“This first Christmas was not a magical holiday homecoming story full of family turkey dinners, carol singing and football games. It did not involve decorating trees, baking cookies and opening wrapped gifts.Rather, the first Christmas is a refugee story.And it tells of a young, poor, homeless asylum seeking couple who fearfully flee their country and become residents in a foreign land in order to save their child’s life.And yet, this story is also a story of hope. It is in the midst of this violent and fearful event when God shows up in the flesh: not as a king who has worldly power, and not as one who is distant and does not understand the plight of the marginalized. Rather, God shows up as one of the marginalized. God shows up in the flesh in a dirty stable, as a vulnerable baby, to a terrified young homeless couple on the margins of society.”
Want to read up on the ELCA youth Gathering 2018 in Houston? Below are links to all of the E.C.T. (Edgewater Congregations Together) Youth Group daily blog posts during the trip, a link to the ELCA Youth Gathering youtube channel with videos of speakers, worship, etc. from the youth Gathering, and some media coverage of the Youth Gathering.
ELCA Youth Gathering Youtube Channel (with videos of speakers, worship, recaps, etc.)
E.C.T. blog posts from the ELCA Youth Gathering and Multicultural Youth Leadership 2018:
Sermon I Preached Sunday, July 8 (following the ELCA Youth Gathering):
Media Coverage of the ELCA Youth Gathering:
Coverage of the Families Belong Together Rally and Action Led by our E.C.T. Youth & a Few Other Chicago Youth:
Christian Teenagers in Houston Protest Immigrant Family Separation – Houston Chronicle
Protesting Christian Youth Ask, Who Would Jesus Detain – Houston Chronicle
General Coverage of the ELCA Youth Gathering:
30,000 Teens in Houston For Lutheran Youth Conference – Fox 26 News (Houston)
Lutheran Youth Gathering with Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Youth Gathering Director Molly Beck-Dean – Fox 26 News (Houston)
30,000 Youth to Descend on Houston for Lutheran Gathering – Houston Chronicle
Lutheran Youth Gathering Helps Teens Relate to Harvey, Maria Disasters – Houston Chronicle
Teens Tackle Human Trafficking in Houston – Houston Public Media
Sunday, July 1 was our final full day in Houston for the ELCA Youth Gathering. (Yes, I’m a bit late at posting but took a much needed rest last week!)
We got up early and checked out of Wyndham Hotel.
Then we headed to the NRG Stadium for our closing worship.
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached and gave a big shout out on stage to our very own Lillian and Ngbarezere! They were two of six youth who met with her in early June for a text study to discuss the scripture she preached on at closing worship. In her sermon, she touched on many things these youth discussed with her. What an awesome experience for them and for her!
Then we participated in some powerful worship.
After closing worship, our group brought more beautiful energy, song, and joy to the other groups as we headed out of the NRG Stadium. I was so proud of them for this!
We had to stop and get a group photo with Kalleb, one of our young adults (and former youth group members) who was at the ELCA Youth Gathering as a volunteer for Valparaiso University. It was so great to worship with him this morning!
While most of the other groups dispersed and began their trips home, we had an extra day to hang out as a group and explore a little bit of Houston.
So we took the train downtown to grab some lunch.
Of course we received a few more Johnny and Maku selfies in our group text along the way.
And to make things even more fun, Maku started on our group chat a Holy Roast with your’s truly: Pastor Emily (PE.) I think we all know who won…
We finally made it to our lunch destination, a small local hot spot: Cajun Stop. It. Was. Delicious!
Some of us even tried new things like: fried pickles, fried gator, popcorn shrimp, crab legs, shrimp and hamburger po’boys, and gumbo.
After lunch, we stopped at the Graffiti Building and took some pics.
Then it was time for us to head to our hotel for the night, which was close to the airport. (We had to get up at 3am to make our 6am flight!)
At the hotel, we got to cool down and spend some more time with each other in the pool.
And because it was Jenny’s birthday the next day, we celebrated with a pizza party and surprised her with an ice-cream cake.
