Othering, decolonizing, yearning for transformation –

Greetings, friends!

I’m an Anglo woman in my sixties, well-accustomed to worship among Episcopalians and Lutherans – faith traditions that originated in the Reformation in Northern Europe. I treasure these beloved communities but my heart is always looking toward the church of Paul’s vision, no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, for all are one in Christ. In this blog I observe and reflect on the ways Paul’s ecclesia is being revealed and embodied around us. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed lately.

Is Paul’s church even possible?

Daniel Jose Camacho, a Presbyterian seminarian, is among those who have raised the question of whether what looks like multicultural, inclusive worship is actually a way of providing white worshippers with comfortably diluted diversity. In his influential reflection Do Multicultural Churches Reinforce Racism, Camacho writes:

There are many Christians who believe that multicultural congregations and ministries are the antidote to the problem of race. In this view, if only more Christians from different racial and ethnic backgrounds worshipped together and befriended one another then the foundations of racism would crumble. But what if this strategy is not only ineffective but actually exacerbating the problem? Most multicultural churches—in spite of the best intentions—still center white experiences and require people of color to make bigger sacrifices in adjusting themselves to white norms.

Kathy Tuan-MacLean,  Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries, writes in Can People Of Color Really Make Themselves at Home?:

InterVarsity was like a house with all sorts of staff living in it. Most of the white staff felt like they owned the house. They felt free to move the furniture, decorate the walls, put their feet up, and cook the foods they liked to eat. But others on our team, though they “lived” in the house, were just guests. As a guest, it’s impolite to move the furniture or criticize the decor, and if you don’t like the food served, you don’t complain—because if you complain, you’re not invited back.

Giant-CupcakeThese honest evaluations from people who love and work in churches point to the danger of becoming Anglo-normative churches with diversity sprinkles. But I have come to believe that our churches – our beloved faith communities – are profoundly in need of the transformation made possible by theologies of liberation. In Toward the Liberation of White, Middle-Class Churches, Lutheran pastor Rev’d Dr. David Lowry writes:

In white “suburbanized” churches, it is often personal crisis that opens individuals to the power of the gospel: the death of a child, the breakup of a marriage, addiction and the twelve steps. Life itself often speaks a word to us, and we may begin steps outward. But the problem is that our white middle-class church may not be able to support additional steps into an ever widening freedom to serve, to hear the cries, to enter into the suffering of others, to be change agents at a societal level. We may find that we do not even have a theology that supports us. In the theology we receive, grace may mean God’s acceptance but not necessarily our transformation.

Lowry’s article is worth your time and points to a dilemma I’ve been pondering: if the parishes we love are not particularly diverse – and unlikely to become diverse any time soon – how can we move forward with Paul’s vision? Lowry grounds the possibility for transformation in liberation theology, or rather, in the liberation theologies, which can immediately inform our liturgy, formation, and exegesis. With the Spirit’s help, and one another’s help, we can one another how to open our hearts so that, when diversity walks in the door, we aren’t starting from zero. And, I’m open to the possibility that joy and love might be involved.

Hmm. Starting to sound like a book list…

Furthermore, this is urgent. Catherine Woodiwiss, Senior Associate Web Editor for Sojourners, writes in The Era of White Anxiety is Just Beginning:

Ask those involved in justice work where they find hope for the future of America, and they will likely point to demographics: Racial minorities are on track to outnumber non-Hispanic whites in America for the first time by 2042. Especially in left-leaning circles, the assumption is that a more diverse country will mean a more welcoming one — and, indeed, one more friendly to progressive policies and ideals. According to Dr. Jennifer Richeson, that assumption is wrong. “The expectation for increased U.S. diversity to result in greater tolerance is premature,” said Richeson at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last month. “In fact, the opposite is likely to happen.” Richeson, professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a 2006 MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, is co-author of two recent studies on the effects of changing racial demographic shifts on racial attitudes and political ideology. “The increased erosion of progressive, race-related social policy is more likely,” she said.

I believe that local parishes have immediate work to do in this dramatic demographic transition and the threats to social identity that it is bringing. Duke Kwon,  pastor of Grace Meridian Hill Church in Washington, D.C., is quoted in the same article:

This maps onto what we see personally and anecdotally. I think it’s natural for people to feel threatened when they are on the road to feeling disempowered… If you’ve never experienced being ‘other,’ being essentially uncomfortable, and this is your first introduction to it — I understand, it is really going to be alienating and destabilizing to your identity… There’s an angle to which I can understand how important it’s going to be for the church to raise up deliberate ministry for walking with white folks through this transition.

I’ve noodled around on Grace Meridian’s website and, yes, it’s inviting and inspiring. Somebody over there is doing a fine job inviting Paul’s vision.

