During Lent this year we have been exploring racial justice in the Adult Forum, and I would like to invite all of you into this journey. It’s important for us to have this conversation on many levels: at St. Paul, in the ELCA, and in our nation. Last June, the country was horrified when nine people who were African-American were shot and killed at a mid-week Bible study at their church in Charleston. It felt more personal to me when I learned that two of the ministers who were killed, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, were graduates of an ELCA seminary (Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in North Carolina). The killer, Dylann Storm Roof, was a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Columbia, SC. He reportedly attended church regularly, at least as a child, and went to an ELCA summer camp, which was perhaps a lot like Calumet. This news set me on a personal journey to gain a better understanding of racism in myself, our church, and our country. I feel called to share this work with others, so I am writing this article and asking you to participate by watching these videos, reading these articles, questioning your own assumptions, and reflecting on and praying about how we might work together for racial justice.

In November, the women’s book group read and discussed Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, a white woman who grew up in Winchester and still lives in the Boston area. In her book, she describes how she came to understand what it means and has meant historically to be white in the United States. Her book is an excellent place for white people to start to understand systemic racism in our country, but first watch her TED Talk.

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is an article was written by Peggy McIntosh, a white researcher at the Stone Center at Wellesley College. She wrote it as she reflected on her own circumstances as a white woman, and compared them with those of colleagues who were African-American women. It is about the experiences of one white woman in her own place and time, and is not meant to depict the experiences of all white people everywhere, but I’ve found it to be a useful tool to consider how I am privileged in many ways that I didn’t see or understand until recently.

PBS aired a documentary about race in society, science, and history called Race: The Power of an Illusion. All three parts are eye-opening (the series is available through the Minuteman Library Network), but "The House We Live In" is by far the best and most powerful. Housing in the US became increasingly segregated after World War II, due to the denial of GI Bill benefits to many black soldiers returning, and the way that it was written into law. Learn more from this clip from “The House We Live In.”

Watch this TED talk, “How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them,” given by VernāMyers, a dynamic and thought-provoking speaker who works as a lawyer and diversity educator. She has some suggestions for us about specific things we can do to become aware of our biases and overcome them.

The whole "Black Lives Matter" idea has been extremely controversial. Many white people see it as a divisive slogan, but I think that it’s important to understand it from the perspective of black Americans. The reason why the expression Black Lives Matter is important is that for our entire history, black lives have usually not mattered as much as white lives. "All Lives Matter" is experienced as racist by many African-Americans, because it erases black lives again. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is not saying “White Lives Don’t Matter,” or “Only Black Lives Matter.” If all lives matter, then it is true that black lives matter, and we need to be able to say that. (Jesus told a parable about the Good Samaritan, not just the Good Man. It mattered that he was a Samaritan.)

The mass incarceration of black men, is a huge problem in the United States, and we need to figure out how to fix it. Michelle Alexander has written a book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, which I recommend, but start with this article that she wrote in 2010.

Last July, the Pew Research Center published a study, “How Racially Diverse Are U.S. Religious Groups?” I was surprised to find out that the ELCA is almost the least diverse religious organization in the country; we are 96% white. Of course that’s because we are a church that was formed by white German and Scandinavian immigrants, but I’ve been wondering what it means for us as a denomination in an increasingly pluralistic society and for those among us who aren’t white. Pastor Tiffany Chaney, an ELCA mission developer, wrote a blog post, “Living Lutheran: My Story,” about what it has been like for her to be African American and Lutheran. I think it is our responsibility to listen to her voice, and the voices of others who have been hurt in our church. Please read her powerful and moving message.

I hope that you will explore this material, watching the videos and reading the articles. I encourage you to reflect on and pray about these two questions as we move forward together. Please contact me if you want to discuss anything I covered in this article, or about racism and racial justice.

  • In reflecting on the work we have done so far during this Lenten season, what implications do you see for yourself both individually and for St. Paul in answering the call to confront the sin of racism?”
  • What is one concrete action that you individually and we as a congregation can take to dismantle racism?


Susan Lee

Many thanks to Vicar Alissa Oleson for her help in planning the Adult Forum series on racial justice, to Cathy Venkatesh and Pastor Rebecca Bourret (Christ Lutheran Church, Natick) for their ideas, and to Pastor Tiffany Chaney for permission to use her blog post, and for her witness and ministry.