Finally, we crammed into Pastor Michael’s room and had our final check-in’s about the trip with each other. Throughout our trip and during tonight’s check ins, our youth showed love to one another and love and grace to me in so many incredible ways. Tonight was probably one of the most holy encounters I’ve experienced in my life, and it was because of these incredibly welcoming, loving young people who shared their lives and created a safe space for one another and for me to open up and share our stories and important parts of our lives with one another. Throughout this week and during our closing check-in tonight, these youth truly embodied the hands and feet of Christ as they shared, listened, encouraged, prayed, cried, sang to, hugged, held, and said “I gotchu” to one another and to me.
In a world and a country that is so full of suffering, heartbreak, and hate, it is these young people who are giving me hope for a better world and showing people like me how to follow Jesus and how to be the welcoming and loving people he calls us to be.
These young people are the Church. They are Jesus’ body in the world. As our theme for the ELCA Youth Gathering this week says: This Changes Everything!
THEY are my hope and THEY are changing everything.
I’m so incredibly grateful for and blessed by them and for/by my young adult leaders Jordan and Ngbarezere and colleague Pastor Michael Fick for accompanying me and these youth on this life-changing trip.
God’s presence has truly been made known.
May we open our eyes to see God in and through our youth, open our hearts to receive God’s grace that they share with us, and follow their lead in offering love to the world.
This Changes Everything!
Day 7: (Saturday) was a great day. We began the day by sleeping in! (Yay!)
Some folks swam at the pool for a bit.
And then we went to the bus stop to catch our bus to the NRG Center.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Interactive Learning Center at the NRG center.
We first made our way to the Valparaiso University booth to say hello to former ECT youth group member and current college student, Kalleb.
Then we visited several other exhibits and learned about a variety of issues:
1. First stop was the #MeToo Exhibit:
2. Second stop was Lantern Hill Mexico: This is an education and nutrition program for impoverished children. This ministry seeks to break the cycle of poverty by ensuring children to stay in school instead of dropping out and working in fields or factories at young ages like many others in rural Mexico.
At the exhibit, we learned about the organization and painted designs and inspirational Spanish phrases on school benches for Mexican students in Ensenada.
3. Third stop was Peace Not Walls. Through accompaniment, advocacy and awareness-raising, Peace Not Walls connects ELCA members to our companions and promotes dignity, full respect for human rights, healing and reconciliation. With our Palestinian Lutheran companions, we also accompany Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims working together for peace with justice.
At the center, we learned a bit about the plight of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine.
4. Next, we visited the Reconciling Works Exhibit, an independent Lutheran nonprofit that works for the full welcome, inclusion and celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQIA+) people in the Lutheran church. It is our vision that the church is a place where LGBTQ people and their families can worship and thrive, bringing all their God-given gifts to mission and ministry for the world. There, Pastor Michael Fick walked our group through the different flags and explained what they mean.
5. We stopped at the Racial Justice Ministries booth. The Racial Justice Ministries of the ELCA are catalysts and bridge-builders committed to the work of equipping leaders, training, building alliances and supporting ecumenical networks so that together, throughout the church in public witness, programs and policies advance racial justice – locally and globally.
6. We wanted to go to the LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services) and AMMPARO booth that takes you through what it would be like as migrants and refugees seeking safety in a new land. The bad news was that the lines were so long that we were unable to make it through the exhibit. The great news is that 5000 people went through the excited and signed letters to their legislators.
Then we needed to have some fun…
Even and especially when we were waiting in long lines!
Mass gathering was full of fun and powerful speakers and worship.
Immanuel Lutheran’s very own Rev. Stephen Bouman spoke about what it was like to be Bishop in New York during 9/11.
The theme for the evening was God’s Hope Changes Everything. So Rev. Bouman said: “But hope cannot be crushed. There were many hero’s in the towers. The question often asked in tragedies “where the hell is God?” was being answered in small acts of compassion. God will use our hope to move our grief and anger into action.
I see you following Jesus who Changes Everything.
I see you: called to radical hope, being what you were born to be.
You are the church who will change everything.
Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton explained:
“Opposite of hope is not hate. It’s apathy. There is so much wrong that you can just right. There is so much more of you to give.”
