The pastor of a mission congregation describes an approach to reaching and discipling African American young adults in their Chicago neighborhood, a holistic process that draws on African culture, the arts in worship, and the wisdom of mentors.
"Worship among African Americans is more verb than a noun, a holistic engagement of head, heart and body touched by the sacred. Telling the story, testifying, preaching, and prayer are communal acts, set in the context of music movement, and dance. All are infused with a deep awareness of the activity of the Holy Spirit within worship and a readiness for spontaneous response" (This Far by Faith, p. 10).
Shekinah Chapel, a mission congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Chicago, Illinois, embodies a fusion of the passion of African American culture and Lutheran theology with a focus on the making of disciples through a message of hope and the blessing of grace. As Shekinah's pastor, I often say, "Bring them in ... train them up ... and ship them out." Though "them" includes all people, the primary focus of Shekinah's outreach efforts and in-house initiatives is youth and young adults. Our efforts can best be summed up with just two words: arts and mentoring.
Performing and Creative Arts
Young adults and youth respond to the holistic African American worship style at Shekinah because the Sunday worship services (and much of the membership) make use of God-given gifts in the performing and creative arts. Each week the service format includes live music and singing from a highly skilled praise and worship band. Also included in the weekly service is original poetry and liturgical dance.
Liturgical dance is offered during a song of praise and worship. The dance is choreographed to highlight the strong points in the song that inspire praise or meditation on God's goodness. These worship styles distinguish Shekinah from many other congregations in the area, particularly in the minds of the young professional, grad student, thirtysomething demographic that Shekinah tends to draw. These portions of the service are presented in a way that not only offers an extra oomph but also prepares the heart for the sermon as the gospel message is physically and orally offered through sound, voice, and movement.
"As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers ... they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.' " (Matt. 4:18-19). The mentoring aspect of Shekinah models Jesus' calling of disciples. Youth doing ordinary things are called into a new relationship with Jesus and thereby become instruments used by God to draw in more disciples for building up the kingdom. This is where much of the real work gets done. Through SIMBA (Safe in My Brothers' Arms), SIMSA (Safe in My Sisters' Arms), and SIMFA (Safe in My Family's Arms), the youth of the community are engaged by the young adult and other adult members of the church. These camp and monthly mentoring experiences provide a strong foundation upon which further works gets done throughout the year. Mentors go to great lengths to remind the youth of their value, abilities, and responsibilities to the greater community.
Some of the same mentors in these programs also sponsor youth ministry outlets such as the youth liturgical dance ministry and the recently added mime ministry. The church's youth ministry hosts a quarterly interfaith "Holy Hip-Hop" service where they, along with youth groups from several other congregations, provide fellowship and support for each other through praise, dance, rap, song, poetry, mime, and the preached word. This service is planned by the young people with guidance from adults.
A Great Multitude
Additional emphasis is placed on African culture. The prominence of elders and the communion of saints are biblically and culturally significant in the African culture. Worship service at Shekinah sometimes will include a ritual referred to as "Libations." Libations dates back several centuries to the African continent and is a time in our worship service when ancestors and elders, those recently departed and those among us, are acknowledged. While only a small portion of the service, this ritual adds meaning and affirms the importance of the culture that this generation has been separated from.
And there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
- Revelation 7:9
This uniting across generations and even beyond life reflects the culmination of all believers described in Revelation 7:9: "And there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands." One way God draws young adults into a purposeful relationship to the community is through understanding their part in the community as a whole.
Communal living extends holistically as well. The call to community service is a natural byproduct of the culture of Shekinah. Efforts include creating the Shekinah Resale Shop, which offers new and gently used clothing, shoes, and sundries to members of the community at nearly no cost. All items are donated by members of the congregation. The church also sponsors events for the community such as providing food to the local Little League football team and hosting the first annual Block Club party for 138th and Wabash Avenue in Riverdale. This reflects the biblical aspect of pouring libations: "St. Paul says to the Philippians, ‘But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice' (Phil. 2:17), and again in the letter to Timothy, ‘I am already being poured out as a libation ... I have finished the race, I have kept the faith' (2 Tim. 4:6-7). Thus, the image of libation is a metaphor for the dedication of one's self in service for God's sake" (This Far by Faith
, p. 12).
At Shekinah, youth and young adults worship freely with all that they are and just as they are. Just as Jesus took those fishermen as they were because he knew the power of God would transform them. He knew they would invite more to follow him. Shekinah welcomes all regardless of where they are, because God knows who they will be through the grace bestowed upon all of us through Jesus Christ.
May God continue to grow and bless this work.Yehiel Curry is pastor of Shekinah Chapel, Chicago, Illinois, an ELCA mission congregation.
This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 2) and Lutheran Partners Online.