Several weeks ago, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, the voting body, gathered in New Orleans to conduct the business of the church. There was also a parallel assembly, The Grace Gathering. The Grace Gathering was organized to include those who were not voting delegates, but like them, share an interest in the future of the church.
I lead a workshop with the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Ishler introducing, “How to Have Helpful Conversations About Race” the new anti-racism curriculum developed by Deacon Inez Torres Davis for the Women of the ELCA, to an overflow crowd. People are not ignorant to the rise of “civil wrongs” of late. So many came open and curious because in this day and age, Lutherans can no longer default to “quietism.” Quietism has set our denomination on the wrong side of history on many societal shifts and social movements. Predictably, during Q & A, a noisy minority of one raised his voice with factoids. He said that he had “done some reading and was somewhat of an expert.” I was curious, because I have found that experts rarely trumpet their expertise, their works precede them. This gentleman had “nary” a receipt. He appeared older, White and male. His tone was argumentative. He was insistent the factoids he offered were Gospel truths even when politely challenged by anti-racism educators. Hey, Lutherans are polite if nothing else. Ever hear of Minnesota nice? Some of my Lutheran cousins have that on lock. I explained to him that this workshop was designed to help people enter helpful conversations on race. He demonstrated before those gathered how not to go about it. After exchanging a few more words, quoting Jesse Williams in his BET (Black Entertainment Television) acceptance speech, I invited him to “SIT. DOWN.”
“If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique for our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions for those who do. Sit down.”
Let me exegete “SIT. DOWN.” Two small words but together in the Black church context those words are packed with significant meaning. During testimony time, when someone was particularly long-winded, the pastor might ask them to “have a seat.” Everyone knew the subtext was “stop talking.” But the church mothers, who donned white from head to toe on first Sundays and smelled of Jergen’s lotion were audibly heard to say, “SAUT DOWN,” vocal stress on the word “down.” When the elders spoke those words, the orator sat down immediately. It could mean “sit down and not another word from you” or “sit down and listen.” My elders were fond of saying, “Sad down and listen. You might just learn something.”
I’m in the “sit down and listen” camp. There is healing in the sit down and listen camp. The day before my presentation, I attended the Experiential Learning Track: From the Doctrine of Discovery to #Black Lives Matter. The leaders anticipated 80 attendees, 294 people showed up. Fortunately, there was room for all. I “sat down” in the back of the room on the floor. The Rev. Jesse Jackson just happened to be in New Orleans greeting other denominational bodies convening at the simultaneously. He extended us that courtesy. It was a powerful gesture. In his signature fashion, he helped the gathered assembly to see the Black Lives Matter in the historical context dating as far back as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Then he took a gracious leave. Then our presenters continued teaching about the Doctrine of Discovery.
I noticed throughout the presentation an older, White man sitting in a chair a couple of rows ahead. His body language was captivating. My colleague and I could see him processing this new information. When he heard how the Doctrine of Discovery continues to impact society, I saw him place his hand over his mouth and then rub the furrows on his forehead. His body was like a see saw. He would lean in to absorb information then lean back, when repelled by horror of it all. Clearly he was being disabused of popular historical myths. Clearly, this new “discovery” stirred something deep within him. Now that he has a new interpretative lens, perhaps he will see the news of the Standing Rock Resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline differently. Make no mistake, history is being made.
Two older white guys went to a church gathering. Sounds like the beginning of a joke but it is no laughing matter. One had to be told to SIT. DOWN. The other came to sit down and listen. Let’s be clear, both of these old White men will vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Pastor Angela Shannon is the Associate Pastor at King of Glory Lutheran Church. King of Glory is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is located in Dallas, Texas. She is an “ambivert” Benedictine oblate, active contemplative who enjoys “people time” as well as solitude.
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