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ELCA Campus Ministry programs address racism

10/14/2015 3:00:00 PM

​     CHICAGO (ELCA) – Striving in its mission to engage academic populations in the principles of discipleship and relationship-building according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Campus Ministry programs are working to help campus communities address racism.
     “Lutheran Campus Ministry has a long and rich history of addressing important social issues,” said the Rev. Don Romsa, program director for ELCA Campus Ministry. “This same tradition lives on today as Lutheran Campus Ministry staff work with students, faculty, staff, administrators and ecumenical partners to tackle the reality of racism at every level of our society.”
     Romsa emphasized that programs developed by ELCA Campus Ministry staff are not only for university students, but are often designed for and received by the entire campus community.
    The Rev. Jared Carson, pastor of Peace Lutheran and Lutheran Campus Ministry at New Mexico State University, is planning a campus viewing of “Confronting Racism,” the ELCA’s Aug. 6 webcast aimed at advancing racial justice. He said that watching the webcast is in response to the June 17 shootings in Charleston, S.C., and “the invitation of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton to make confronting racism a priority of the ELCA.”
     Carson said his commitment to talk more about race and racism is tied to his connection with the Rev. Clementa Pinckey, one of nine people killed in the shootings at Mother Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in Charleston. Carson and Pinckney were classmates at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., one of eight ELCA seminaries.
     “I remember his great sense of humor, strong and gentle presence, and his deep spiritual depth,” said Carson. “Engaging my congregation and our Campus Ministry students in conversations about race and racism honors Clementa’s memory and breaks my own apathy. Young adults want to make a difference in the world. Watching the ‘Confronting Racism’webcast with our Campus Ministry students will be the first step to making a real difference on a campus of higher education and in our little corner of the world.”
     “I think campus ministries are uniquely positioned to create and hold spaces to have hard and important conversations, including confronting racism on our campuses and in our churches,” said the Rev. Kate Reuer Welton, campus pastor, Lutheran Campus Ministry, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities.
     Reuer Welton said students who are involved in Lutheran Campus Ministry programs are “leading the church and world and will continue that work once they leave campus.”
     “If they can leave with a theologically grounded understanding of our call to stand on the margins, and specifically to address the issue of, as John Stewart articulated, ‘the gaping wound of racism we pretend does not exist,’ we will be facing a much brighter future,” she said.
     Reuer Welton said she has met with student groups and university faculty and staff in order to develop a two-tiered strategy for addressing racism. One response is focused on building relationships and community by inviting speakers from the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups to present at the ministry’s Faith and Leadership Institute. The strategy also includes working with student leaders to attend events to show solidarity with those whose lives and cultures feel threatened.
     A second strategy is focused on more internal Campus Ministry initiatives, which include preaching about race and racism and presenting a four-part Bible study curriculum for student leaders. The Campus Ministry also has plans to collaborate with Grace University Lutheran and University Lutheran Church of Hope – two ELCA congregations in Minneapolis – to help facilitate a retreat featuring presenters from Black Lives Matter and Isaiah, an ecumenical organization in Minneapolis focused on racial and economic equality.
     Reuer Welton also highlighted partner conversations with the Muslim Student Association “with the intention of using our faith as a shared starting point to understand different experiences, such as religion, race, class, culture. The Muslim Student Association also brings an incredible diversity in race and culture, which is helpful in our largely white group,” she said.
     Kaitlin Mork, a member of Midvale Community Lutheran in Madison, Wis., is a student leader with Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. She said racism can feel “like a big, unapproachable topic. But if we don't work to address the issue now, how can we expect anything to change?”
     “I think addressing the issue starts with relationships, and a college campus is the perfect place to do so,” said Mork. “Having conversations with students from the Black Student Union can help us gain a broader perspective of racism on campus, and hopefully through this partnership, our Lutheran Campus Ministry community can become involved in the work the Black Student Union is already doing on campus.”
     Mork, a junior, also plans to form connections with other groups and organizations on campus doing work to address racism.
     “I’m thankful to have such a great Lutheran Campus Ministry group to work with in our current and upcoming work on race and social justice. It’s nice to have a safe and accepting community in which to have these big conversations to help lay a foundation before going out to do this work on campus and in the community,” said Mork.
     “Campus ministries can help reconcile various disciplines and build human community right where it begins to unravel, as students leave home for the first time, encounter other cultures and values, think critically about their own values and relationships, and consider their identity, purpose and vocation,” said the Rev. Darin Johnson, campus pastor, Lutheran–Episcopal Campus Ministry, San Diego State University. “Caring community that holds the pieces of life together is a life-or-death challenge for many students who struggle with identity, purpose and meaning within huge, impersonal institutions.”
     According to Johnson, racism at San Diego State is addressed through a multi-faceted approach, which includes diversity among staff and board members, lifting up the struggle for justice through prayer and sharing of stories during worship and by training student leaders to become more conscious about racism through spiritual formation, vocation discernment and theological education activities.
     "We are committed to diversity in leadership and decision making, for example, by diversifying our staff and student leadership teams,” said Johnson. “Our Campus Ministry community now reflects the racial, ethnic, economic, cultural, religious and ability diversity of our campus. We empower students in faith-rooted community organizing to practice bringing community values into the public sphere. These experiences are often definitive for personal discernment of one’s call to serve and live a purposeful life centered in compelling faith and values.”
     The Rev. John Tirro, chaplain at Tyson House, a shared Lutheran and Episcopal Campus Ministry at the University of Tennessee, said confronting racism is core to the overall ministry program. He recalled students’ reaction following the July 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and the July 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
     “After the death of Eric Garner, at the prompting of one of our students, we held an interfaith prayer service for justice and peace, with faculty, administrators and students of multiple religions gathered in the university amphitheater. We participated in a Black Lives Matter march in support of the people of Baltimore and, even as we faced a counter-protest by a group waving Confederate flags across the street, it was a time of growing support among Muslims, Christians and people of other beliefs – black, white, and every shade between. One African American woman, having just told of the challenges she faced, shared that she’d never felt so supported. This was one small event, but the relationships built there, under a broad, spreading shade tree, were profound,” he said.
     Tirro said Campus Ministry is working with the university’s psychology department to develop a course in intergroup dialogue focused on teaching students how to listen to one another around important topics such as racism. He also stressed the importance of training students in ancient spiritual practices in order to “help center people in Christ as we go about the work of peacemaking.” He said these practices include lectio divina, a meditative reading of Scripture and spiritual direction, monthly conversations about God’s presence in daily life. 
     “All these things build the relationships, with God and with each other, that give us strength to confront racism and whatever else needs confronting,” he said.
     In reflecting on conversations around racism with staff from ELCA Campus Ministry programs, Romsa said he is reminded that “the real work of addressing and confronting racism begins with a careful look at the roots of racism within ourselves. The liberating power of the gospel frees us to acknowledge the seeds of racism in the deepest and darkest places of our own lives.”
     “I think that there’s nothing like campus ministry to remind you that you are not in control, and that the Holy Spirit has something to do with your work in this world,” said Reuer Welton. “We can intentionally set tables, address privilege, build relationships between people of color within and outside of our ministries and show up where lives are on the line. And then we trust that the Holy Spirit will call us anew and lead us in a direction that we could not have planned or predicted or controlled.”
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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