The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
In January 2019, a cohort of young adults from our synod traveled to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr weekend. There, they dove deep into matters of race, privilege, and justice. They met with faith and community leaders, worshiped at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and toured different museums and exhibits. This trip was made possible through the synod's Young Adult Initiative. In this Lenten blog series, members of the cohort share reflections on what they experienced and learned during the trip, and what questions they continue to grapple with.
Do not stop reading. Do not be turned off by my use of your whiteness as an identifier. Be engaged and embrace your whiteness in the story of race. I write to this audience specifically — wanting you to experience my story and how I enter into it, and wanting you to know that my being a person of color (Latinx, Hispanic) matters! I and a group of other young adults challenged ourselves by registering to travel to Atlanta, Georgia with the Saint Paul Area Synod over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Although I had never been to Atlanta, knowing the city’s deep, long history of racial injustice and movement forward provoked me to show up and to be challenged. I also enter into this group as a bi-racial, multi-ethnic person (Latinx-Hispanic-White Female) who lives and breathes the entanglement of race, privilege and justice at home and in my vocation.
I hope that as you read this reflection, you may be opened to listening to a different voice than the primary white-identified person who participates in a Midwestern Lutheran community. It will help us all grow if we build our capacity to better identify and talk about how the dominant culture shows up in our ways of being church. This includes the ways we might not have previously noticed. May we not be fearful or ashamed, or fall victim to white fragility (see this article by Robin DiAngelo if you want more background on that phrase). May we instead by motivated by and held accountable for our own continued learning and movement toward racial equity within our faith communities and beyond.
As I engage more and more in difficult and necessary conversations about race, privilege, and justice, I experience a spectrum of emotions. In the days spent in Atlanta, my emotional experience began with a celebratory affinity as we worshipped with Ebenezer Baptist Church. Imagine with me: a choir stoked with passion and excitement as they praise the Holy One, not much different than many of our own Midwestern Lutheran folks; an organ and piano, a worship band with music folders and hymnals. It would seem that our geographic locales and differing denominations held similar values for what music in church is and will be. Our group responded variously to the worship space at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It felt familiar for me, having worshipped with a Black, Southern community in my undergraduate years. It was reminiscent of my Latin hometown experiences of worship, too.
If you have never worshipped with a different community, I highly suggest doing so. I believe this allows us to examine what and how we do things in our own faith community more closely and to celebrate the vast beauty of God’s creation. Yes, we have pieces of rich traditions and history that form us in faith. But I also believe that we must continually seek God’s wisdom to know that how we come before God in worship is not the only way!
Black gospel music is a form of American sacred music borne out of the experiences of African Americans. A deep connection with God and the promises of redemption during slavery and in the civil rights movement moved folks to create music that named racial realities. One of the ways I see the white normative culture showing up in church is our perceived “lack of movement” in worship. The flippant expression that Lutherans don’t dance or raise their hands in worship is completely silly. We also devalue or disqualify folks if they worship outside of what are “acceptable” Lutheran ranges of motion or “qualified” church music. I heard a fellow Lutheran once say, “How can someone who cannot read music praise God properly?”
Music enriches our lives; it is a part of our various identities. We blare it from our cars; pipe it into our elevators, supermarkets, and offices; sing it at ballgames; and play it at funerals. And it would not exist as it does without contributions from all people — black, white, brown, indigenous, and so on. People’s lived experiences cannot be removed from the equation without drastically changing the result. We each influence one another across racial, age, social, geographic, and gender boundaries. “All the nations you made will come and bow before you, O God; they will praise your holy name” (Psalm 86:9).
One thing that stirred in me in Atlanta was a renewed call not to oppress a person’s way of communing with God and with others. We may not understand at first glance, but it is a tremendous opportunity (and a command!) for people of faith to include, not exclude. The folks at Ebenezer Baptist Church did not ask us to do anything that made us feel uncomfortable. They welcomed us as we were. If we danced, we danced. If we raised our hands, we raised our hands. If we were still and contemplative, we were still and contemplative. If we looked different — which indeed we did as a small group of mostly white, Midwesterners amidst several hundred Black folks — we most certainly weren’t called out for our differences. We were welcomed, whoever we were.
May we not forget whose we are, may we celebrate God in us in whatever expression that may be.
The Rev. Jen Collins
Hosanna Lutheran, Forest Lake