ELCA Multicultural Mission Institute 'Breaking the Barriers'

Nov 08, 2002 03:00 AM EST

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

from isolation."

"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

Bible study.

"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

Atlanta area.

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
[email protected]