“I am not welcome….” Reflecting on race, ethnicity, & the Lutheran Church

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its survey of racial diversity across various religious groups in America.  What may be a shocker to some (but not to me) is that the church denomination I belong to, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is the second least racially diverse across America.  You could make the case it is THE least racially diverse since the group below it, the National Baptist Convention, has been historically and still is, an exclusively an African-American church.

My church, the ELCA, prides itself on its efforts to be more racially diverse and inclusive of other ethnic groups.  Wanting to give my church the benefit of the doubt, I did a little further investigating and according to 2012 data compiled by the ELCA, it reported about 8.5% of its membership was made up of other ethnic groups.  The Pew Research survey reported about 4% of the ELCA’s membership is made up of these same ethnic groups.  Therefore, as a church body, we’ve actually decreased in diversity over the last three years. As an Asian-American in this church whose ethnic group is just as diverse (pretty much if you are not white and hail from the continent of Asia and the Pacific Islands you’re lumped into the “Asian” category), this is what I hear:

I am not welcome in this church.

The majority voice of the institution that is the ELCA receives me because I was raised up in its predominant cultural heritage.  I was raised on dairy farm in central Minnesota, adopted by Scandinavian parents, who were Lutheran.  Like many Asian adoptees, my own cultural identity, along with cultural norms and values, was replaced by a predominantly white one.  My pursuits in higher education and my work ethic are hailed and respected by white privilege in a form of racism and discrimination known as the “model minority.”  However, since I started seminary in 2009 and became a pastor in the ELCA I have become increasingly aware of those moments when my racial identity has me standing outside this church.  I have increasingly felt the force that is white privilege acting upon me in this church when I find myself wrestling with the contradictions and hypocrisy of the cultural identity of my childhood, along with its norms and values, compared with who I am today……wrestling that quite franky, has been raised by my experience and participation in my church, the ELCA. I know I have been subjected to forms of racism and discrimination throughout my whole life, but never before have they been so explicit, and myself so aware of them, until the start of seminary through present day. 

I feel it when I’m asked to take pictures for publications because I’m “the kind of person we think would be the right fit and would represent who we are as Lutherans.”

I feel it when I watch one of my congregations long for more youth, yet ignore a newcomer who is an African-American teenager, to the extent where the majority of them don’t even know his name.

I feel it every time I speak out in concern and anger from a place of my own experience, and I am met not with questions seeking understanding, but rather statements demanding my silence and questioning my loyalty to the institution.

I felt it this past Sunday morning while worshipping as a visitor at an ELCA congregation, and looking around me and seeing that I am the only person of color in the room.

I, along with many others, are not welcome in this church.

I will admit, this has been a summer in which I’ve given into my feelings of frustration and anger towards the institutional church – the ELCA.  Some of that is founded, and some of that is my sinfulness, my lack of grace towards the church.  However, as I sit here and reflect on my feelings and what this all means, I still assert that I, just like so many other ethnic minorities, am not welcome in the church.  Sadly, other people of color are experience the unwelcome of the church in more tragic and overt ways than I have. Yet, my deeper reflection has led me to understand that perhaps the meaning behind that statement is just a revelation of reality, rather than a critique that requires a solution of the ELCA which I am a part of.

The reality is that the ELCA is historically a white church – German and Scandinavian immigrants to be exact.  It is a church that values higher education and gives power (we make them clergy) to those who possess those credentials.  It is a church that has always been more proud of its cultural and theological tradition rather than thrusting itself into the unsettling, reforming work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a church that historically has given itself to efforts that focus on the spiritual and communal well-being of its existing members rather than all out evangelizing to those outsiders around them. 

The reality is that my church isn’t overtly racist, it’s just not and has never been divserse. What exists is a passive form of discrimination though the existing culture, values, and structures of privilege – white privilege.  And I think my mistake has been to put the church on trial without understanding that I’ve misplaced my trust in the hope that people will make the church a more welcome place for people of color – for people like me. Perhaps what I ask for is simply an impossibility given who we have been and who we are as a chruch. It isn’t a welcoming institution for people of color – there is little that celebrates the ethnic and cultural heritage and values that are a part of who we are.  My reflection has led me to believe that I should be more gracious towards the non-divserity of the ELCA…..and the subconscious resistance to do the work necessary to make it a more diverse church. My failure has been to place my trust in the hope that people can be the great author and catalyst of change in the church – and we full well know what happens when we place our trust solely in the efforts of humanity. 

What I’ve come to understand that my trust must be placed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I may not be welcome in this church by established human – ie. white privilege – standards, but I belong.  I belong because in Christ, a place has been made for me.  In Christ I am joined to the community of God for who I am, not by the standards devised by people who have enjoyed their long-standing place within the institution and see no need to act with a sense of urgency to change that.  Despite all that is real and true about this church, the fact remains that in Christ, I do belong.  That is where my confidence comes from, that is where my voice comes from, and that is where my courage is founded in. I follow Christ….the experiences unique to who I am racially, culturally, ethnically, and the thoughts, ideas, questions, and wrestling that coincide with that have a place in the church as the Kingdom of God here on earth.  In my understanding of belonging comes an appreciation for what the Lutheran church gifts to me – a theological tradition that helps me make sense of the particularity of my experience as an Asian-American adoptee.  The gift is not a sense of welcome and inclusion into a cultural majority of institutional privilege and power that I can never be a part of simply because of who I am. 

I may not be welcome.  But I know I belong….because I know who and whose I am.  That should be my focus, and that is enough.  And I hope for all those who find themselves standing outside the welcome of this church because of their questions, their ethnicity, their race…..they might find a sense of renewed faith and belonging in faith in Christ, not the empty boasting a promises of human progress. 

My place, like many people of color, is a particular one within the church. It may not – and it may never – be within the institution’s privileged places, but it is always a place of belonging established by God’s grace made known in the cross of Christ. May we be so bold as to live courageously in the knowledge of that gospel truth. 


Filed under Culture & Social Issues/Ethics, Missional Thinking & The Church

2 responses to ““I am not welcome….” Reflecting on race, ethnicity, & the Lutheran Church

  1. Kerri

    Thanks for sharing these reflections, Aaron. I appreciate the work you’ve done to process your experiences, and really like the way you framed the welcome/belong distinction.

  2. Melinda Barnhardt

    You are a voice that we as a church (I am an ELCA member) very much need. Please realize that you are unique in that you can say things from a viewpoint that those of us who are white and want things to change often have difficulty getting across to others because we are perceived as “do-gooders” critiquing our fellow members. We have not “been there,” and can’t deserve empathy. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that we as whites shouldn’t continue to do EVERYTHING WE CAN to make clear that in the church there is NO SUCH THING AS A SPECIAL, LONG-STANDING PLACE. We are all the same at the foot of the Cross! But we as whites need your help! Please continue speaking out!

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