God at the Center: An Anti-Racism Adventure

God at the Center: An Anti-Racism Adventure (Part 1)

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I just returned from an amazing weekend in New York City. It was an anti-racism adventure, in which eighteen people, from three different churches, participated in an adventure together in New York City: Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (Providence, RI); Grace Lutheran Church (Hartford, CT); and First Lutheran Church (East Greenwich, RI). Two of these churches – Gloria Dei and First Lutheran – entered a partnership one and a half years ago, to work together in a ministry partnership. Gloria Dei is an urban, multi-cultural ministry, which has two worship services each weekend – one in English and one in Spanish. First Lutheran is a predominately white, though multi-ethnic community, with three worship services each weekend, all in English. Grace Lutheran Church is a multi-cultural church in Hartford, who was included in this adventure because one of Gloria Dei’s pastors was recently called to serve at Grace Lutheran, and felt that Grace Lutheran could benefit from this anti-racism adventure as well.

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As preparation for this adventure, members of our group read several articles about racism, including one of the first articles written by the new presiding bishop of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), Bishop Elizabeth Eaton: “Learning to Speak a Hard Truth: Needle Barely Moved on ELCA Becoming a Diverse Church.” In 1988, when the ELCA was birthed by the coming together of different branches of Lutherans, the new ELCA pledged itself to become a church that is at least 10% persons of color by 2013. In her article, Bishop Eaton confessed that that has NOT happened. In fact, the needle has barely budged. We have gone from being a church that is 97% white to being a church that is 96% white – in twenty-five YEARS! Why is diversity so difficult?
Along with Bishop Eaton’s article, we read another article, “The Borderlands,” written by Robette Anne Dias and Chuck Ruehle, Executive Co-Directors of Crossroads Ministry, in Chicago. Although we read several other articles, these two articles were the foundation for our conversations together. Crossroads Ministry’s goal is to “build and maintain vital anti-racism transformation teams in our institutions” (that means the ELCA, and our individual congregations too). On their website, Crossroads holds forth this quote as their motto: “Racism dehumanizes us all -Dismantling racism heals us all.” The article begins:
“There is a center in US society that is considered normal: white, male, heterosexual, married, Protestant (Christian), Anglo-American, English speaking, upper middle class, able-bodied, educated, middle-aged and embodying a particular standard of beauty. It is the standard by which all are measured. Around this center exist the rest of us – at varying distances. Some of us are closer, and some further apart… The borderlands surround this “center of normalcy.”…The borderlands is a juicy place. It is full of possibilities, chaos, creativity, conflict, beauty. It’s the place where harmony and conflict exist – simultaneously. It’s a place that transcends and defies dualism, where rigid linear reality cannot exist; a place where multiculturalism and diverse identities mix and mingle in a constant ebb and flow of mess, mediation, and mitigation.”
This article claims that most of our American institutions exist at the center, and operate from that place. The Church, that means our own ELCA, is at this center. Even our anti-racism work itself, sometimes operates from this place, expecting those who are not at the center, to come to and conform to the ways and values of the center, in other words, to assimilate. Those in the center never think about venturing into the borderlands, where we might be vulnerable and confused, but where new possibilities abound.
The purpose of our New York City trip together was to travel to a place which is unfamiliar to all of us, a liminal, marginal place, where there is no defined center. It was to enter the messy, beautiful place of creation, transformation, and new birth together, on more equal footing.

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I myself grew up at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church in South Providence, RI, a German Lutheran Church, which was located in the midst of one of the most diverse communities I have ever experienced. As a college student I was hired by my congregation to do outreach among the children and youth of this multi cultural community. Then as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, (1981-1986) I did field education at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Dorchester, MA, (now called Intersection), also a diverse urban community. When I met with the man who at that time served as the head of the New England Synod’s ordination committee, he asked me what struggles I had with the Lutheran Church. I rattled off several things, all of which had to do with our lack of diversity. This man responded, “Well, if you want to be ordained in this church, you will of course have to let go of these struggles.” In other words, I would have to accept the ways of the center. This was so disturbing to me that I left the Lutheran Church at that time, and in 1986 was ordained into the United Church of Christ, because at that time they seemed, to me, to live more fully in the borderlands. After serving for five years as a UCC pastor, the ELCA invited me back, and apologized for the experience I had had with the head of the ordination committee. What I can never forget, however, is that ironically,the list of items highlighting our lack of diversity which I at 25 years old had identified, critiqued the very same things with which we struggle now 25 years later.
Why has nothing changed in 25 years? Because most of us still live and operate at the center. Consider, for example, our model of “mission trips.” I know many of you will find this offensive. But there have been many critiques of “mission trips,” where white suburban folks spend a week or two immersing themselves in another culture. Say a group of 25 unskilled, English speaking suburban white folks spend @$2000 each to travel to Central America to build a shoddy structure for the poor of that community, so that they can return to their lives at the center, feeling better about themselves because they have “helped those poor people.”
What if instead we entered the borderlands a few miles from where we live and have some difficult conversations about racism? What if instead we humbled ourselves to stumble along struggling to learn other languages, not assuming everyone should learn to speak ours? What if instead we used the $50,000 we spent on our travel for one of these “mission trips” and had a two-way conversation with the folks from Central America asking them what they truly need, and then using that $50,000 to invest in the infrastructure of the indigenous community, encouraging and helping to develop leadership among members of the community itself, using local skilled laborers, contributing to the economic development of the borderlands community, and helping them to create changes that are more lasting?

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Because we at the center want to do things our way? Want to impose the ways and values of the cneter, whether they want our help or not?
From this Anti-Racism adventure I learned many things, but first and foremost I learned that for us as people of faith the starting point is that we have a different “center.” For us the center is not white, male, English-speaking, heterosexual, etc. For us the center is: God, Christ, the Holy Spirit. When God is at the center of things, everything shifts. “For there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Galatians 3:28) In next week’s blog I will explore some specific eye-opening realizations about racism. For now let me close by saying that at the close of our adventure together, we were asked to sum up our experience in one word. The words we named were: familia (family), communitas (community) and esperanza (hope). Only with God at the center are these things possible.

Pastor Linda Forsberg, Copyright May 27, 2014

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