Lately I’ve become involved with a movement within my Lutheran Christian world and I want to tell you about this movement and why it has captured my heart.
The movement is called #decolonizeLutheranism.
A fundamental question of the #decolonizeLutheranism movement is what does it mean to be Lutheran? And honestly, I didn’t know this answer on a theological level until I got my theology degree. But I experienced it to the bone in my home congregation in my youth without knowing that’s what was happening.
Now, there are a lot of cultural norms that come out of predominately white, European-decent Lutheran expressions in the US. But those are not the core of what it means to be Lutheran.
To me, what it means to be Lutheran is to be a people so intimately acquainted with the grace and goodness and love of God that we can’t help but live grace and goodness and love as we move about our lives.
When I look back on my childhood congregation, that’s what I remember of the people who touched my life most profoundly.
These are just a few of the people who lived and breathed grace to me in how they related to me as a child of Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church (HRLC) in Pickerington, Ohio.
As a mission congregation, started in the 1970s, HRLC drew a crowd of Christ-followers from various religious backgrounds. To my knowledge, we had folks who were raised Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, as well as those raised with little to know religious upbringing. We were not your typical, established, European-ethnically-Lutheran congregation. We were predominately white because of our location in a the suburbs, yet in many ways we were outside of a lot of Lutheran cultural norms.
My family didn’t even begin attending church at all until after I started school. We chose HRLC as our church home because of the grace and warmth we received there from the very beginning. This mission congregation, despite its position on the fringes of Lutheran culture, was right in the heart of Lutheran theology. And it spoke to each member of my family of origin. My mom had grown up Methodist, and my dad had grown up without a church, my brother and I were unsure of church coming into our lives in our childhood, but we all resonated with what the Spirt was doing in and through HRLC. My mother joined the church, eventually my brother was baptized, then I was baptized too at the age of 9. Finally, even my father was baptized at HRLC.
But as time went on, I grappled with the faith. I have never been one to accept easy answers to complex questions. And as a youngster who wasn’t a “cradle Lutheran,” I had a lot of questions. I mean, a lot, a lot. I don’t recall always being particularly tactful in asking them. Sometimes I was outright irritated about what I was being asked to believe about God and Jesus.
I know I can be argumentative. I know I can. In fact, in 8th grade, I had a teacher tell me I ought to be a defense attorney because I was one of the most argumentative people he had ever met.
I tell you, I can be difficult. If you don’t believe me, just ask the other students from my Sunday school and confirmation classes from the time.
In another time and place, in another congregation where people didn’t know grace so intimately as the folks at HRLC did, this may not have ended well for me. But the teachers and other adults graced me with their patience and forbearance. They gave me answers when they had them, but they didn’t make stuff up when my questions were too hard. Sometimes they just let me have my questions. They just sat in my questioning with me.
HRLC is closed now.
There is a Starbucks where my childhood congregation used to be.
But I carry the legacy of HRLC in my heart. The grace upon grace I experienced at HRLC in my youth is what it really means to be to be Lutheran. Anything that holds us back from doing and being this needs to be shed, laid at the cross.
We’re not great at diversity in my particular denomination of Lutheranism–the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA), but we’re not just a white, European denomination. We do have people and congregations among us who are of other cultural backgrounds. It’s sad then that even people of color who have been born and raised in historically Lutheran congregations get asked, “When did you become Lutheran?”
Never in my white, Lutheran life have I ever been asked when I became Lutheran. When it comes to heritage, there are black Lutheran congregations that go back for generations! In fact, the oldest ELCA congregation is Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Virgin Islands; it is a black congregation that was established in 1666. They are more firmly rooted in Lutheranism than this questioning little soul from Methodist and unchurched parents. But no one questions whether I belong because I’m white?
Cultural presuppositions about Lutheranism are in the way of the Good News of Jesus Christ actually getting out. If an impertinent, back-talking girl like me can be permitted access to the grace of God, I want that grace flung far and wide. And where that grace is already abounding and shaking up our safe, cultural ideas, I want to see us learn from that and lean into that.
These are the kinds of things I see the #decolonizeLutheranism movement doing, and this is why this movement is so very close to my heart.