God at the Center: An Anti-Racism Adventure, Part 2 (For Spanish Version Scroll Up)
“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.”
So write Robette Anne Dias and Chuck Ruehle, Executive Co-Directors of Crossroads Ministry in Chicago, (See Link in Sidebar), in their article entitled, “The Borderlands.” Those of us who participated in a recent Anti-Racism Adventure to New York City read and discussed this article as part of our Anti-Racism work together. We also read the first article published by our new presiding bishop, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, “Learning to Speak a Hard Truth: Needle Barely Moved on ELCA Becoming a Diverse Church.” In truth, this lack of diversity is because the church, like most of our American institutions, lives at this “Center.” Until those of us who live at the “Center” acknowledge our own place of power and privilege, viz., our own “racism,” true diversity will not happen.
Reading these articles and being part of this Adventure brought me in touch with my own racism, and I had thought I was not a racist person. I do, however, live very close to the “Center.” I am not male, but other than that, I can check off pretty much everything else on the list. In other words, I live from a place of power and privilege which many do not experience. I had a simple realization of my white privilege during our preparation for this trip. Our ministry partners from Gloria Dei Multi-Cultural Ministry in Providence, RI, met with us at First Lutheran Church in East Greenwich prior to our trip, to discuss the above articles. Gloria Dei’s Pastor, the Rev. Santiago Rodriguez, asked us all to introduce ourselves. Most of the folks from Gloria Dei speak Spanish as their primary language. As they introduced themselves in Spanish, Pastor Santiago said, “In English – introduce yourself in English.” One by one, they struggled, to varying degrees, to introduce themselves in English. Then it came to us white, suburban folks from First Lutheran Church of East Greenwich, RI, whose primary language is English. We comfortably introduced ourselves also in English. As we went around the table, a scary thought occurred to me: “I should try to introduce myself in Spanish! After all, I have been studying Rosetta Stone Spanish since my husband gave it to me for Christmas! Why should I sit there in my white privilege and get off easy, introducing myself in my primary language when my sisters and brothers struggled to introduce themselves in a language that is NOT their primary language?” I was so anxious to do this, because I am uncomfortable and embarrassed speaking in my fledgling Spanish, but isn’t that the whole point of our Anti-Racism work together? So, with a faltering voice, I introduced myself in Spanish. My gracious sisters and brothers from Gloria Dei burst into applause, and I felt myself in some small way set free from the shackles of my own white privilege.
I remembered a time, a few years ago, when I was at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and an Hispanic young man stood in front of me in the notoriously long, slow-moving line. Finally, when he made it to the front of the line, the DMV worker spoke harshly to him, because he had not filled out the correct papers. When he tried to ask her some questions, it was clear that English was not his primary language. The woman’s treatment of him was shocking to me. After rudely dismissing him, she sweetly called me forward to tend to my matter. I told her that I would work with the man, to help him complete his paperwork. From that point on, she treated me rudely as well. I did not know Spanish at all at that time, but I knew Italian, which is close, so he and I figured it out together, and smiling triumphantly at each other, he filed his paperwork to the rude DMV worker.
How about you, who also live at the “Center”? Whose white skin and education and economic level give you a place of power and privilege you never even have to think about? Have you ever had an eye-opening experience, revealing your own racism? Or do you enjoy being comfortable too much to venture into the uncomfortable, challenging, messy, but glorious, life-giving “Borderlands?”
While in New York City, our motley crew intentionally ventured into other “Borderlands” places of worship, to try to learn how other communities of faith had created diverse communities, so that we could follow their example in our own places of worship. One such place some of us ventured to was a church near Union Square called Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, 155 E. 22nd Street.. A member of our group had visited Gustavus Adolphus when he visited his son, a student at Cooper Union. He had been pleasantly shocked at the diversity of the congregation: “Never before had I seen such diversity in a Lutheran Church!” (Statistically the ELCA – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – is 96% white, even after a 25-year pledge to become at least 25% persons of color!)
We were welcomed into the Gustavus Adolphus’ fellowship Hall, by their Pastor, the Rev. Christopher Mietlowski, and Diaconal Intern, Mr. John Ogren. Pastor Chris told us that many churches hang out a sign which reads, “All Are Welcome,” but few churches actually embody that. In fact, as Pastor Santiago reminded our group, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the most segregated communities in the United States exist on Sunday mornings – tragically, at churches! Pastor Chris said that when he first came to Gustavus Adolphus, one Sunday morning a homeless woman, carrying her worldly possessions in several bags, ventured into their fellowship hall. One of the church members said to him with chagrin, “Pastor, maybe we should lock the doors, because all of us church members are here, and that way people like this will not be able to get in.” While that is the sentiment of so many members of traditional churches, that is NOT what Jesus, in whose name we gather, was all about. Pastor Chris said that today at Gustavus Adolphus they are committed to “holy hospitality,” where everyone, absolutely everyone, is made to feel truly welcome.
John Ogren, Diaconal Intern at Gustavus Adolphus, shared his own personal experience of exclusion in the church he grew up in, simply because he is gay. He was so wounded by this personal experience of exclusion based on sexual orientation that he left the church altogether for many years. Then, after September 11, 2001, he felt a deep yearning, as did so many in the United States, to return to a community of faith. He worked near Gustavus Adolphus, and walked by it, day after day. He loves music, and felt the music wafting out of Gustavus Adolphus calling to him. Their commitment to holy hospitality paid off, because once John Ogren entered the church’s doors, he has never left.
