The question below was presented for response in a Multicultural Ministry seminary class I took,taught by Rev. Dr. Julius Carrol
“Pastor, please give us a rationale as to why you believe this congregation, has been call to reach out to the African-Descent community.”
As a Congregation that is overwhelmingly white, in a denomination that according to 2008 figures is 97% white, any attempt to be in community with those who look different then us will cause an intentional reaching out to that intended community. This is because in ELCA congregations, we have become accustomed to doing things that speak in a unique manner to only those who have been raised in a European, mainline Protestant context. Thus, in order to speak a new language we must learn a new language, and in order to learn a new language, we must be intentional in our study, practice, and development in that language. Our rationale for undertaking this venture is to engage with our fellow members of the body of Christ as a community, so that we can live together as the One, crucified, body of our Lord and be that Body as a light in the world.
It is indisputable that we as Christians belong as full-members to the Body of Christ regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or sexuality. Though this may seem elementary, it is important to break down once and for all any conceptual walls that one may have about who belongs to this body and how much they belong. It is important to stress and teach about the unity we share in Christ, as Paul writes to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer male or female, no longer slave or free; for all of you are one in Christ.” (3:28) Despite this unity in Christ, Paul also writes that we have all been given different spiritual gifts, saying “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function.” (Romans 12:4) When we start as Christians with the understanding that we are One, though not the same, as the Body of Christ, we then can move into a discussion of how to better function as that Body for the world.
Though unity in Christ is what we’ve been given, we have grown as a Body where the hand and the foot do not know each other; a body where the mouth consumes food which damages the stomach. In order to work together, we must first get to know each other and so that we can better care for the Body.
This process of getting to know each other means that we go and meet people where they are at, and do not wait for them to meet us, whether this is a literal meeting or an intentional listening. Holy Scripture is filled with examples of people going, Phillip was sent by the Holy Spirit to go to the Eunuch’s chariot, Jonah was sent to Nineveh, and Mary was called to sit and listen to the words of her Lord.
As this Body, we do not get to know each other to become exactly the same. Rather, we meet each other to find the ways in which our different worlds connect. Paul’s letter to the Galatians exhorts them to be Christians as they are, and not by adopting Jewish rituals. A powerful example is Jesus meeting the woman from Samaria at the well in the Gospel of John. In this story, Jesus does not convert the woman and in fact, breaks tradition by asking for water from this enemy of Judaism. It is around this practice of drawing water that Jesus tells this woman who he is and also that he knows her. The woman then tells her community, and many Samaritans see Jesus and believed. Jesus met this woman and broke into her life and community with his light, not around shared rituals, but around the necessary practice of drawing and sharing water from a well. We too, are called to become one, proclaiming with both Samaritan and Jewish voices that our Messiah has come.
A modern-day example of someone that has gotten to “know” people in the name of Christ is Jean Vanier. Mr. Vanier has done work amongst the developmentally disabled, and through this work has opened up the doors of communication and relationship between these people and other members of the Body of Christ. When Mr. Vanier began his work in the 1960’s and moved people from an institutional life to one of authentic community, there situation was improved.
The real testimony does not lie in this move from institution to community of individuals, rather it lies in the new ways that Christians across the world have heard of and shared in Christ with people who are different in many ways, but who are all made whole in Christ. As Douglas John Hall mentions in his book, The Cross in our Context, Vanier has been a leader for Christians who engage the world, rather then create a haven apart from the world. (53) In Vanier’s context, these havens were the sanitary institutions where we put those who would be disruptive to our safe lives. This engagement is what we are called to as the body that proclaims Christ crucified.
Within The Cross in Our Context, Hall references the legend of Quo Vadis. In this legend, Peter the Rock is fleeing Rome for a safe haven when he encounters the resurrected Jesus on the road, who is going back to Rome. When Peter asks where he is going, Jesus says to Rome, to be crucified again. The above example using Vanier is simply one of many who go into the dangerous places not to save the world, but to be crucified by it.
As we discuss our relationship with those of African-Descent in our country, (and especially focused on African-Americans) we must ask ourselves what does it look like for us to go back to Rome, and are we going there to put out the fire or to be crucified because of it.
The answer, or an example to these questions is not found within ourselves as the ELCA. We as a denomination, have, by and large, already fled the fire of race relationships for the safety of suburbs and gated communities. Instead, we would do well to look to the obvious people to guide us, the courageous leaders and people of the Black church. It is people like Martin Luther King Jr. that have brought the knowledge that Rome is burning to us through their own persecution and crucifixion as icons through which we can see the Crucified Christ. It is because of the bravery of the Civil Rights leaders to challenge the status quo that we as a could see the light and love of God through them and not through an apathetic view that hierarchal security is the way of God’s love. When the world saw dogs and fire-hoses turned upon children because of the color of their skin, they were shown the sin that exists in humanity. Yet, because they were able to see this sin, people were also able to see the love of God for all humans and to better understand the gift of humanity we have been given. The gift that is so precious, that God lived with us and died as one of us for it.
Though there was great progress in recognizing the gift of a basic, common humanity given to us by God in the middle part of the 20th century, a great deal of pain continues to exist among the African-American community. Clear evidence for this continued pain unique to the African-American community is provided by simply looking at demographics which show greatly disproportionate rates between races in regards to poverty, high school drop-outs, imprisonment, and life-expectancy (to just skim the surface). We as Christians believe the promises of God to us and because of these promises we know the crucified and suffering Christ is present in the African-American community. Unless we simply describe these differences away using racism, we must acknowledge that these circumstances are the result of an unjust society. In acknowledging this injustice, we as Christians, especially European-American Christians must acknowledge the sin that exists in this society. As we make these acknowledgements, we begin to see Christ, with all of his horrible wounds, crucified in the unique wounds of this community, suffering with the humanity that he loves.
As stated before, because of Christ, all are made one into the Body of Christ. Thus, when our sisters and brothers in Christ suffer, we suffer as well. This is the case even when we cause the suffering of our own body, just as we as humans caused the suffering of our own God. Because we are united, yet broken, we share as one the stories which God has given to us through our lives. Through these stories of God’s interaction in our lives, we see more and more the creative power breaking into the world in new ways. As these stories of humanity weave themselves around the oneness we share in the Crucified Christ, God weaves hope and promise through the people of God for the world.
When we remain tied to our own way of doing things, for fear of others in the world; or worse yet for fear of seeing the result of our sin on the lives of others, we lose the richness of the mystery which God comes to us in. The stories of God’s work in the lives of the African-Descent community are screaming to us to hear them and to discover the grace of God in these stories. These stories cry out to us through spirituals and rhythms which give the story of the Hebrew people a literal context. These stories cry out to us through the warnings of the Prophets when they yell that there are two America’s, and that God condemns this country we have created in our own image. God is calling us to hear these stories and to experience Christ in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who we hardly know.
The work of Christ on this Earth is the ideal function of compassion, or with-suffering. As Hall writes about the German word for compassion mitleid and its action is to be “thrust into a solidarity of spirit with the other – to experience, in one’s own person the highest possible degree of identity with the other” (22) This is what Christ has done with humanity, he has become one with us, ultimately in his death on the Cross. This unity is why we are called to be multi-cultural, not out of pity, but out of a grace-filled calling to be unified with each other and with our God. We are called to be unified in this suffering, so that we can be Christ’s crucified people so that all may see through us, God’s compassion for the world.