Carson McCullar shared his powerful story about his addiction.
“I may have lost hope in me but God never did. No matter how hard things might be, there is a light of hope (for me it was through the friends and family who never gave up in me.)
Then Jamie Bruesehoff introduced her 11 year old daughter Rebekah, who shared her story.
Rebekah explained how sometimes as she began to under herself as transgender, she wondered: “Did God mess up? I’ve come to realize God does not make mistakes. God made me me.
I have a lot of support but so many transgender kids don’t.
Transgender kids are just like other kids. We need to be loved and supported.
Hearts and minds can change. I can change the world.
I want people to know that it doesn’t matter our age. We can be hope for the church and all people. They need us.
I have hope for a church where people are not just welcomed, but they are celebrated.
We can make it happen.
You – each and every one of you – made in God’s image are made to be hope in the church and made to be hope in the world. You are my hope.”
Finally, Joe Davis spoke. He explained:
“This generation is the one that will disrupt fear with courage and status quo with radical hope.
You are here for a reason: Not just for the future but for the here and now.
Differences are a gift. We are created for a purpose. Say you have a purpose not just in the church.
Show up unapologetically as your authentic self. The church and world need you.
You are a generation that’s teaching us enough is enough.
…Radical hope is when we celebrate not what we see now but what it can be. Things can and will be transformed. But there will be struggle, and so we practice this hope every day.
This hope changes me. This hope changes you this Hope Changes Everything.”
After the mass gathering, our brought beauty, a positive energy, and joy to those around us as we sang songs from MYLE.
What a wonderful day!
Yesterday was our service learning day for the ELCA Youth Gathering. So we got up (suuuper early), put our orange t-shirts on, and had our grocery bought breakfast.
But despite how early it was, we still managed to have a lot of fun!
Then we hopped on the train and headed to the NRG Center to catch our service learning bus. The train was a sea of orange!
We arrived at our service learning destination with one other church from the Metro-Chicago synod: Independence Heights Park, which is located in the national register of historic places Independence Heights, the first black municipality in Texas. We first heard about the history of the community.
Then we got to work. We repainted murals around the park.
Some of the kids attending the summer camp program at the park joined us.
When we finished our murals, we hung out and played games with the kids at the camp.
Our youth group did a fantastic job with the children! One girl, Nevaeh, had tried to make a basketball shot before but could never make it in the hoop. Our youth encouraged her and showed her what she needed to do. At one point, she said she could not do it. But our youth encouraged her, and she ended up making 15-20 baskets! Our group saw God in these children’s and encounters with them and realized that encouragement of others goes a very long way!
At the end of our service day, we headed back to the NRG Arena to have some fun at the community life center.
At dinner time, we had to walk a little ways so we could have some good Texan barbecue at Pappa’s BBQ.
Then we headed back to the NRG Stadium for our mass gathering.
The theme for this day was God’s Grace Changes Everything.
We first heard from Elizabeth Peter, who said: “No matter how you’ve been excluded, god brings you into the fold and says you matter. And there is no limit to God’s grace.”
Then we heard a powerful message from Michaela Shelley, who told her story about her own struggles and how she experienced God’s grace grace in and through them.
She said: “God’s grace isn’t just about forgiveness. It’s also about how God leads us into the person we will be. No matter how many times you may curse God, God will always love you and you will always matter. This is grace.”
We heard another powerful message from the Rev. Will Starkweather about his struggles with anxiety and depression. He said: “Our God is in business of makings beautiful people and things out of broken people and things. We are all recovering from something. There’s grace for that.
Whatever you’re carrying, you are what you: a beloved child of God.”
Finally we heard from the Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber, who explained:
“If your life really sucks right now, just know this is not your ultimate life long reality
Grace is way in which god is great heavenly composter making beautiful things out of feasies
Nobody ever becomes their ideal self. An ideal self is a lie. The truth is an ideal self doesn’t exist. The self God loves is your actual authentic self. The word for this is grace. God doesn’t wait for you to get a little better at or a little skinnier than or a little whatever before loving you. You are magnificently imperfect. And God loves this authentic you. God’s voice calls us worthy.”
