I’m a son of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. I was baptized into Christ on account of an LCMS pastor. I’ve been educated at LCMS schools at every level except high school. I took my confirmation vows, my marriage vows, and my ordination vows all within LCMS congregations. I’ve served as a pastor within this synod for six years now. You would think that someone who has spent the majority of his life within the synod would know the history of the synod. And I do know it, only, I don’t know all of it. I’m learning every day the good, bad, and ugly of the group of Christians that have not only raised me, but among whom I count myself privileged to be counted. This history includes great moments of pride, like meeting immigrants at the docks to help them find a place in the church and community. It has the legacy of contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. It has names of my fathers and mothers in the faith, names like Martin Franzmann, CFW Walther, and Rosa Young. It also includes moments I didn’t learn about until college, seminary, and beyond. Things like the Martin Stephan controversy, the walk out, and yes, the reason for this petition: the systemic racial injustice that is also a part of my beloved synod’s history. We have to take a minute and ask ourselves why black congregations exist within the synod at all. To be frank, it is because white Lutherans would not commune with black ones, not because of a doctrinal difference, but because of a difference in skin color.
When the synodical conference began the work of reaching out to black people in the south after the Civil War, it did so by doing what the LCMS does better than anyone else, it planted schools. Education is a powerful force for social mobility today, that was true back then too. Those schools were staffed by dedicated and hardworking men and women, both white and black, who taught an unknown number of people the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Resources, though, were never in great supply. More times than not these schools would be closed in part because the resources were producing churches, only schools. Some were upset that the schools didn’t create larger congregations, and for some, the only reason to educate was to ensure a Lutheran congregation. During the depression, when resources were really scarce, guess which schools were the first to lose funding? The synod once had three schools* dedicated to the training of black pastors and church workers, all are now closed. We can blame the lack of resources all we want, but the truth is, many pastors come to the seminary because of a connection to a school, not just because of a connection to a congregation. As Richard Dickinson has so aptly pointed out, closing the day schools means fewer end up at the college, closing the college means fewer end up as church workers or at the seminary.
While the lack of funding may be something we could excuse, the paternalism we cannot. Black clergy and teachers over the years were paid decidedly less, not allowed pension benefits, and were not allowed to make decisions for their own contexts. White pastors had to oversee them. Maybe that was just how things were done back then, but it doesn’t make it right. This is true also of segregation. It may have been the law of the land, but that doesn’t make it right. It may have been what made people in our own pews comfortable, but that doesn’t mean President Behnken was right for saying integration wouldn’t be a good thing. When black congregations were allowed to join the Missouri Synod as autonomous congregations, the Southeastern District was the first of the southern districts to welcome them in 1950. It wasn’t until 1961 that the Southern District did the same. Fighting segregation was also discouraged outside the church. Faculty, students, and staff at Alabama Lutheran Academy and College, known to me as Concordia Selma, were discouraged and prohibited from participating in Civil Rights activities. I’m proud of the students and faculty who ignored that prohibition. I’m proud to share a history with men like Ulysses Blackmon and James Gildersleeve, two of the “Courageous Eight” in Selma who were on the faculty at Alabama Lutheran Academy and College.
But here’s the thing, the history I’m describing, it isn’t just the stuff of sixty years ago. The stories aren’t mine to tell but I do know that black pastors still face discrimination, they are still not put in positions of leadership to effect change, that education institutions are still closed because of lack of resources, and yes, there are still those today who will not commune with black Lutherans not because of a doctrinal difference but because of the difference in the color of their skin. It is wrong. It is systemic, meaning, there is a historic and present reality faced by black clergy, church workers, and believers where they are not given the same opportunity and support. People have asked me why I would sign a petition, they wonder what it will do. I sign the petition for the same reason so many go to a March for Life, because taking a stand matters. Because showing solidarity matters. Because the sins of the past are alive and well even if they aren’t as visible. Because I am part of a church body whose history I may not be able to atone for, whose future may be in the hands of the Lord, but whose present I care about. Because the lives of black clergy, church workers, congregants, and people matter.
Confessing the sins of the past, declaring that we will endeavor to do better, and supporting through word and deed the things that contribute to systemic change are not attempts to self-justify, they are fruits in keeping with repentance. My forebears are forgiven their sins—my contemporaries too, are forgiven their sins—not by me but by the Lord of the Church. The same Lord who healed those with diseases, who fed those who were hungry, and who ushered in the age to come ahead of time. The active rule and reign of God began in Christ and it reaches its fulfillment in him too. We who have heard his promise, who have been baptized into him, who have tasted and seen that he is good must share the gospel, the forgiveness of sins on account of his life, death, and resurrection. We also participate in ushering in his rule and reign, by calling sin sin, by working to dismantle unjust structures, and by seeking to let the gospel, and nothing else, have free reign. Make no mistake, if we won’t commune with someone because of the color of their skin the gospel is not having free reign.
We pray that God’s kingdom would come. We know that his kingdom comes when we hear his word and lead godly lives here and in eternity. We know it comes without our prayer but we pray that it would be done among us. Signing a petition doesn’t make that happen, it doesn’t bring the kingdom in and of itself. God does that, through his word, through people, through you and through me. Signing a petition does, however, help call things what they are. It is a tool of the law meant to curb sinful behavior in our midst, to remind us that corporately we have sinned as a church body, and to point out ways we can not only repent but also bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
*The initial version of this post only mentioned two institutions when in fact there were three: Luther College in New Orleans, LA, Immanuel Lutheran College in Greensboro, NC, and Concordia College in Selma, AL.