Category Archives: Issues and Challenges

FROM FERGUSON: TWO INTERVIEWS WITH REV. RICK BRENTON, WTS GRADUATE, by Norma Cook Everist, WTS Professor of Church and Ministry

December, 2014:

Rev. Richard Brenton, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, Mo, (WTS 2010) in a telephone interview, said, “People are in need of ministry and are asking difficult questions. My calling is to walk with them.” He reported then that he was just beginning to feel how tired he was. “It’s been like living in a fish bowl” since August 15, 2014 when Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

After the shooting, Pastor Brenton along with other clergy marched with the protestors. Thousands of people marched. The clergy took toiletries and food with them for the protestors who came not only from the area but from across the country. In late November, after the release of the Grand Jury decision, Zion provided safe Sanctuary. Rick said he stayed at the church and kept the doors open. This sanctuary also provided legal observers and medical help. Many people came through, engaging also in important conversation.

Zion Lutheran, is “quite conservative,” with many white members now over 65 or 75, said Pastor Brenton. “Most of them think all of this will ‘go away’ when ‘things quiet down.’ The congregation is 25% African American, most in their middle adult years. Their children and grandchildren make up the youth in the congregation. They see things differently.” Rick tries to help the people see that “change is among us.” He knows his calling is to minister to the entire congregation and that this is a challenge. “It creates a delicate tension, a fine line.” The people within the congregation love one another. Rick said, “Loving care is central.”

Rick added, “There is not division or conflict within the congregation. We have strong relationships. Everyone knows everyone in the congregation.” It’s the people that the white folks don’t know that causes generalizations from the old white guard. We hear words such as “those people” and “those protestors.” And “those blacks.”

Rick has completed four years as pastor at Zion and trust has grown over those years. He has long been part of the Ferguson Ministerial Alliance.

March, 2015:

With the release of the U.S. Justice Department’s report on Ferguson, there is “renewed angst and denial,” said Pastor Brenton, in another phone call interview. “People don’t want to face the truth. Over the years they have allowed this to happen, have become used to it, and don’t want to admit that it’s real.” The evening of the interview Rick was going to ask the Church Council to provide some open forums for the congregation. “We need an atmosphere of trust,” said Rick, “because the issues are very polarizing. It’s like going through stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, blaming and depression.” They say, “We’ve read all about it and we don’t want to talk about it anymore.” They are shutting down. It has been overwhelming all these months. Overload. With the spotlight of the nation on them again, Rick said, “We have to interpret the events in the light of the Gospel.”

They need to know that systemic racism is everywhere, not just in Ferguson, so that they can feel not just shame, but Christ’s suffering for all on the cross. This has been especially important when headlines lately have compared the shooting of an unarmed young black man in Wisconsin to them, saying, “Madison handled it better than Ferguson.” Comparisons are not the point. There is justice work to do in every community. Religious leadership is important wherever one receives a call.

When asked how he was doing personally, Rick said, “Some days are fine; others are a real struggle. It’s a challenge to say the least.” He added, “It is important to stay close to Christ and to Christ’s journey.”

Now well into his 5th year he knows the congregation and the community and understands that people hold on to their old ways of adapting to injustices around them. Now feeling judged by the Justice Department Report and the nation, the issues are not being dispelled, but amplified. There is both shame and sentiments of, “You are running down our town.” Pastor Brenton said, “The African Americans at Zion are much in tune with the Gospel, very understanding and forgiving. But how much longer are they going to feel comfortable attending Zion?”

Rick is trying to minister to the white members of the congregation and to support the African American members (He also feels support from them.) We referenced the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which thousands walked over recently marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In some ways, Rick is also a bridge himself. He added, “And I feel the footprints on my back.” He gave thanks for the support of his bishop and for many friends through Facebook. He added that his education at Wartburg had been one of God’s deepest blessings to him.

MY ENCOUNTER WITH THE UNDOCUMENTED CHRIST by Jon Brudvig, WTS Intern Prairie Faith Shared Ministry, WaKeeney, KS

Until I visited the border, saw with my own eyes what was happening, and listened to people recount their own experiences, I had no idea of the magnitude of the crisis of the large numbers of teenagers from Latin and Central America making their way north into the United States. Perhaps it was just easier for me not to know.

Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in a Hispanic Ministry practicum hosted by the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest. The cross-cultural immersion experience included a visit to Eagle Pass, TX, a town located on the US-Mexican border, during a time when local, state, and federal officials argued about what to do. Many of the unaccompanied minors were fleeing drug-infested communities, horrific violence, and extreme poverty in search of a better life. Even churches were overwhelmed by the sheer scope and magnitude of the crisis that was unfolding all along the border.