She ended having the entire gathering of 30,000 youth and adults publicly renounce the Accuser… we publicly renounced ableism, heteronormativity, sexism, White Supremacy, perfectionism, and the lies we tell ourselves and hear from others.
What a powerful day! We look forward to sleeping in a bit tomorrow!
Today was our last day at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event.
After breakfast, we packed our bags and headed to our closing worship.
There, Pastor Yehiel Curry from Shekinah Chapel in Chicago led us in a Libation Ceremony.
The theme for MYLE today was “ONE in Christ,” based on:
“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it] 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” – Ephesians 12:14-19
So Pastor Curry PREACHED about our oneness in Christ and reminded us that Christ brings down the walls of hostility that divide us.
“It is not black families alone affected by mass incarceration; we are affected by mass incarceration. Why? Because we are one in Christ.
The Virgin Islands, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Houston: ‘they’ didn’t have a hurricane; we had a hurricane. Why? Because we are one in Christ.
It is not just immigrant families being separated; we are being separated. Why?
Because we are one in Christ.”
He explained that if we want to create change, we need to start within us.
“When you change your heart, you can change your mind. When you change your mind, you can change your community. When you change your community, you can change your city. When you change your city, you can change your state. When you can change your state, you can change your nation. When you can change your nation, you can change your world.
When you can say this is my brother, this is my sister, this is my family: THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING! We are ONE in Christ.”
Pastor Curry explained that it is when we immerse ourselves with others who may look, speak, talk, and act differently than we do and get to know them, that we will begin to realize that we are more alike than we are different.
He saw this taking place at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event this week.
Pastor Curry said last night he saw black, white, Latinx, and Asian youth dancing together. And when we can dance together, share music and fellowship and call each other a siblings, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!
We ended MYLE with a blessing to go out into the world and proclaim Jesus’ peace and justice for ALL people.
The rest of the afternoon was spent getting ready to head to the ELCA Youth Gathering main event.
At 2:00pm, we finally arrived at our hotel. And as we waited for our rooms, some of us swam and others watched some World Cup games.
We grabbed dinner nearby.
And then, since our hotel is in the Medical Center, we hopped on the metro rail as headed to the NRG Stadium for our first mass gathering.
With 30,000 youth and pastors/adult leaders gathering in one place, we had to do a lot of waiting… but we found lots of ways to bond while doing so!
Our first mass gathering was excellent!
We began with some fun music:
We were greeted by ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton:
And throughout the night, we heard the ELCA Youth Gathering theme: “This Changes Everything.” We also heard this evening’s sub-theme: “God’s Call Changes Everything” through multiple call stories.
We worshipped together:
And then we heard a powerful message from Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. (He is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults.)
Bryan explained that our call is to change the world.
He explained that there are four things we need to do to change the world:
1. God calls us to get closer to the margins. There is power in proximity. We need to get close to those who are being excluded and suffering. This is how we can change the world.
2. When we see injustice we need to speak out and talk about/address our history of racial injustice.
3. We need to stay hopeful. This can be difficult because hope requires us to believe things we cannot see. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. It holds us back from doing what we can to make change.
4. We have to be willing to do things that are uncomfortable and difficult in order to pursue justice.
He concluded: “I believe with this room full of 1000s of young people who are willing to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, we WILL change the world.”
We concluded the gathering with more worship.
There is something s powerful about singing “This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna Let it Shine” with 30,000 young people.)
We ended the evening with a lot of walking and waiting. But we found ways to make it fun!
We look forward to our first full day at the ELCA Youth Gathering tomorrow!
Our second day of the Multicultural Youth Leadership was packed with fun, worship, service, and learning.
After breakfast, we started out with “Jumpstart,” where the worship group “Ase” from Shekinah Chapel – an ELCA church in Chicago – led us in some incredible music to get us ready for our service learning project. (They rocked the house!)
And our very own Hope and Ngbarazere, helped lead us in dance!
Oh, and so did Jordan!
After Jumpstart, we hopped on a bus with a few other church groups to head to our service learning site.
