a story. My story.
If, right now, you’re disappointed because you expected me to teach you something today instead of just talking about myself, I want you to know that I do plan to teach you something. I plan to teach you to hear the voice of people of color, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
If you are already uncomfortable, imagine how I feel.
So, my objective today is to share my experience being both Black and Lutheran to move you. Move you not with the end goal of guilt but with the end goal of action, action that will help this church be the church I hope we are becoming.
The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.
Well, first, because I regularly have my identity questioned.
I remember about 10 years ago, I was dating a guy who asked me about my church and I told him I was Lutheran. He responded: “Lutheran…What’s that?!” It turned in to a huge argument, not because he didn’t know what it meant to be Lutheran. I wasn’t surprised by that. This denomination is not well known among Black people, in general. But, what I was so angry about, was that this was the church I loved and he responded as if it was something unidentifiable stuck under the bottom of his shoe. I was offended that he had questioned my identity.
What I did not know then, that I do know now, is that it is far worse to have your identity questioned by someone on the inside, than it is to be questioned by someone on the outside.
I cannot count the number of times I have been asked by Lutherans what it was like when I became Lutheran… or the better, sister question of what it was like when I converted from being Baptist. When asked this question, I wonder why it never occurred to the person that maybe I was baptized at 2 months old in the Lutheran Church and confirmed at 12, just like them. I wonder if they could ever even imagine my grandparents were a part of a group of families who began a Lutheran church 70 years ago.
In addition to my identity being questioned in the Lutheran church, the cultural representation of my worship is also questioned.
At the time of the boyfriend offense 10 years ago, I still primarily only knew personally, black Lutherans. People from the predominantly black congregations where I had been a member or went to school and a few other congregations in the areas I lived. The white Lutherans I knew personally were all linked to those congregations. I knew other white Lutherans from area youth events and the like; but, we did not interact often.
It wasn’t until I began to become involved in more synod ministry and then joined a predominantly white congregation that this demographic balance began to shift for me.
I discovered one of the first places of tension between cultures in the Lutheran church is worship.
Time and time again, I have experienced Lutherans offering disparaging remarks about the cultural style of preaching, music, and other worship style accustom in the African American tradition.
Many times those elements of culture expressed in African American worship and preaching that are inherently a part of my experience as an African American Lutheran, are seen as other than the norm. For some, this cultural “other” is understood and appreciated. For others, elements of my faith experience that seem so natural to me are described as “not Lutheran,” as a “religious other.”
In seminary, my least favorite week every year was not mid-terms or final exams; it was “Preaching with Power” week. “Preaching with Power” is the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute’s annual celebration of preaching, teaching, and music in the African American Tradition. And, it is the time, every single year for three consecutive years, I got to listen to the sidebar conversations of my Lutheran classmates griping about the preaching and music during this week, an audible and embarrassing intolerance of other Christian denominations but also of Black preachers and worship experiences in the Lutheran church. One week out of the year, there was worship at the seminary expressed in a way that felt culturally relevant for me and it was the one week many of my classmates could not tolerate.
Seminary is certainly not the only place I have experienced my worship questioned. Earlier this year, I was talking to a woman from a Lutheran congregation about The Intersection. She asked me if we had “Lutheran worship.” I thought maybe she was confused at first since Lutheran is not in our name. I reminded her that The Intersection is a congregation under development of the ELCA and told her, yes, we have Lutheran worship. She said she asked because one time she went to this one Spanish congregation in New York and they weren’t Lutheran at all. I asked her what about them wasn’t Lutheran. She began to describe the paintings of Latinos on the walls of the church. Apparently, because Jesus wasn’t white, they weren’t Lutheran.
Someone said to me once, after the first time I preached at their church, I didn’t know what to think when I heard you were black…but you’re good!
I wonder if they know I don’t receive that as a compliment. I take no pride in being a good Black…good enough to measure up to their standards set for a black preacher.
When I hear and read complaints about congregations having to adjust their liturgy when the presiding bishop calls us to confess the sin of racism in worship, it makes me wonder why they don’t see crying out for justice for people who look like me as the work of the people.
When they say, we already did that last month, when the presiding bishop asks again, I wonder if they care that people who look like me are still hurting, this month.
When colleagues tell me how hard it was for them to preach about Charleston, I realize it is probably because they never said a word about Trayvon, Rekia, Eric, Michael, and Tamir.
When people are angry because they think talking about race is too political and we shouldn’t be political in worship, I want to SHOUT out that this is not about politics, it is about love.
But then I remember that I can’t shout because then I fit the angry black woman stereotype that often gets black women uninvited from tables and I know I cannot affect change if I am not at the table. So, instead, I withhold my passion, and I work to compose finely crafted words, ones that will lead people to tell me how articulate I am, and how moved they are by the things that I say.
The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.
A couple of weeks ago at Bishop’s Convocation, the presiding bishop made the comment that this country is set up for white people. As she said this, I realized, in a multitude of ways, so is this church.
I am fascinated that there are people comfortable with all white leadership, staff, and decision making tables that are not diverse and reflective of the cultural and geographical experiences and realities of people served.
I have been told I am a superstar in this church. It is hard for me to think they believe the words they are saying, when, in the same conversation, I am questioned about whether I am best to make decisions about the ministry I serve. I can’t help but wonder if my white superstar colleagues are also questioned about whether they are best to make decisions about their ministries. I wonder if the commenter knows what I hear them really saying is: you’re good, you’re just not good enough. Blessedly, I know God who called me to this work disagrees.
