Following up on the Synod Council’s October 2020 letter addressing the racial reckoning occurring in our country right now, the Council has continued to engage in study and dialog on issues of racial injustice and ways in which we can build a more equitable society. As part of these discussions, the Council is reading and discussing Rev. Lenny Duncan’s book “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US.”
Below is the devotion offered by Council member, Jennifer Slagle Peck, as we began our book discussion. We invite you to engage with the below devotion and to join the Synod Council in reading Dear Church.
Reflection from Jennifer Slagle Peck
Last summer I hosted an online workshop that invited Girl Scouts from across the country to explore their faith and its connection to the Girl Scout Law. Bishop Leila Ortiz joined us as a special guest that the scouts could interview about her faith. The scouts submitted questions in advance and one scout, a middle school student from Nevada, asked the Bishop if she had ever doubted that there is a God. I was excited to hear the response to this question and to be reassured, along with the several hundred participants in our webinar, that everyone has had doubts at one time or another.
But that wasn’t the answer. Bishop Ortiz said that doubt that God exists has not been her lived experience, though she said it is a fair reaction and is not uncommon. I was surprised by the answer, and then reassured, and then perplexed. And clearly, I have spent some time pondering this question in the months since.
Where I am at the moment, is living in the acknowledgment that I have had doubts. And what fuels those doubts, most often, for me, is the church’s struggle to live out its call to love one other.
I love this church. I love the way it has embraced me and enabled me to engage with my community from childhood, to campus ministry, to Lutheran Volunteer Corps, to being a “regular adult” in the pews, to being a pastor’s spouse, and now as a member of Synod Council.
But I also have doubts in us that cause me to question everything. Is the church needed? Have we caused more pain than good? Where is the truth? The evangelical pastor with the largest megaphone? The platitudes in greeting cards? Or is the feeling that I have in my bones that there is something outside of me that is greater than any of us? Is that the truth? What about the feeling I have that we are called to live in – and be in – community together? To listen to each other; to learn from each other; to accept that our own life experience isn’t the only one out there.
On good days, I believe the church can help us live in – and truly be in – community together, as God calls us to be. But being in community is not easy. It makes us vulnerable and can be uncomfortable. And for us – a predominately white institution – it means we have to ask ourselves some hard questions, like Pastor Duncan does in the introduction to Dear Church: “How the hell did we get here?”
Why are we the whitest denomination in the country? Exploring the answers to that question will be painful – it has been painful for many who have been sidelined from the church or asked to assimilate, and it has been painful for me to learn that I have benefited from a system that harms others, that I have made mistakes, and that I will continue to make mistakes. But I think these pains are growing pains and that ultimately the pain makes room for hope.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident.” As Americans we love that phrase and what follows it. As a country, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. But we know that when that was written in the Declaration of Independence, “all men” didn’t actually mean all people, it didn’t even mean all men. It actually meant a very narrow set of people. So we have had to grow as a country to broaden the initial meaning of those words. And our growing is not over.
I think we can all agree, that as individuals, we should never stop growing. Never stop learning. So why would we think our country – or our church – doesn’t have more growing to do? The truth is that we have a lot of room to grow. And what seems self-evident, is that as a church we are not listening to our black, indigenous, and other siblings of color. If we were, we would all know in our bones that these groups are in pain – in small ways, and in big deep ways, and in ways that they feel every single day.
Now I’m not trying to speak for anyone else, or for other groups – but when I have faced confusion or uncertainty these last few years in my own journey of self-discovery in the context of racial justice work – a guiding principle has provided clarity for me. I listen to black, indigenous, and people of color. And when they say they are in pain; when they say they are scared; when they say they are not being seen or heard; when they invite us, as white people or as white institutions, to take steps so that they can feel safe, so that we can BE IN community together; when they share their views and perspectives – I believe them.
I believe Pastor Duncan. I believe him when he says on page 7 of Dear Church that “we [the church] have lost the ability to name evil for what it is.” I believe him when he says on page 15 that “white supremacy doesn’t need active racists to function,” that (page 16) “passivity is the new engine of systemic racism,” and that (page 17) “white supremacy is the system that separates us.”
I believe Pastor Duncan when he says on page 19 that “until we embrace this work [of dismantling white supremacy], our congregations will remain whitewashed tombs with merely the ghost of Christianity haunting them.” I believe him when he says (pages 9-10) that God is real and grace is real. But that while grace is free, loving the neighbor has a high cost.
And I believe that, the first question we must ask ourselves, as individuals, is whether we believe black, indigenous or people of color when they point out that we having growing to do. Because if we believe them, we can move forward with the work of figuring out how the hell we got here and we can engage in the work of learning and growing so that we can be “the offering to end white supremacy in this nation and this church” that Rev. Duncan believes we can be and that I believe we can be.
As you reflect on the racial injustices we are facing as a country and as a church, and our role in both the history that got us here and the work we need to engage in for the sake of our future, please join in this prayer from the Rev. Dr. King, Jr. This prayer is from a collection of 68 prayers edited by Lewis V. Baldwin titled, “Thou, Dear God”: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits.
O Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love thy will. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray.