Pastor Duane Larson
A few weeks ago, I noted that the Gulf Coast Synod Assembly was the most relevant I’ve attended in two decades. I meant no hyperbole, nor did I mean to imply that other synod assemblies have not been relevant; I write only from my experience. My note was about those assemblies I have attended for almost 40 years, many of those years requiring several different assembly visits within single assembly seasons. Much of the company of colleagues is wonderful in an assembly season. Still, the hot dogs and beers are better during baseball season.
So what made this particular synod assembly so impressive for me? Not the hotdogs and not the beer. There is no question that leadership counts, from Bishop Rinehart, through the synod staff, and throughout the synod rostered ministry. With that leadership across the board comes a commitment that was made and is still kept, that first was articulated a decade ago; that this synod’s ministry, in all its forms, will be dedicated to mission, and that maintenance-centered or chaplaincy-centered congregational ministry alone is insufficient for the church truly to be the church. Rather, all leadership will be done with the missional eyes, ears, mouths, and minds that ask hospitably about the needs of the peoples and cultures around and outside our previously dominantly monochromatic and privileged spheres.
I’ve heard this talk for more than forty years, too. My teeth were cut on it in Southern California (both words capitalized because SoCal is a proper state of mind). Here in Houston the talk is walked more effectively than was the case in my experience elsewhere, where Lutheran “identity” was the orthodox trope for white ethnic classist survivalist nostalgia. Not so in the Gulf Coast Synod, where the commitment to engaging cultural diversity, aided by the new energy of post-colonialist conviction breaking us out of our “Lutheran identity” silos, is well reinforced demographically, in Houston, by this cosmopolis’ distinction of being the most diverse city in the United States.
The theme of the assembly was “Who is my neighbor?” – a “safe” theme, could have been even trite. Which would have been so had the assembly been the usual matter of doing churchwide and synodical business with a dash of “theme” on the side in the person of a keynote speaker and entertainer or two. That’s the formula I’ve too often witnessed. Here the theme actually normed and flavored the assembly. And it wasn’t done in the tested “liberal” Saul Alinsky mode of placing an edgy speaker in the assembly’s “face,” which would have been to make the speaker an “other,” and so, by implication, not our neighbor.
Our neighbors today are not just nearby. They are among us and with us in this global village day-by-day in the workplace, the play place, the shopping place, if not so much, in the worship place. So it was a wise stratagem and grace that the four speakers who helped us engage the question of “Who is our neighbor?” at depth enough to constitute healthy personal existential challenge simply at their appointed time would stand up from amongst the gathered and start to talk – no stage, no introduction. Just one of “us” standing up to share their stories about themselves and “us.” And each speaker was quite intentional to make us think about our stories too, as we were inspired, catalyzed, and challenged by theirs. And there was a clearly intentional arc to the story of the stories presented by the speaker neighbors from among us.
The first keynoter, Rev. Sunitha Mortha, hit all the right notes rhetorically, drawing our ears and hearts close to her words. An immigrant from South India, there a Dalit and now here an ELCA pastor, serving through the churchwide offices, she spoke of her struggle, having followed her father to Minne-soh-tah, encountering Lutheran kindness but having still to overcome the confusion of Lutheran faith with ethnic cultural pride, so that her faith might be her own. It was relatively easy, and effective, to answer her questions about how we could see ourselves in her story, and thus be honest with each other at our conversation tables about the challenging sides of our own stories of embrace and exclusion (a phrase she borrowed from the outstanding work of Miroslav Volf).
The second keynoter, Dr. Can Dogan, is a young Muslim professional from Turkey. Like so many Muslims who have made a successful life (so far) in Houston, he pushed the “difference” edge a bit more, witnessing to his discovery that here he so needed to engage inter-religious dialogue and relationships over and against the dominant stereotype of who he was/is, after having lived in the culturally dominant “no need to reflect on my privileged position” he had in Turkey. He effectively spoke to and against the myopia—and so xenophobia—that even Lutherans displaced from the great white north can harbor without recognizing it.
The third speaker was Jamal Lewis, a transgender, black artist, Jersey refugee Baptist HBCU graduate, whose poetry and fluid articulateness was even more Holy Spirit like than portrayed in the movie version of The Shack. The more one predicates, the more one accents, of course, difference. But to bring James Baldwin and the most contemporary of literature and film to a synod assembly is remarkable enough on its own. For Lutherans then to be asked to see themselves in her is quite more. Some at our own (mostly progressive) table found themselves in that stranger in a strange land mode; they just could not relate.
For that to be a first experience for some at my table, and surely for many more at other tables (nascent racism and sexism was sure to be, um, “stimulated” by all this) was surely to the good. To be able to answer the question of “Who is my neighbor?” well does turn out to include the challenge to ask “Who am I?”. So I was surprised, in a place and situation like a synod assembly actually, to be thinking deeper and even more creatively about my own story. Of course, I thought – having grown up with all kinds of in and out of church people, atheists, gays and lesbians (who were not so nicely named then), African-Americans, Asians, Latinx, (also not so nicely named then), Krishnas, Hindus, and, wow, even Quakers – that I had little more to discover in myself, or surely not so in a typical church business setting like an assembly.
And of course I was wrong. And here’s where the politics enter in (So, yes, Vicki Blume Walch, the political backdrop here has something to do with the relevance of this assembly). The air was rife with politics in the background. As progressive as Houston is, the rest of stereotypical Texas is our neighbor too. Immigration is a hot button and the state government wants to do worse even than the national administration in refusing refugees. A “bathroom bill” was just passed. People of color have had their voting rights denied, and women’s rights are being trampled all day long. The political air is tinged everywhere with challenge to the work of faith.
Speaking of women’s issues, which are everyone’s issues, the fourth speaker, Kathy Patrick, addressed sexism, relating her own story of faith and challenge. Although met with some resistance from the floor, this too was relevant, because if the real issues are not named and joined, then what’s the point? The manner in which all the relevant and distressing issues of the day were addressed and evoked and finally generative of more thinking, and which framed pretty much all of the other usual “business,” underscored how really relevant all the other usual business of the church is, too.
But, finally, I can’t say more about that because I wasn’t there on that last day, having had to leave the assembly early to see my granddaughter graduate in Iowa. The church has hard work to do everywhere. It may be even harder in monoculture turf like Iowa than in Texas.
But add to all this the great gifts from God of faith, hope, and love, fostered by the excellent spirited musical leadership of the ELCA Glocal musicians, with an assembly led by differentiated and inclusive representation, where the strong and gifted bishop had no need to lead it all and the assembly didn’t need that either. Here one sees and gladly participates in a collegial, truly ecclesial, gathering that is effective and, yes, relevant to people and needs all around.
Much more could be written about the assembly. But this expansion was promised as an answer to why I thought this assembly to be the most relevant I’d experienced in the last two decades, and so I have answered. It all gave me hope and inspired more my commitment to the work at hand. Deo Gratias.