Our group was assigned to work with the Prestige Learning Institute, which offers ESL classes and other skills classes to new immigrants and refugees in the immediate community. We ended up weeding and planting a community vegetable garden in the backyard of the home of one of the teachers at the institute. Refugee families from the institute will be able to work in the garden once a week and have free and fresh vegetables. Additionally, this garden will serve as a wonderful space for community building.
When we arrived, we were overwhelmed at how much weeding and work was to be done.
However, we got to work!
And made some new friends while doing so.
And despite the heat and the rain, we worked together and created a beautiful community vegetable garden! Shannon and her husband were so grateful for how much all of our hands could get done in one afternoon!
God’s work, Our hands!
After our work project and a little down time, we heard a really important story from Nomar, one of the MYLE volunteers who helped us with our service learning project today. Nomar is a college student in Puerto Rico, and he told us a little about what it’s been like as a Puerto Rican after the devastating Hurricane Maria.
Very little attention and media coverage has been paid to the stories of Puerto Ricans. So please listen to his story here:
After talking with Nomar, we did a little youth group bonding over dinner in the University of Houston dining hall.
Then we headed to the U of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall for another night of amazing worship.
Today’s sub-theme at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event was: One mission, many gifts (1Corinthians 12:4-11).
Rev. Patrick Gahagan reminded us:
“YOU are a gift because of who you are, not because of what you do. YOU are a gift, not because of what you do, but because you ARE.”
At the end of worship, we heard from the pastors and leaders of the Latin American and Caribbean congregations that are attending MYLE. They presented a beautiful dance:
After worship, youth met with their small groups and then we gathered together to celebrate Graciela’s birthday!
Then we headed back to the Cullen Performance Center for an awesome talent show. Although there wasn’t enough time for them to perform in front of the entire group, Steve and Ngbarazere did a private performance for our youth group:
Go Darth Vader! (Steve wrote this song on his own! We are so proud of you!)
Finally, we ended the night checking in with each other about our day. We were so grateful to have Kalleb (college student, MYLE volunteer, and former E.C.T. Youth Group member) join us!
What a wonderful and blessed day!
Listen to some of the day’s highlights from Maku and Xanath:
Today I am guest blogging over at Bold Cafe: “Faith Reflections: Beloved and Wonderfully Made.”
It is really hard to be a preteen or teenager today. I unfortunately know this because as a pastor who works with youth, I have seen this firsthand. I’m not saying that it wasn’t difficult to be that age. I received my fair share of unrealistic and unhealthy messages about society’s definition of beauty and who was worthy and who was not. All I had to do was watch a few VH1 videos, stop at the magazine rack at a convenience store, or listen to my middle school classmates who bullied me during lunch to know that I did not fit into society’s most-valued list.
However, it is much more difficult today to shut out the negative messages about who is deemed worthy in the eyes of society and one’s peers.
To read the rest, click here.
One year ago today, unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown was shot at least 6 times and killed by an officer in Ferguson, MO. And throughout the year, we have become more aware that this is not a new or an isolated incident. Thousands of people from around the country (including many seminary professors and pastors from the Chicago area) are gathering in Ferguson this weekend and around the U.S. in prayer meetings, actions, vigils, and conversations about confronting and dismantling systemic racism. So I’d like to take this time right now to join with them in a moment of silence, lifting up Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Ruben Garcia Villalpando, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the nine who were killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church, and all of our brothers and sisters who are victims of racial violence and injustice.
Let’s take a few moments of silence right now.
(Moment of Silence)
God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Ephesians 4:25-5:2
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Most likely, many of us here have stated or thought this popular phrase a time or two in response to an insult or a put-down. And yet, no matter how confident we may have sounded and no matter how much we may have wished this phrase to be true, we likely walked away overwhelmed with pain from those cutting words.
As many of us have unfortunately had to learn at some time or another – words are powerful and can cut deep, creating wounds that are difficult to heal. Words can stick with a person much longer than a broken bone. They can affect one’s self-esteem. They can cause fear and prejudice and influence and inspire people to participate in actions of dehumanizing and “other”-ing an individual or group.
