So… if you’re a Facebook friend or you follow me on Instagram or Twitter (@ericthelutheran), you may have noticed that I was recently in Detroit when I posted a photo or two.
No big deal, it was just me and 30,000 of my closest friends. This is just what we do — swamp a city, love the people there, leave the place a little better than we found it, and discover that we’re also a little better than the people of that city found us because we’re changed for the better by the stories we hear and the way we build community there.
This is the real face of the Gathering.
Our theme this year at the ELCA Youth Gathering was Rise Up Together, and it was focused on the idea that we’re called out of our comfortable homes and into a world that’s vivid and diverse; a world overflowing with God’s love and presence.
We’re called to join in with what God’s up to where we are, and join in with what God’s already been doing. In a world where we seem to be pushed farther and farther apart, the driving force of the Holy Spirit drives us into community and into the communities around us.
Hello Me, Meet Me
On Wednesday June 15, 2015, it was the first night of our ELCA Youth Gathering.
As 30,000 of my brothers and sisters in Christ and I gathered at Ford Field, I was overwhelmed by a lot of things: the crush of the crowd; the noise of 30,000 Youtherans packed together into one space; and the energy that gave the sense that the Spirit was at work and moving among us! I was just floored by speaker after speaker, the talent of the musicians, and by variety and competency of everyone doing everything. As I left that evening, I was flying high and ready for a week of service, worship, and growth.
I was also feeling uncomfortable, which was odd.
As we left the field I started to think about what was making me uncomfortable.
It wasn’t the music, I knew the music for the most part or could fake what I didn’t.
It also wasn’t the content; that was straight down the middle theologically and ethically. We heard advocacy for Social Justice not as the cause of our identity as Christians, but Social Justice because of our identity as disciples of Jesus. This is the right way to advocate for Social Justice, and it’s a message that I find very compelling.
I was puzzled about why I felt so…off about the whole thing.
Then it occurred to me that in a crowd of 30,000 mostly white faces (though there was incredible diversity there), and in a denomination that’s an overwhelmingly white denomination because we hail from European ancestors and Lutheranism in the US tends to be as much a cultural denomination as it is a theological one, only three people on stage that I could remember the whole night were white. This realization stunned me.
I realized this, and it felt like the world was shifting back to its normal axis as I identified that it is normal for Lutheran events to have mostly anglo leaders, and abnormal for the vast majority of leaders at an event to be non-white.
Was this really what was bothering me?
Not enough white faces?
Thinking it through, I initially decided that really what was bothering me wasn’t the fact that there were so many non-white people there, but that there weren’t a representative number of white people on the stage. We’re a mostly white denomination, after all; is it out of bounds to think that we should have a representative sample up there of people who look like Lutherans?
People who look like Lutherans.
There is was, naked and ugly.
People who look like Lutherans.
This wasn’t discomfort, this was the voice of my prejudice telling me that these weren’t the “right” people to choose because they don’t look like Lutherans.
This wasn’t a passing notion, it was the voice of my privilege telling me that so many non-white people on stage wasn’t normal at an ELCA gathering — even if it is the National Gathering. We have a right to be the majority, right?
This wasn’t just a random thought from my subconscious anymore because I’d been feeding it with my internal dialogue until I was able to recognize my casual carefree relationship with racism that wanted to reassure me that it’s really an okay thing for me to feel this way because the world is supposed to cater to my preferences. To be really honest, it feels good when the world’s geared to work in your favor. When it doesn’t, it’s amazing how quickly the feelings of indignation come to the surface.
This — this was the breaking of my heart under the weight of my bondage to Sin, as the part of me that has ears to hear and eyes to see answered the Gospel directive to hold up a mirror for my head and heart.
I heard the voice of God calling me to stare deeply and know that what is reflected back to me in this moment is the unreformed, unconvinced part of my head and heart that believe completely that not only am I the normal one and they are not, but cheers on the fact that Society believes this too.
I didn’t oppress anyone and I didn’t hurt anyone; but in this moment I understood so clearly how otherwise rational and reasonable people could stay so quiet in the face of injustice.
It’s so much more comfortable for me to just let the feelings pass and go on my way pretending that I’m okay and you’re okay, and that it’s not really indicative of anything more pervasive in my own consciousness or present in society — just another isolated incident.
But I know my heart and my head, and I know that this unwelcome and uninvited certainty that they aren’t normal is a part of me, just as certainly as my craving for oxygen, water, and love.
Later on, I confessed this to a fellow pastor who was with me. “Confessed” may be a strong word, I told him about it and we discussed it a bit. It made this something that’s real, and it forced me to look at it head on.
Head on is the only way we can face this.
When we see our lives in color — when we learn to love ourselves and everyone else in all our complexity and brokenness rather than as the two-dimensional caricatures that are so much more comfortable, we begin to unravel the power that prejudice, privilege, and racism have in our lives.
Love shines a light on the heart and cleanses it, and in the light we can see ourselves and each other in the full spectrum of the truth — that we are at once saint and sinner, beautiful and ugly on the inside — and when we see ourselves and each other in full color, the power of the lies we embrace erodes little by little, leaving behind something more real.
It’s scary to have our woundedness out in the light, but once it’s revealed it loses its power over us; we can finally get over ourselves and make the world a better place in the process.
(Updated to remove mention of the plan to do this as a multi-part series, which didn’t happen.)