But then I am grieved, because if what I have experienced is superstar treatment, my heart breaks to even consider the treatment of those who are thought of as simply mediocre.
It can be easy to wonder if these experiences are real or perceived. It was somehow affirming to me this week when I had a chance to hear Bishop Gayle Harris, an African American woman serving as bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, share her experiences in ministry. She commented, “Being a woman and being black, you always question how people are reacting to you.” This is my truth.
I have heard several Lutheran leaders say of racial justice work that we have to begin by going really, really slowly with this because this work is really hard for many of our congregations who are at the very beginning of doing this work.
I wonder if they realize what that sounds like to the person in pain. Like, if the same person were sitting on my neck, would they tell me it was too hard to get up all at once, so they are going to start getting up slowly?
Would they say that first they need to study why sitting on my neck is a problem. And after their eyes have been opened to the pain of sitting on my neck, they will begin to struggle with whether it’s really their fault that they are on my neck in the first place. I mean, don’t I realize they didn’t actively sit there themselves, they were placed there when they were born and that’s not their fault.
Would they tell me they are hopeful because the millennials are better at getting off people’s necks and the next generation and the next will be even better at getting off my neck. Do they know when they say this it tells me that there are still decades before they might get off my neck, that I should be content with the pain until then?
Would they tell me they need a break from talking about sitting on my neck because this is really hard for them? I wonder if they know that tells me that their feelings are greater than my pain because all the while they are taking a break from talking about my neck, my neck is still breaking and I can’t breathe.
These are the things I have heard about working to dismantle systemic racism in this church and it feels to me like someone sitting on my neck saying they need to get up slowly. Meanwhile, I can’t breathe.
One of the toughest things I’ve ever tried to be is both Black and Lutheran.
Some people think the hardest thing I’ve ever done is to develop a Lutheran congregation from scratch. It is not. The hardest thing I’ve ever done is building a Lutheran congregation from scratch with people of color, when I know good and well the hardest thing I’ve ever done is be a person of color in the Lutheran church. It feels like I’m hurting them too. There are days I question whether I have broken my ordination vow to not give illusory hope, by going out and welcoming people of color to a church that is not yet for them.
So, why do I keep doing the toughest thing I have ever done?
Because I believe God and I believe in the theology of this church. I believe Jesus comes to the places where people can’t breathe. Jesus comes to the people whose necks are being crushed and Jesus lays right there beside us, pushing against the weight, too. Jesus continues to come to broken people in broken churches and continues to fight to put us together and mold us into the church we are becoming.
I believe that I am saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. I believe you are too. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world – poor people, LGBT people, physically and developmentally disabled people, the bullied child who is just a little different than his classmates, and people of color. I want to tell these people they are loved and they are not alone. I am called to share the good news with them that the Lord meets them there on the margins and loves them to better. That Christ shows up in the person of people who believe this too. Those who fight with us to push and pull the weight off the necks of the marginalized. I want to tell them that there are those who are willing to fight to help them breathe.
If I did not believe this, I could not be both black and Lutheran.
But, I do, so I continue to work to help create the church I hope we are becoming.
A church where we stop questioning whether a person is Lutheran enough and instead start reframing that question to expand Lutheran identity to include lived experiences beyond those rooted in only certain cultural expressions.
A church where we understand Lutheran worship as Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending expressed in culturally relevant ways. A church that realizes one can be Lutheran and not sing ELW setting 3 every week. A church where we check ourselves on this whole idea of what it means to be “Lutheran enough” because the vast majority of what I hear people call “not Lutheran” has absolutely nothing to do with Lutheran theology and everything to do with whether the way someone else worships matches the way they worship in their own congregation.
The church I hope we are becoming is a church that is willing to work inside out to dismantle racism in the systems closest to us – in our congregations, synods, Churchwide organization, and on to our neighborhood, cities, country, and world. One that eliminates systems in our church that crush people of color. A church where when we see that we are not living into our call to be more diverse, our call to deal with the systemic racism infecting the church, that we call each other out, even if it hurts.
A church that will go into the places and spaces unfamiliar and uncomfortable to us because we love the people there enough to go even at risk of making ourselves uncomfortable.
I have hope that this is the church we are becoming.
So today, I have no neat evangelism tips for you to go increase the diversity in your congregations. I’m not going to tell you one story about The Intersection’s Zumba class or cooking class. I have no handout or pictures to show. No long list of bullet points.
Only this. A story. My story. A story about loving your neighbor enough to work towards becoming the church I hope we are becoming. Love them enough to use your voice to repair the places this church is broken. Love them enough to invite them to the table to build the church of Christ, not just do church the way you are comfortable.
Love them enough to make this church a place that is welcoming…not fake welcoming…but truly welcoming. Because there is a difference and they will know it.
You cannot tell your neighbors who are people of color that God loves them, and go out in your yellow shirts with your congregation’s name on the back, and tell them you are God’s hands in the world, if you are not going to use your hands to push yourself off their necks and then pull others off too.
Go, hear the stories of the people in your community. Go, observe their lived experiences. Go, show up and just be with people. And, when you do, you will figure out how to serve them. When you hear their stories, you’ll come up with creative ways to do ministry alongside them. Ways to join what God is already doing in and among them. Because, let’s be clear, God is already in your neighborhood with them. You don’t need to save them. Jesus did.
Go. Be the church that “shares a living, daring, confidence in God’s grace that welcomes all as a whole person.”
–Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney, November 7, 2015