Words can and do divide us…
This is true in our personal relationships, in our relationships with others in the greater society, and in our relationships with others in the Church.
And as we look at our passage in Ephesians today, we can tell it was the case for the church in Ephesus, as well.
While we don’t know the specific arguments among the Christians in the Ephesian church, we do know that there had been tension throughout the early years of the Church between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians because of their differences. Because of differences between their theological beliefs and faith practices. Their diets and clothing attire. Their native languages, world-views, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
Outside of the Church, these differences were what kept Jews and Gentiles from marrying each another, eating together, or even associating with one another in public. And as Jewish and Gentile Christians began to worship together within the Church, it was quite difficult for them to give up their deeply ingrained prejudices against each other and fully embrace one another.
So it’s no wonder that these tensions and quarrels at some point – as we see early in the letter to the Ephesians – had gotten quite hostile. Evil words. Belittling. Dehumanizing. Excluding. Blaming the “other” while denying one’s own wrongs and privileges.
And while it’s easy for us to look at this letter and point our fingers at those first century Gentile and Jewish Christians for not being “imitators of God” – as Paul calls them to be – I think too often we can relate to those early Christians.
Because isn’t it easy for us to fear the differences of our brother’s and sister’s faith practices and beliefs, native languages or countries of origin, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and world-views?
Don’t we often expect our brothers and sisters to conform to our way of doing things and when they don’t, don’t we tend to use our words to blame, to “other,” to exclude?
And when we hear the cries of our brothers and sisters that challenge our way: that our expectations, our heritage, our traditions might actually be exclusive and even oppressive, we too often immediately and angrily shut them down and ignore them. We let the sun go down on our anger and use evil words to justify our way, because placing blame on our brothers and sisters is so much easier than admitting our own wrongs against them. Because belitting and “other”ing our brothers and sisters is much less troubling than admitting our own participation in and benefits from systems, institutions, and traditions that uplift those who look, talk, and think like us, while causing harm on those who don’t.
But the thing is, this is not the way God intended the Church to be. Throughout the first three chapters of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains that though the Gentiles were at one time “far off… they are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and also members of the [same] household of God.”
“For in his flesh,” Paul continues, “Christ has made both [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus… reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
It is for this reason that Paul pleads with the Ephesian Christians at the beginning of chapter 4, just before our reading for today: “As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you,” he says, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of ALL, who is above all and through all and IN all.”
“So then,” Paul continues in our passage for today. “Let us put away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of ONE ANOTHER.”
Let us speak the truth to our neighbors…
A few weeks ago, a PEW research study revealed that out of 29 religious groups, the ELCA is one of the two least diverse religious groups in the U.S. People in the ELCA are starting to talk and ask: Why is this the case? What does this mean and say about us as an institution and as a faith community?
Last Thursday night, presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and ELCA member William B. Horne II hosted a webcast discussion called “confronting racism” – both as a way to start addressing these questions about our denomination, as well as a way to connect these findings with the racialized structures in our country and the multiple tragedies caused by racism that have been filling our news feeds this past year. If you haven’t had an opportunity to watch this webcast, I recommend that you check it out. You can access it on the ELCA website. While this webcast is not the answer to these hard questions, it is the beginning of a crucial ongoing discussion we – as members of the body of Christ – need to be having.
During the discussion, Bishop Eaton reminded us that the white shooter at Mother Emanuel AME Church who so hatefully took the lives of nine of our black brothers and sisters was a member of the ELCA. Two of the victims were graduates of one of our ELCA seminaries. She explains: “Here we have one of our own alleged to have shot these people, two of whom had adopted us as their own. So one of the visions I would have for our church is to no longer put racism, or the racial tensions, or the racial disparities somewhere out there. Because, [racism] is in us. We have to come to grips with this.”
Let us all speak the truth to our neighbors, Paul urges us.
Yes, we must speak the truth to our neighbors… But we must also speak the truth to ourselves. We must admit, confess, denounce, and repent of the racism that does – in fact – prevail throughout our systems, our traditions, our institutions and congregations, and even within ourselves. And we need to do it over and over again.