The bold commitment of the ELCA to full inclusion of LBTGQ persons in its historic decision of 2009 is something I feel most proud of as a Lutheran. Indeed it was a life-changing experience for me to be at that national church wide assembly when the ELCA made this bold stand. I give thanks to God that my own congregation is truly welcoming to LBGTQ persons. But how many of our churches actually embody this holy hospitality? Conversely, how many have closed their doors on LBGTQ persons, causing wounds that are still oozing with pain?
Another wonderfully diverse community we visited was Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan, 164 West 100th Street. The Rev. Heidi Neumark is its pastor. Trinity’s well-used building serves as a beacon of the Light of Christ in its community. Trinity’s exterior, which includes a steeple that will soon come down and boarded up windows, nevertheless is adorned with beauty as colorful banners created by local artists drape both sides of its entrance.
Pastor Neumark does not seem concerned that the steeple will come down. It would cost $1,500,000 to repair it, and she says that this money could be used more effectively for ministry in the community. I think Jesus is smiling at this. Upon entering Trinity, there is a mural which visually proclaims the mission of the community: the mural features a trinity of Martin Luther, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Frederick Douglas. The mural encapsulates the story of the community: founded by Lutheran immigrants (Martin Luther), now including a large population of persons of Mexican descent (Our Lady of Guadalupe), as well as a large population of African Americans (Frederick Douglas), the mural preaches a gospel of inclusion and diversity without needing words.
Trinity houses a shelter for God’s people who are homeless. Its members come from diverse backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and economic levels. It has one worship service for children, called Wee Worship, one worship service in English and one in Spanish.
Pastor Neumark did her own translation for our group, easily flowing back and forth between English and Spanish, sometimes forgetting which language she was speaking! As with Gustavus Adolphus I could see how the inclusivity of the church leaders, specifically the pastors, sets the tone for the rest of the community in terms of creating a truly welcoming church, of holy hospitality, which will ultimately lead to a greater diversity in the church.
Perhaps it is our pastors who need to do intensive anti-racism and inclusivity training?
Finally, on Sunday morning we divided into two groups and worshipped at Saint Paul’s Chapel/Trinity Episcopal Church, 209 Broadway, and also at Judson Memorial Church (Baptist and UCC – United Church of Christ), 55 Washington Square S. My group went to Judson.
Again, we experienced a diverse and inclusive community of faith, where the welcome is real and where holy hospitality reigns. The worship was very interesting, to say the least. The music included traditional hymns as well as a song by Leonard Cohen (Anthem) and one by the Indigo Girls (Closer to Fine). The thing I really liked about the community, was that after the sermon they allowed about 15-20 minutes for members of the community to share a celebration or a desolation – a joy or a sorrow. It was a truly moving experience, and one which I feel would draw any community closer together because you would come to know your sisters and brothers on a deeper level, as they shared their personal experience of joy or of sorrow. I think I will try incorporating this into the worship of my own community. In addition, Judson ministers right where it is planted, ministering to the students of NYU, and sharing its space for overflow classes.
Judson also has a remarkable Faith in the Arts program, which fosters emerging artists to share and develop their gifts. A program I found particularly intriguing is a Wednesday evening “dinner theater,” which literally feeds hungry people, while at the same time, encourages emerging playwrights and actors, allowing them to perform their works!
Finally, I came away from our Anti-Racism adventure with an image which I will use as a model going forward in my own life and ministry: God at the Center. When we visited Gustavus Adolphus, Pastor Chris and Deacon John invited us to sit in a circle. They mentioned that when we gather in a circle we always remember that at the center of the circle is God, who makes us One.
God at the Center struck me profoundly because of our Anti-Racism work which identifies the “Center” of our life in the United States, in all of our groups and agencies and institutions, as white, male, heterosexual, upper middle-class, English-speaking, etc. But no, for us as people of faith, that is NOT the “Center.” God is the Center. For us as Christians, Christ is the Center. This means, of course, that every human being, no matter what race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic level or language, every human being is equal as a person of God, in the imago dei, (God’s own image and likeness). “For we are all one, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Gal. 3:28) If there is any hope for true equality, for anti-racism, for true diversity, for holy hospitality, for all human beings being treated with reverence as people of God, it is because God, after all, is the true Center. Thanks be to God.
Pastor Linda Forsberg, Copyright June 3, 2014
Photos: My granddaughter Sylvie and my great-grandson Ayden; New York City Skyline, from the Staten Island Ferry; part of our group outside Seafarer’s International House, Union Square; half our group outside Gustavus Adolphus; Rev. Linda Forsberg, Dave Kulm, and Rev. Chris Mietlowski; Linda Forsberg and John Ogren; Trinity Lutheran Church; Banners outside Trinity Lutheran Church; Mural inside Trinity Lutheran Church; Rev. Heidi Neumark and Mural; Rev. Santiago Rodriquez, Rev. Heidi Neumark and Rev. Linda Forsberg; Saint Paul’s/Trinity Episcopal; Judson Memorial Church exterior; Judson Memorial Church interior; Judson Memorial Church’s Choir Loft/ Site of Dinner Theater; sitting in a circle in the lounge at Seafarer’s International House; our whole group outside Seafarer’s International House