The story of the “undocumented Christ” began in 2004 when US Border Patrol agents retrieved “a package” (code word for a lifeless body) from the Rio Grande River, the border separating Mexico and the USA. To their surprise, agents discovered that “the package” was a well-preserved life-sized statue of the crucified Jesus (minus the cross). Since no one stepped forward to claim the statue, border patrol agents seized the statue as unclaimed property. No one, it seemed, wanted to claim Jesus.

In time, the mysterious discovery of the “undocumented Christ,” particularly in a location where so many immigrants have died, prompted people on both sides of the border to embrace the statue as a message from God. Eventually the statue found a permanent home at Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church in Eagle Pass.

Looking back, something happened to me the day I encountered the “undocumented Christ.” A time in my life when I could no longer ignore the geo-political, religious, and humanitarian realities of what was unfolding before me at the border.

An encounter with the border crossing Jesus challenged me, then and now in this Lenten Season, to look for Christ in the least, the lost, and the broken, sisters and brothers created in the image and likeness of God. And though I fail to live this reality, time and time again, Jesus the border-crosser transcends the boundaries we make, compromises with evil that try to separate us from God and from one another. The “undocumented Christ” comes to us time and time again, lifting up the broken, joining the despised, comforting the ones who mourn, and standing with those being crushed, crossing every boundary — even death itself — that tries to separate us from the love of God.

 

VIOLENCE, PRIVILEGE AND FOOD WEALTH by Alexandra Hjerpe, first year M.Div.

A seminarian reflects on her journey towards humility, health, and faithful community living

Ignoring my body, and my relationship with food, was my supposedly faithful response to a superficial, commercially-consumed world. However, this focus led me not only into the murky bog of self-justification theology and hypocrisy, and to a deficit of poor physical health, but also into what I would call a state of abusive relationship with my fellow, living community.

By refusing to pluck my eyebrow arches, to wear the latest skinny jeans and to fast- myself-thin with salads, I believed that I could withdraw myself from the beauty pageant in which many of my young, female peers obsessively competed. I knew that the earthly values emphasizing physical beauty were transient, narrow and market-driven, and so I decided to separate myself by interacting casually and robustly with food in my physical body.

Through this narrowed and self-justifying perspective, I believed that denying attention to my external body would correspondingly mold me internally as a more mindful Christian individual: I would not be prey to the system of body glorification like the others. And so, while my college friends carefully examined the carbohydrates in their salad dressing before an evening out, I would instead confidently order a cheeseburger and fries, and eat it with great satisfaction (and zero humility). However, in this action, I did not recognize the inherent violence I was inflicting not just on myself, but to countless others, with this personal crusade of so-called faithful eating!

In the absence of attentiveness to my relationship with my body, I was actually turning my face away from the reality of my food privilege, and was denying own part in a system of wealth and individualism. What I thought was a spiritual habit of mindfulness was in fact a neglect of my responsibility and Christian deputyship—not to mention disrespect for the priceless, irreplaceable gift of my physical body.

Eating is a kind of measurable privilege; unlike race or age, it is one of few environmental privileges that I could personally–but did not–temper. Growing up in white, middle-class, Midwest America, I had luxurious privilege because of food availability. My parents were able to abundantly provide calorie-rich and nutritious foods, and not just as fuel for survival: the decoration of holiday eating, the social dynamic of family table fellowship, and the entertainment of experimenting with a variety of ingredients were all blessings to which I grew accustomed.

Unfortunately, I assumed that my patterns of casual and pleasure-oriented eating were “normal” for everyone—which is perhaps the most dangerous possible state of existence. On the contrary, my eating habits and health expressed a limited and privileged position of food wealth—one that participated in a cycle of power and appropriation unaware that it was at the expense of others.

Rather than attentiveness to each bite of food, I gulped and swallowed rapidly, hardly chewing, my snacks in front of the television. I ate food for myself. I ate food out of boredom. I ate food for a buzz. I ate food to cover up my own problems and distractions—and none of which were any fault of the food. My orientation around food was not about physical vanity, yet it was vain; it was focused entirely on myself and individual desires, without regard or gratitude for the significant amount of sacrifice in its production. I did not consider the amount of land and rain the earth had consumed in order to nurture this food in my hand; the amount of energy and sacrifice by laborers who received low wages in order to grow and harvest it; the amount of smog and gasoline burnt into the receding layer of sky in order to transport it; the amount of toxins and garbage that would accumulate in order to package it. I had no awareness, no relationship with this food, and my eating habits communicated that same disrespect. I abused my food privilege. In a word: I consumed violently.