Now that we’ve brooded together about the liberative and transformation nature of the task, I’m beyond ready to think about liturgy. Merciful heavens! Let’s start with this graphic from Sandra Montes, who is my go-to expert on congregational music in Hispanic Episcopal congregations –



Turning our attention to liturgical texts –

Several clergy who serve bilingual congregations have sent me sample worship booklets – which are much appreciated. They’ve generally presented English and Spanish texts, side-by-side. The generosity and integrity of this work is abundantly clear. It also looks like a heck of a lot of work to accomplish this, week after week. I haven’t yet had a chance to experience this approach as a participant, but I hope to get to the Church of Our Savior / La Iglesia de Nuestro Salvador  in Cincinnati this summer. I encourage you to take a look at their website – it sets a high bar for language inclusiveness.

Nonetheless, texts are not liturgical practice and equivalent texts do not generate equivalent liturgical practice.  Moreover, language inclusivity is a moving target. Latinx people may not know any English – or some English – or only English. And then there’s all the other bits and bobs of liturgical worship that convey beloved meaning to people raised THIS way – or these other ones, that convey beloved meaning to people raised THIS OTHER way. To get comfortable with worship happening in real time, using two languages and drawing from two living traditions, demands a deep, holy good will towards one another. 

Among ELCA Lutherans, decolonization is on the menu.

Old Lutheran, a vendor of denominational promotional materials, produces facebook memes with text along the lines of: You might be Lutheran if everyone in your church has a name ending in -en or -on. This finally got on the last nerve of Pastor Paul Bailie, who posted this picture on facebook and wrote, “I’m frustrated by memes from Old Lutheran that stereotypically assume that Lutherans are of Scandinavian descent. I thought I’d make my own, based on what we do at @Iglesia Luterana San Lucas: Eagle Pass, TX. “

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 8.57.34 AM

This idea took off like a brush fire; search for #decolonizelutheranism on facebook and you’ll find posts about food from a wonderful variety of Lutheran folk. Food turns out to be an extremely fast and effective way to affirm the diversity in this faith tradition on social media. Bailie writes about this experience and his ministry in this blog post.  Here’s an insightful commentary on the process from a regional denominational leader.

But there’s more than food in the #decolonizelutheranism movement. Elle Dowd, a Lutheran candidate for ordination, writes:

Lutheranism is bigger than us, white people, and we are not the boss of it. To hoard Lutheranism and hold it hostage to white people is sinful. And that is what we are doing when we equate Lutheranism to white culture and refuse any change that necessitates true transformation through sacrifice. Our God is about liberation for everyone.  Liberation means that people of color are able to share in the wealth and power of churches and communities, free from fear of micro aggressions from church leaders, free from fear of violence from the state.  And liberation also means that white people like me are free from our bondage as oppressors, free from our insatiable need to control. 

Dowd’s essay is an example of the sober, thoughtful, and fast-moving examination of Lutheran language, history, theology, and liturgy happening online. You can track this by using #decolonizelutheranism as a  search term in a browser search, a facebook search, or a Twitter search. There’s also a group blog for common discussion – note that there’s a page with links to individual bloggers’ reflections.

Meanwhile, at denominational headquarters –

Asiamericans at the Episcoppal Church's General Convention 2015 during the service honoring the Rev. Hisanori Kano, Episcopal priest of Nebraska who was interred and became a saint among the internees at the WW2 Internment camps.

Asiamericans at General Convention 2015 during the service honoring the Rev. Hisanori Kano, Episcopal priest of Nebraska who was interred and became a saint among the internees at the WW2 Internment camps. Father Fred Vergara is at the right, front row.

The Rev’d Canon Anthony Guillén serves as Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministries in the Episcopal Church, visiting, connecting, and encouraging local churches. Guillén is a particularly effective user of social media, tending a thriving facebook group that connects people and parishes and informs about conferences, resources, and grant initiatives. I particularly value the shared photographs of local liturgies. Building the New Community, a video, describes Guillén’s work.

Guillén is the team leader for the Episcopal Church’s Diveristy and Ethnic Ministries unit which also includes the Rev’d Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara as Missioner for Asiamerican Ministries, and the Rev’d Canon Angela Ifill as Missioner for Black Ministries. The unit is supported by Angie Cabanban as support staff at the Church Center in New York. A search for Missioner for Indigenous Ministries is in process. This important ministry is fully supported by our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who has appointed the Rev’d Stephanie Spellers as Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation and who works closely with the Diversity and Ethnic Team.

Parishes rooted in a specific language or ethnic identity can perceive themselves as isolated in a primarily Anglo denomination. The Missioners provide visible, friendly, denomination-wide affirmation to these distinctive local ministries. Deets about all these ministries are under the “MINISTRIES” tab on the denomination’s web site, where they earn props for a toggle between English and Spanish.


