Siblings in Christ,
The events of the past few weeks have made it clear that the Spirit of God is calling our community into the work of prayer, self-examination, and repentance around the sin of racism.
It is tempting to treat what happens outside the walls of a church as somehow inapplicable to the faith of those inside, but as Lutheran Christians we understand that God’s grace calls us into the world in love, not away from it. As followers of Jesus, we are being called into this moment of history with open ears, open hearts, and open eyes.
While statistically SVLC is actually more diverse than the ELCA as a whole, I am conscious that our congregation is still predominantly white. This pastoral letter, then, is primarily addressed to our white siblings at SVLC (myself included) who may feel at a loss as to how we can address the painful reality of racism.
For those of us who identify as white, it might be tempting to believe that in order to enter into this conversation we must first have all the right answers, justifications, and reasons beforehand. I want to encourage you to lay that idea down right now.
A pastoral colleague of African descent recently reminded a group of pastors and lay leaders, that “if a conversation is hard, then it’s probably worth having.” He continued, urging us, to just “show up to the work of anti-racism, and get ready to make mistakes: experience will be your best teacher.” That's our call right now.
I am also conscious that our call in La Mesa will be a particular one, where recent protests turned violent and put the safety of SVLC members’ businesses and homes in jeopardy. These experiences don't have to be barriers to the conversation at hand, in fact, they can serve as reminders that these conversations have real consequences.
Speaking from my own experience, I’ve attended countless hours of in-depth anti-racism training — I’ve even led some of these myself over the years — and what I am surprised to learn on every occasion is how much more work I need to do. With each training session I am amazed to realize how much more deeply the sin of racism has buried itself into my own heart.
But I’ve also come to know the ways that faith makes this work possible in the first place, and can testify to how profoundly my own spiritual life has been enriched in these experiences.
I encourage you to begin this work on your own today. Our Presiding Bishop recommends reading an article written by seminarian Elle Dowd, entitled, "White Supremacy Has a Body Count." ELCA pastor and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber powerfully names her own experience of everyday white supremacy in this letter, and articulates how other white folks might confront their own.
From there, you might consider checking out this list: 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. Dive into the conversation wherever you feel immediately drawn. The list contains great places to begin in the form of documentaries, films, and book recommendations.
Start with prayer. Entering into the work of understanding racism and white supremacy in the first place will require a recognition of hard truths, sinfulness, shame, and pain. Don't wait for perfection to enter this conversation, and don't be fooled by promises of easy answers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian whose early work among African Americans in Harlem led him into a profound witness of the Gospel against the forces of Nazi Germany, remarked on the temptation of facing such hard truths with the false balm of cheap grace. “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”
Cheap grace offers easy answers, hides from the truth of every sin, and shirks its responsibility to repent. Cheap grace insists that everything is OK even when it's not, and begs us to forgive before the work of deep repentance has even started. Cheap grace is a lie.
Costly grace is that which fully acknowledges the ugliness of human sin and enters into it over and over again, illumined by the Gospel with humility and boldness. It is this same costly grace that we encounter at the font together every Sunday, dying again to our sin each day and rising into new life with Jesus.
One form of cheap grace tells us that these conversations are political ploys.
Let me be clear on this: conversations around racism in America are not anti-police by definition, or expressions of political party affiliation. Cheap grace tells us that we should accept these false dichotomies and easy explanations. As people of faith we know that sin is bigger than that.
There are, indeed, substantial ways that racism exercises painful power on communities of color through police brutality, and these deserve exploration. A powerful examination of systemic racism will necessarily begin in our own hearts, and it will likely open our eyes to the suffering of those around us in ways that go beyond policing.
This work will necessarily change us; that's just what happens when we encounter costly grace.
For transparency sake, I want the congregation to be aware of my own pastoral call into the life of our wider community right now. I feel called by the Spirit to show up at peaceful protests, prayer vigils, La Mesa press conferences, and other community meetings. I am drawn there in prayer as a witness the Spirit of God at work around us in such profound ways.
If you see me there I'll probably be wearing my collar, a sign that marks me as a witness to prayer. "To pray" wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "is to stake our very existence, our right to live, on the truth and on the supreme importance of that which we pray for. Prayer, then, is a radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God."
Heschel once wrote that after marching beside Dr. King at Selma he felt like his legs had been praying. As your pastor I am called into prayer among God’s people both in the streets and in the pews. On Sunday those legs showed up among business owners and leaders downtown La Mesa as they cleaned up after looting and violence broke out.
Many shop owners, police, and community members asked for prayer by name and in person, just as protesters had done on Saturday. I snapped the photo at the top of this letter yesterday among peaceful protesters in North Park, and was profoundly moved by their witness to peace and justice.
So long as protests continue, I am called to show up in prayer.
In our lesson from 2nd Corinthians last Sunday we heard that the body of Christ has many parts. Each part of that body’s work is important. Many of my colleagues have expressed frustration that their high-risk COVID-19 status has kept them from taking part in protests.
Yet this is the gift of being the body of Christ, and this is what it means to be part of that body: for some of us this work will look like marching, for others, it will look like hosting movie-watching parties and book groups, and for others it will mean donating money, dreaming up ways to enact new policy measures, or volunteering our time.
The point is that we show up. The point is that we listen to our siblings of color with an ear for the Spirit, in generosity and trust, in faith and in love.
This Sunday, June 7th, Bishop Eaton will be our preacher, and the ELCA has provided worship materials for congregations around the country. You might notice that our worship begins with a newly composed “Confessing Racism: A Lament for the Church,” and that special prayers have been written to begin addressing the full weight of the sin of racism.
I expect that Bishop Eaton’s preaching will also address the painful reality of the sin of racism. Know that God is calling our whole church into this work, and as painful, shame-inducing, and hard as it might feel, God is faithful.
We are not alone in this. “I am confident of this,” St. Paul writes, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 1:6, NRSV). I am confident that Jesus, who dined with sinners and tax collectors, will faithfully accompany us into the work of undoing the stains of racism.
Right now an Anti-Racism group is taking shape at SVLC, and will gather by Zoom in the coming days to discuss a collective way forward for our congregation. If you’d like to be a part of the visioning and leadership of this team, let me or any member of SVLC's church council know.
This is a holy venture, and sacred work; come and see.
Rev. Marcus C. Lohrmann