And so it happened that gradually, in this micro-environment of passively receiving food wealth, I grew just as much a drone to consumerism as the next mascara-laden, Cosmo-reading teen girl I was so mercilessly judging. I was a privilege-hypocrite, accepting the marketing of the food industry, and marching to the beat. I was not living up to my “faithful” standard at all.

To be a bit more gentle with myself, I was not intentionally trying to be violent with my food wealth. My habitually practiced calorie survival skills also functioned to patch up deeper hungers that arose from creeping depression and low self-esteem: I regulated my profound anxiety and mood swings with hormone-blunting, feel-good food chemicals. And yet, the continued use of chocolate to take the edge off of my sadness was still an appropriation of a life-giving, communal phenomenon—food—and covering up my mental illness with accessible calories was an expression of my privilege. I was still engaging in a system that violently swallowed up the resources and gifts of others for the sake of sustaining myself, rather than seeking alternative, healthy sources that could truly help me correct and prevent these deficits.

At seminary, after a process of education and exposure to the most subtle levels of power and control embedded in my culture, I have gradually became aware of, identified and named much of my food privilege. Claiming and naming my power, I have begun the process of taking ownership of my wealth and responsibility, and have decided to change how I interact with the generous world around me.

Focusing more on a model of accompaniment with creation than a model of appropriation, I feel called to an awareness of my time and place in history as one that is saturated in the privilege of accessible, high-calorie, nutritious food. With this contextual awareness, I can begin to accept my civic duty as a steward of creation by responding in a healthy, generous and life-giving way to this environment in which I have been placed. Instead of passively and ignorantly allowing an unhealthy, violent food system to determine my behavior, I am choosing mindfulness, and seeking a counter-cultural relationship of reconciliation with my sources of food energy, my food-providing community, and my body.

So now, when I decide what I am going to eat, I take the time to slowly and deliberately savor every morsel of food. I praise God and offer thanks before, during and after my meal, to honor the high cost to the earth and to others to bring this food to my plate. But perhaps most significantly, I have re-oriented my relationship with food towards an open-system model of energy usage rather than an inward-system. Intentionally using the glucose-energy derived from the nutrients of food in the most God-glorifying, life-giving ways discernable, I am devoting myself to listening to and participating in God’s active mission of love, grace, mercy, justice, compassion, hope and reconciliation in this world by serving the needs of others before myself. And with each day, my head and my heart become more active; my body and my lungs become more healthy; and my soul becomes more awed and grateful to the mercy, and communal nature, of God.

FAILURE AS AN UNDERLYING NARRATIVE by Christa Fisher, 3rd year M.Div. Student

“Your son is at a high risk for failure.” The school principal’s words settled on my chest like a leaden mantle. Unprepared for this phone call, I stammered a confused response. “What? Why? You must be mistaken.” My three-year old son was sitting at the kitchen island coloring, his small fingers gripping a fat red crayon. The principal assured me the call was not an error – she was speaking about my son, about Jacob. A week prior Jacob had participated in a 60-minute early-childhood education readiness assessment and according to the principal, Jacob’s test results warranted the phone call.

In the days following the call I was consumed with the need to understand how Jacob could be at a “high-risk for failure.” After Jacob was born I left my career to stay home and care for him. Needing order and predictability in my life, I created a schedule of activities to fill our days. We attended play groups, visited museums, hiked in the woods, baked cookies, made blanket forts, painted self-portraits, learned the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors, and spent hours upon hours reading. As Jacob became older and craved more time with other children I enrolled him in a highly respected preschool program. His preschool teachers were perplexed by the school district’s assessment. Not only was Jacob doing fine in preschool, they assured me his skills were age appropriate, he came from a safe, loving home, with two devoted parents, who were both college educated. I shared my confusion with a neighbor, a professor of early childhood education. According to her, there was nothing about Jacob which suggested he was at a “high risk for failure.” My husband and I did not enroll Jacob in the specialized program the school district had created for “kids like him.” Instead, we continued to do what we were already doing and hoped this label would not follow him into kindergarten.

After much thought I deduced the school district’s assessment was colored by racism. You see, Jacob is biracial. My husband is black and I am white.