Fr. Fred Vergara at work building a new network, May 2016

The ELCA Lutherans got the news this year that they are the least-diverse mainline denomination, which would be a hard message to receive. They deserve great credit for resolving to do ministry where they are as they reach towards the church they want to become. Here’s one good example. The front page of ELCA.org headlines the denomination’s emerging churchwide commitment to protecting vulnerable migrant children. This is presented as resources and videos for congregations that want to get involved, all available at the website. If a parish from another denomination wanted to be part of this, I am reasonably confident it would be welcomed.


ELCA has terrific Spanish-language adult formation materials written by Spanish-speaking theologians and scholars – not translated from English. This is a significant and admirable investment in lay formation. Check it out. ELCA’s information about language- or ethic-specific ministries can be found via the “CONGREGATIONS AND SYNODS” tab on the denomination’s home page. There’s also a facebook group, Academia Luterana Latina de la ELCA,

Since the 1990s, the Women of theELCA – that’s WELCA – have maintained a peer-to-peer ant-racism education network called Today’s Dream: Tomorrow’s Reality. Inez Torres Davis, current Director of Justice for WELCA, describes its work and history:

The ELCA is the Whitest denomination in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. I can credit Women of the ELCA for caring about race issues and putting their money where their mouth is since 1997. That’s when the work of the peer educators’ anti-racism network “Today’s Dream: Tomorrow’s Reality” (TDTR) was created. Yet, I and the women of the network continue to cope with strong resistance as many ELCA members refuse to see racial segregation as an indicator of work to be done… Before more people of color die in churches, the streets or jail cells, we need guided conversations about race, conversations that can move us forward. 

The WELCA has done significant work on developing free, downloadable Spanish-language study resources on Bible study, small group ministry, church structure, and a wonderful array of other topics. They have also developed extensive resources on how to talk about race, how to be a global Christian, and many other discipleship formation resources – free and downloadable. Needless to say, these would be useful not only to women & not only to Lutherans.

In the culture at large, pushback against Othering

Othering is in common usage now, but here’s a definition from anthropologist Cadell Last“The othering process is the human tendency to believe that the group … that they are a part of is inherently the ‘right’ way to be human.” Two recent events instantiate the ways public experience can diminish othering.

First, people all over the world are responding to the impulse massacre at a gay bar in Orlando with an outpouring of publicly expressed shock, anger, and grief – in a word, empathy. This public mourning may strike you as formulaic, but I think it’s new in its depth, its breadth. By contrast, in 1973 the Upstairs Lounge Fire  was met with studied indifference. But in 2016, Republican pols are repenting in public – whoa. Pronouncements from denominational executives are turned into memes and propagate on social media. Prayer vigils are being offered in Ecuador, in Uganda – people all over the US and all over the world are thinking of the victims – primarily young gay Latinos – as family. This is a victory over othering.  The Orlando shooting is being experienced as a breaking-open of hearts. 


And, second, the Tony Awards, where Black and Latinx actors, writers, composers, and directors were visibly, appropriately, and warmly affirmed, not only in Hamilton but in many awards. James Corden, the emcee, said, “We’re like the Oscars, but with diversity.” The Tony stage, for a couple hours on a Sunday night, was a world without othering. It was beautiful. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sonnet on accepting his Tony moves from personal gratitude to his response to the Orlando shootings – then breaks apart its scansion and structure with an overflowing of love.

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
Remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

lin-manuel church sign

Friends, in the midst of this season filled with   I invite you to think of these two instances as times when the Holy Spirit may be seen acting redemptively in the world.

We had icons! We sang in Spanish, Latin, and English!

I began these reflections and observations in 2015 by griping to myself about “bilingual” or “multicultural” liturgy. My issue was that, too often, a bilingual liturgy presented itself as an interlocking set of incomprehensible performances. We sing a song in English, while non-English-speakers politely watch and listen. Then we sing a song in Spanish, while non-Spanish-speakers politely watch and listen. For the love of Aidan Kavanaugh, I fulminated, isn’t there a way two language communities can authentically be at worship together? Remembering Bartolome, my collection of liturgical resources for the commemmoration of Bartolomé de las Casas, represents my best thinking on this topic so far: build on our familiarity with one another’s languages and blend them to construct a comprehensible liturgy.  We experimented with this at St. Thomas Lutheran Church during Advent and this predominantly-Anglo congregation seemed engaged and curious about the experience. Here’s our most-thoroughly-blended liturgy, an Evening Prayer for Bartolomé: BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS Evening Prayer.

lutheran guadalupe

An icon of Martin de Porrres with candles for the Virgen de Guadalupe given by our sister parish in Guatemala.

Thanks for reading! Your comments are welcome, either here or on the Liturgy Remix facebook page.

This entry was posted in blended language liturgy, decolonize, transformation. Bookmark the permalink.

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