We Are Church
“We Are Church!” That was the theme of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly, August 5-11, 2019. Over 900 voting delegates plus guests, resource persons and staff attended the assembly held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod group consisted of 22 members. I had the honor of being one of the voting delegates from our synod to attend. In addition, I attended the Biannual Assembly of the African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA) that was held in Milwaukee a few days before the Churchwide Assembly. The theme for that assembly was “Lift Every Voice.” As a first time attendee at both of these events, I was in awe of the faithful, power-filled servants of our Triune God who came together to fellowship and make decisions that would guide us as a body of witnesses reflecting God’s abiding grace in this world. Wonderful and hard work was done as delegates debated issues facing our congregations and our communities. Our Synod prepared a wonderful summary of the highlights of the Churchwide Assembly which is included as a separate handout. Therefore, I would like to use this time to share some of my own reflections.
“We Are Church,” is part of four principles used to describe how we express our Christian identity as Lutherans in the ELCA. The other three are: “We are Lutheran”, “We are Church Together” and “We are Church for the sake of the World.” Throughout Churchwide, we saw reminders of what it means to be Church. I saw it most vividly reflected in worship that included diverse languages (i.e. Spanish, Arabic, French, and Senegalese), music and liturgy. I saw worship that included the use of crosses depicting different cultures, use of creative displays of creation through dove-like props that floated down the aisles as part of processions. I sat among fellow worshippers as we listened to prophetic preaching on unity, diversity, and gender inclusion as ways to care for our neighbors. All were beautiful and powerful. I longed for and was completely filled by these diverse multicultural ways to praise and be in fellowship with each other.
The experiences that left the greatest impression on me were the visible struggle that the ELCA has gone through, and still has yet to go through, to be a true reflection of being church. I saw this in three ways. The first was the service celebrating the kick-off of the 50th anniversary of ordained women, the 40th anniversary of women of color and the 10th anniversary of the decision to ordain people of same-gendered relationships. As I stood waiting and watching the procession of ordained women, I humbly reflected that I too would be a part of this body of servant leaders in a few months. The joy of the women was tangible as they danced down the aisles. That procession reflected the journey through tears, rejections, and disappointments. It was the living story of women and others who were told that they could not be used by God to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments. I saw the third ordained woman of color, Gwen King, leave her motorized scooter and joyfully dance down the aisle with her cane. This was followed that evening with a banquet in which the first ordained woman, Elizabeth Platt from Carrick, told her story. She shared that the decision to change our constitutional language from ordained man to ordained person suddenly made her a person. Her God-given gifts and talents were now made visible and available for the work of the church.
The second was the reading of the ELCA Declaration of Apology to People of African Descent. I was struck by the language that spoke to previous words without the action behind it to support true change. We are church means both an acknowledgement of harmful actions through confessions and repentance, as well as engaging in the effort needed to heal through reconciliation. The response by the Rev. Lamont Wells, president of ADLA, challenged us as a body to move beyond words to action. His statement if we are ready to change left me wondering are we ready to change? Can we as a body here in North America, which is predominantly white, mature in our willingness to acknowledge the truth of our institutional biases? Can we through the power and guidance of the Triune God grow into what it means to be church? Are we ready to shift our thinking, our comfort zone of how we have worshipped to include the other? As I watched Lutheran leaders from other countries such as Brazil and Nigeria reflect a diversity that is so slow to be included in our own congregations, I wondered are we ready to change?
Finally, the vote by the body to become a sanctuary denomination filled me with hope. Yes, there is much work to be done by each congregation and synod to determine how to live this mission out in our individual communities. However, the stance that the ELCA will be a living witness of what it means to care for our neighbors fills me with joy. Rather than the political understanding that we see bantered around in the news of sanctuary, I understand sanctuary to be a place of refuge and rest for all. As we witness injustices and harm to our neighbors, whether they look like us, speak like us or think like us, we have been commanded to love our neighbors. As a denomination we have declared that to be standing in the gap to provide refuge and rest.
ADLA Assembly Rostered Women Gathering
Are we ready to be church? To continue the necessary changes that lead to the celebration of the gifts and talents of the entire body? To tackle the difficult and uncomfortable conversations that lead to reconciliation for all members of the body? My sisters and brothers, this is the opportunity before us as we through the grace of God live out this vibrant faith in the ever-changing context of our neighborhoods.
 More details about these four principles can be found on the ELCA website, elca.org, under the About tab.
Pittsburgh Lutheran United Ministries (PLUM), 405 Kennedy Avenue, Duquesne, PA 15110 412-466-7773