I should not have been surprised by the school district’s assumptions about Jacob. I grew up in a community of people who showcased their racism with pride and am therefore keenly aware of the assumptions we white people make about people of color. As a young mother I worked hard to ensure people had no reason to make such assumptions about our family.  As I focused on maintaining our image, however, I worried my efforts to shield my children from racism were actually depriving them the opportunity to claim their true character. I also worried that my actions were born, at some level, out of my own racism.

My mother-in-law once told me that by marrying her son I was black by association. At the time I didn’t take her seriously. Andre, my soon to be husband, and I were in our early 20’s and living in Berkeley, California. As a biracial couple in the San Francisco Bay Area we were in the norm. Surrounded by the appearance of racial unity I speculated within a generation or two racism would cease to exist. It was easy for me to be so hopeful. I had not yet experienced racism.

When Andre and I moved to Wisconsin I became acutely aware of the differences between the ways people treated us as compared to my previous relationships with white men. When the waitress escorted Andre to one table and me to another, we pitied her for her ignorance. When the mechanic refused to service our vehicle, we moved our business elsewhere. When Andre was defamed at work and offered no recourse, we swallowed our anger and bemoaned small town life. But when our children were born we could no longer simply joke about ignorant behaviors or tolerate inequality at work. Our precious children deserve better than that.

Shortly after Jacob started kindergarten we began receiving notes from his teacher, all assuming parental incompetence. In addition to urging us to read to Jacob for “just 5 minutes each night,” we were also cautioned to limit Jacob’s exposure to television, and to provide him a healthy diet, among other things. Though she did not know us, the teacher assumed our parenting skills were inadequate.

I met with the school principal to discuss the notes, which she quickly dismissed. The teacher was acting out of concern, the principal insisted, and I was over-reacting. In retrospect I should not have expected her to understand – she was the one who informed us Jacob was at a “high risk for failure.” Unprepared to fight this battle, we chose to ignore the teacher’s notes and continue parenting Jacob as we always had.

Andre and I are now more proactive regarding our children’s educations. At the start of the year we meet each of our children’s teachers to tell our story, beginning in the Bay Area where we received our educations and continuing to our present situation in Madison, Wisconsin. By the time we finish, the teachers know us well enough to refrain from applying stereotypical ideologies to our children or making uninformed assumptions about us as parents. Thankfully, both of our children are thriving in school – academically and socially.

Though I am concerned our children will suffer for having a white mother, I recognize that my race can work to their advantage. We are welcomed into places and conversations and afforded greater choices and opportunities due to my whiteness. Teachers and doctors, people who hold critical information, are generally more comfortable communicating with me than with my black husband. I am the primary driver in our family and do not fear racial profiling on the road. As long as our children are with me, I do not worry they will be attacked, physically or verbally.

Yet my whiteness will only benefit our children as long as they are dependent upon and near me. Eventually they will be functionally independent. Then when people look at Jacob with suspicion, whether a police officer, a college professor, or a vigilante citizen, Jacob will have to fend for himself. Under great pressure and amidst intense emotions, Jacob will be responsible for diffusing their anger by demonstrating that he does not warrant fear and is someone worth befriending rather than attacking.

While I still disagree with the school district’s assessment of Jacob, I now recognize a truth in their conclusion. Jacob is at a “high risk for failure” though not for anything he or we have done or failed to do. Jacob will likely experience failure in his life – we all do. Unlike Jacob’s white peers, however, his failure will be inseparable from an underlying narrative of antagonistic racial bias. This insidious evil, which began sabotaging Jacob’s potential before he could even write his entire name, will never just disappear. It is embedded in our institutions and communities, increasing peoples’ risk of failure by limiting their opportunities and choices. Racism, the underlying cause of racial disparities in incarceration, unemployment, poverty, and serious health conditions, justifies racial profiling and minimizes hate crimes. Whether or not Jacob recognizes it, he is in an abusive relationship with racism, from which there is no escape. Unprepared to battle this exhausting, humiliating, and dangerous intruder, we can only hope we are providing him the skills he needs to manage this relationship, so it is unable to consume his life, robbing him his true character and potential and ultimately rendering him a failure.

ADVENT POEM By Will Layton, 2nd Year M.Div. Student

Prepare the way, O Zion! Ye awful deeps, rise high;
Sink low, ye lofty mountains, The Lord is drawing nigh.

