ATLANTA (ELCA) -- About 320 members of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America (ELCA) took part in the church's 13th and final
Multicultural Mission Institute. Speakers, workshops, worship and music
reflected on the theme "Breaking the Barriers" here Nov. 1-3. The
institute was meant to equip ELCA pastors and lay leaders with specific
tools to build and nurture culturally diverse congregations.
The Rev. Ronald B. Warren, bishop of the ELCA's Southeastern
Synod, welcomed participants. Congregations of ELCA are organized into
65 synods, each synod headed by a bishop. The Southeastern Synod is
based here and serves about 176 congregations across Alabama, Georgia,
Mississippi and Tennessee.
"We human beings do build walls that are good," said Warren,
listing barriers erected for safety purposes along expressways and
around farms. "We humans have learned to take a good thing too far," he
"We have built walls of separation," he said, turning race,
economics and religion into barriers between people. "In the name of
Jesus, there are no longer any outsiders, as the world labels them," he
Breaking the barriers requires change, said the Rev. W. Arthur
Lewis, director, Lutheran Theological Center in Atlanta. "I implore
each and every one of you to be about change," he said. "Barriers do
not come down by themselves."
Lewis named several founding members of the ELCA, saying "they did
not allow barriers to keep them from their respective ministries." They
had a vision for the church that Lewis said he heard echoed in
statements of ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson.
Noting that many Lutheran churches are without pastors, while
clergy of color await calls from congregations, Lewis said the ELCA will
need to change its systems and its attitudes. He challenged
participants to "be about eliminating barriers that have been put there
by us not by God."
"We have to make changes, and we hate changes," said the Rt. Rev.
Ronald J. Diggs, bishop emeritus of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, West
Africa. Diggs is based in Trenton, N.J., as the ELCA Division for
Outreach's missionary-at-large to African immigrants.
Diggs said U.S. churches are set up according to the nationalities
of the people who settled in certain areas. Churches tend to perpetuate
the notion that one's own ethnic group is "right" or better than other
groups, he said. If they continue, he warned, the churches will "die
"Pray to break these barriers down, not out of hate but out of
love," said Diggs. The challenge extends to all Christians, he said, to
involve people of all colors and cultures in their churches' activities
throughout the week.
The institute's theme, "Breaking the Barriers," assumes there are
barriers that need to be broken, said the Rev. Prasanna Kumari,
executive secretary of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India
and head of the Department of Women's Studies at Gurukul Lutheran
Theological College and Research Institute, Chennai, India. Kumari, a
vice president of the Lutheran World Federation, led the institute's
"The world is indeed a broken world," said Kumari. "While
millions die of hunger and AIDS, the richer countries are growing
richer," she said. "We are the witnesses of the brokenness."
Any positive impact of economic globalization is reserved for the
wealthy, said Kumari. "The powerless and voiceless in this economic
game are considered expendable," she said. "The pain of the oppressed
is the pleasure of the powerful."
Jesus broke down all barriers between God and the world, Kumari
said. She challenged participants to "build beloved communities" that
break down barriers between people.
"Welcome to the inclusive church," began the Rev. Helen Locklear,
associate director, Racial Ethnic Ministries, National Ministries
Division, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, Ky. She described a
congregation aligned closely with Scripture, rejoicing in the fact that
God has granted faith to the people of all nations. "The church
discovered that one race cannot judge another easily without first
understanding the 'logic' of the other," she said.
Locklear was reading from "Visions of an Inclusive Church," a 1984
document of the American Lutheran Church, one of three churches that
merged to form the ELCA in 1988. "This vision remains that -- a
vision," she said. "For all the talk about inclusiveness, the church
consistently lags behind."
The "first theological mandate" of the church is to remember that
all people are created in the image of God, said Locklear. "No matter
how much our histories have been lost, no matter how much our histories
have been stolen," Christians claim their heritage in God's image, she
said. "As each image of God is connected to another, a beloved
community of faith is formed."
Technological advances have made it possible to travel around the
world in hours or online in seconds, said Rani Abdulmasih, an ELCA
mission developer, Dearborn, Mich., yet people may never cross the
street to meet their neighbors. Barriers of one type are broken, but
human relationships may still suffer, he said.
While Christians rejoice in their faith, there is the risk that
they will think they are better than others, said Abdulmasih. "Fear of
the other" can grow into bigotry, stereotyping and racism, he said.
Abdulmasih urged participants to pray for guidance and to wait
patiently for the ability to break those barriers. "Do not pray for
tasks equal to your abilities," he said. "Ask for the strength to do
A six-inch step is another barrier, said the Rev. Margarita
Martinez, bishop of the ELCA Caribbean Synod, Dorado, Puerto Rico. In
addition to emotional and spiritual barriers, she reminded participants
that physical barriers in the church need to be removed. Martinez lost
her left leg to cancer in her youth.
The church is surrounded by barriers and divided by barriers, said
Martinez. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has an unconditional
love for everyone -- something many people don't know, she said, and the
church will have to break its barriers to apply that message to the
lives of individuals and families.
"To break a barrier is to change a way of life," said Martinez.
"The biggest barrier we have as people of God was taken care of by
The ELCA is doing a good job of identifying barriers and
recognizing they can be harmful, Martinez said later in an interview.
The church is "listening to the pain" those barriers cause, she said.
The next step is to be intentional about breaking the barriers "in
a more programmatic way," Martinez said. "That means budget. That
means action plans. That means really doing something about it."
"There are many barriers that affect people that have to do with
language, culture, gender, sexual orientation, class, consumerism and
race," said Martinez. "So, there are a lot of issues to attend to, but
the more we talk about the existence of those barriers, the better we
can address them. I feel proud that my church is beginning to do that
in intentional ways," she said.
The institute's participants could select two of 16 different
workshops. Topics included evangelism in various ethnic communities and
through coalitions, youth and evangelism, "building community in song,"
hospitality and the current ELCA studies on sexuality.
Bishop Warren conducted a special forum on "Building a Vision for
Multicultural Ministries in a Synod" for all participants. He
introduced "mission pastors" who are developing new ministries in the
The Rev. Frederick E.N. Rajan, executive director, ELCA Commission
for Multicultural Ministries, Chicago, discussed a proposal to combine
the annual Multicultural Mission Institute with a new Multicultural
Music Festival and the biennial assemblies of the five ethnic
associations of the ELCA to create one biennial Multicultural Gathering
beginning in 2004. The gathering would simplify planning and reduce
expenses, he said.
The Multicultural Mission Institute has been held during the first
weekend of November every year since 1989, with the exception of 2001.
The first Multicultural Music Festival was held June 27-30 in St. Paul,
Minn., where more than 250 people celebrated the musical traditions of
various ethnic communities and learned how Lutherans use those
traditions in worship.
By Albert H. Lee