This is difficult. This is difficult to come to grips with – let alone to confront and challenge. Our tendency as humans is to deny that some of us have – indeed – been born into and granted privilege over others. Our temptation when we hear this is to respond with anger and defensiveness. We tend to make room for the devil, let sin guide and direct our anger, and allow evil to come out of our mouths in order to place blame on the “other.”
And yet, as Bishop Eaton said on Thursday night: “the fact is: there is not equity in America and we have to be willing to take a hard look at that and come to the painful and disappointing realization that when we say at liberty and justice for all: that is not necessarily the truth for everyone. And [we] can’t get paralyzed by defensiveness or guilt. [Rather, we must] say that that is what we have inherited. That is who we are. So [the question becomes] how do we move beyond that?”
Let us put away falsehood, Paul says. And let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors… For we are ALL members of the same household, the same body of Christ. We are ALL members of one another. And when even one of our own is treated unjustly, our baptismal calling is to join and work together to call out, to dismantle, and to break down the walls of injustice – the walls of racism – that divide us and dehumanize, hurt, and kill members of our body.
“Be angry,” Paul urges us.
Yes, there are times when we need to be angry… But when our brothers and sisters cry out and speak truth to us, let us not allow sin to take over and misdirect that anger toward them because we feel defensive and overcome with guilt. Rather, let us be angry at the privilege we have been born into and have inherited. Let us be angry at the unjust systems and institutions that we often – even unknowingly – participate in and benefit from – that uplift only some while deeming others as less than.
Let us be angry at the racialized systems that have brought fear upon our brothers and sisters of color when they wear a hoodie, ride their bikes at night, drive their car, or go to church.
We must let our anger lead us to move beyond. We must allow our anger to help us acknowledge our own privilege and the narrow lens through which we see the world, give us courage to speak this truth to our neighbors, and help us to stop holding onto our privilege over others… Instead, working diligently with our own hands so as to share what we do have with those who don’t.
We must let no evil talk come out of our mouths or out of the mouths of those around us. When racist comments, jokes, and stereotypes are spoken, we must immediately shut them down. When we hear someone make generalizations about others, we must tell them to stop. When we – ourselves – begin to complain that we are sick and tired of hearing about racism in our country, we must remind ourselves that it is a privilege to be able to pick and choose when we get to talk about racism and when we do not. Because our brothers and sisters of color don’t get this same choice.
May we use our speech to build one another up so that our words may give grace to those who hear them.
May we be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another – as Christ has forgiven us – when we do fall short – because there will be times when we do.
May we be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.
As you know, three weeks ago, I took 10 of our Edgewater Congregations Together youth to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. There is something so powerful about gathering with 30,000 Lutheran teenagers from all across the world, from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, walks of life, and with different world views and some with different native languages, who embraced one another’s differences as they rose up together to worship God, to proclaim God’s story in their lives and learn how God is in the stories of others, to confess and denounce all forms of racial and economic injustice, and to commit to proclaiming justice and peace to the world throughout their lives.
And I will tell you, those 30,000 inspiring youth gave me a glimpse of what it could look like for us – as the Church – to be imitators of God, living in love, embracing that we are members of one another, and speaking the truth. I saw a glimpse of this as we communed together around Jesus’ table and as we raised our voices in the dark, singing with our hands waving the flashlights on our cell phones in the air: “Love can build a bridge. Between your heart and mine. Love can build a bridge. Don’t you think it’s time? Don’t you think it’s time?”
Being imitators of God and living love, as Christ loved us, is not easy.
And yet, in those times when we feel defensive, discouraged, and ready to give up on this work, may we remember the witness of our ELCA youth who have shown us it is – indeed – possible… and powerful. May we – too – strive to lead lives worthy of our baptismal calling to build up and proclaim justice for ALL our brothers and sisters – for ALL members of the body of Christ.
And may we choose to be imitators of God, as beloved children, living in love, as Christ loved us.
Because love can build a bridge.
So don’t you think it’s time?
Salaam. Peace be with you.
The theme for day 3 at the ELCA Youth Gathering was: Rise up and Build Bridges. We talked about how bridges help bring those who have been disconnected (because of differences, inequality, ignorance, or fear of the “unknown”) together.
This was also our day to Rise up and Proclaim Justice, and we were assigned to painting and cleaning a congregation in the city.
The Heitz-Squad found this to be a very powerful day. During our reflection time after the project, many of our youth said it was really neat to get to know our hosts at the church and learn from them. Our youth thought the church was doing great work in the neighborhood, but they were also very sad to hear the church didn’t have much money to continue running a food pantry or do other outreach projects they wanted to do for the numbers of homeless in the community. As we drove through Detroit, our youth were also shocked and sad to see so many abandoned houses and even some boarded up homes that were clearly being occupied. As one youth, Boyosa, said: “It made me really appreciate what I do have and helped me realize I don’t need all the things that I sometimes wish I had. I feel like I need to give back to others more… because I can. And that is why I worked so hard while we were at the church. I wanted to give back.”
After our final project, we went to the Renaissance Center for some free time (and of course more dancing) and then we headed to New Parthenon in Greektown, where we enjoyed a wonderful Greek meal, which included flaming cheese!
The mass gathering had incredible speakers, including Rev. Rani Abdulmasih, who talked about how “God – through the Gospel – has given us the ability to act” and Sarah Funkhouser, who talked about her time as a volunteer working with Palestinian children in the West Bank. Rev. Steve Jerbi, the final speaker, addressed racial injustice and said: “we claim Jesus because he is the one who can eradicate racism and bring us to the place where we can join in that work… Jesus’ holy love is not just sitting back and allowing others to do something.”
A Motown group (which included two of the Temptations) brought the house down. It was fun to see 30,000 Lutheran teens getting down to Motown in the Ford Field in downtown Detroit!
Throughout the night, the Heitz-Squad stood and cheered, whooped and danced.
They were brought to tears about the injustice they heard and brought to inspiration to rise up with others to address it. I am so very proud of each and every one of them as they continue to process and discuss what they hear and how this is going to lead them to take action when we get back to Chicago!
The final song was incredibly powerful: Ford Field was filled with the sounds of youth singing together and lights twinkling from their phones that they were waving in the air:
“Love can build a bridge. Between your heart and mine. Love can build a bridge. Don’t you think it’s time? Don’t you think it’s time?” This brought me to tears, as I sat there next to the youth I care so deeply about in the midst of 30,000 youth from around the country and world. It was there where I experienced resurrection: while this world is full of so much hate, this generation of youth coming together to rise up and condemn systemic evils of hunger, racism, and inequality, and proclaim justice gives me hope that we will one to break down those walls of injustice.
Praise be to God!
Here is a reflection from Steve, a ninth grader from Immanuel Lutheran Church:
“Today was a great day. It was a day of service and justice work and of building bridges. Building bridges is where we help one another and bear another’s burdens and help build bridges between people to stop racism, sexism, and all sorts of other things. Today we did lots of service work throughout the neighborhoods of Detroit. We did lots of work with a Baptist church in Detroit with not lots of money and only 25 members. We helped paint the outside and inside walls and we helped clear out debree (which there was a lot of) to help make the church better and cleaner.
We learned that there are some great people in Detroit who really need our partnership to help make Detroit a better community. After the service work and justice day we had our mass gathering. This was probably the best one we had yet. The speakers were terrific especially this one pastor at the end who told a story about one of his youth being shot and killed. It was very emotional and it almost made me cry. At the final song everyone was very energetic and motivated and it was the best song of the gathering. Overall today was a great day of building bridges, service work, and rising up.”
And here is an update from Boyosa, a senior from Unity Lutheran Church:
“The ECT youth gathering never ceases to amaze me. Sadly, I had arrived two days late and I was told that I had missed the fun days and the rest was not going to be as exciting, but I beg to differ. Today was really a terrific day and a night to remember. I have met so many wonderful people. Each individual had a different background and a different story to tell. Though different we may be, I have never felt so much love in my entire life. I am having a fantastic time and I really can’t wait to see what these next couple of days have in store for me.”