The wise man in the pulpit says,
“This isn’t going to be easy.”
His white hair and his reputation for truth-telling
(A prophet, maybe?)
Make us all suspect he’s right.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

That night, in a bar downtown, a woman sings:
“A change is gonna come.”
She sings as if she knows
The change will be right,
But we suspect it won’t be easy.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

A young woman, expecting
Watches out the window,
As the streets of Detroit boil
Rebellion, riot, protest,
Change. Suspicion.
A people divided,
Uniformed bodies
And uninformed arms.
Her little boy—will be a month late–
Not easy, coming into a world like this.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

On the too-familiar bench outside the courtroom,
Already suspect, easy to condemn,
Another one waits for judgment.
Something needs to change.
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

Beneath the throne, the saints cry out,
“How long, O Lord, how long?”
Do they think this will be easy?
Wars and rumors of wars,
Wars and rumors of wars.

These things must come to pass.

On the morning the stars fell,
It caught us off-guard.
We were all afraid,
So we all went outside together.
And as Jesus Christ passed by on the street,
We suspected things wouldn’t be easy,
But there was a rumor of peace.

A CONGREGATION BETRAYED: BOOK RESPONSE by Jennifer Dahle, Final Year M.Div. Student

As I read When a Congregation is Betrayed: Responding to Clergy Misconduct (Alban, 2006), a series of essays edited by Beth Ann Gaeide, I was struck by the extensive work that needs to be done in churches before any kind of misconduct possibly occurs. It really forced me to think about how I could help a church to prepare for an eventuality like misconduct, but it pushed me even more to think about my theology surrounding misconduct and the office of pastor. On page 26, the essay author, Patricia Liberty, suggests thinking about the far-reaching extent of damage that accompanies sexual misconduct in particular by envisioning the following exercise. “Think of your favorite hymn, your favorite Bible verse, your favorite sacred space. Are they written down? Now, look at the hymn you chose. Your pastor hummed that tune while he/she had sex with you; cross it off your list. The favorite verse you wrote down? You pastor quoted that verse to you when he/she was justifying your actions together; cross it off your list. That sacred space was entered by the pastor while you were there and you had sex; cross it off your list.” The extent of damage is astounding when framed by this exercise.

The essays I read invited me to think about sexual misconduct not as an “affair” but as an abuse of power within the pastoral office. “Clergy sexual abuse is often referred to as ‘sexual sin’ or ‘adultery’…these terms are too narrow to name the damage done to the entire congregation…Further, they encourage a privatization of the behavior that keeps the focus on the sexual activity of two individuals rather than on the betrayal of the sacred trust of the office and the pain caused an entire congregation.” (Patricia Liberty, 16-17)  Trying to heal from a misconduct case needs to involve re-examining how we define sin and evil.

Theologically, clergy misconduct violates trust and poses a potential stumbling block to faith for those involved. It is vital to have clear, open communication around the event and to support the victims and the rest of the congregation. No church that finds itself in the midst of a case of clergy misconduct is going to have an easy time of it, but the more the procedures are in place for such an event, the more potentially effective the healing.

I have much thinking left to do around this topic. Having met someone who is still feeling the effects of clergy misconduct 20 years later has made me feel particularly drawn to trying to actually being prepared should something like this occur near or where I am serving. My thoughts are still racing, but this is a starting point at least.

VIGIL FOR A HOMICIDE VICTIM poem by Carina Schiltz, Intern, Milwaukee, WI

Just up the street from the old
stone Norwegian Lutheran church
sits a dozen candles set in a cross

a few beer cans and tomatoes at the
makeshift altar where a small group huddles
in the cold, the wind whipping the ladies’ skirts,
words coating the watchers and wonderers:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ “

Blood and ugliness has been erased,
washed from the street,
but the pavement will never be fully cleansed
or innocent again.

Perhaps the group is standing on the very place that he died.

His body on the pavement, unable to sustain the beating.

And somewhere in this city a wife
and two children sift through grief.

The produce company where he worked
has a newly sharp vacancy.

The unassuming neighborhood,
houses with sagging porches,
windows covered in shades and shutters
looks on.

A few curious cars creep by,
wondering at the group of church-goers
who look at the ground,
anywhere but each other,
because death is just too close right now.

The Bible-reader feels like giving up,
but something bubbles up in her voice,
pushing back despair and helplessness
so that the words continue to drift over the
hearers.

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The pastor prays for God
to embrace the victim, the human, with mercy and peace.
“I’ve been waiting for him to come home,” the victim’s neighbor stutters
as the pastor pulls her into an embrace.

A breath, a pause, and the people
walk back down the
cracked sidewalks that have seen more violence
than they ever should.