Lutherans tackle racism in church

Hickory, USA — Racism is still a problem in North Carolina's Lutheran churches, said church leaders and members of a diversity-minded task force Thursday during the first session of the N.C. Synod Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The African Descent Outreach Strategy Team chose the theme for this year's assembly — "Preparing for the Heavenly Feast: All Races, One Church" — as a call to church leaders and members to embrace diversity.

"Racism is currently a problem in the church," said Manisha Dostert, a task force member and ordained minister who delivered Thursday's afternoon sermon to the crowd of 699.

"The (Lutheran church) is 96 percent white, and there's a reason for that," she said. "There's a history of segregation and slavery."

According to 2003 statistics, of the more than 87,000 N.C. Synod members, 604 were African American, 141 were Hispanic, 195 were Asian and 64 were Native American.

Diana Haywood, task force leader and representative from the Church of the Abiding Savior in Durham, said the assembly's "heavenly feast" slogan would draw attention to that problem.

"It's good to have this theme, so people will know that everybody is invited to the heavenly feast," she said.

"It will also point out that everybody hasn't always been welcome."

The Rev. Dr. Leonard H. Bolick, bishop of the N.C. Synod, said this year's assembly will address multiculturalism because of the state's changing demographics.

"We, as Lutherans, have not done very well in reaching out to those who are not Anglo," he said.

In less than 30 years, North Carolina's population will be one-third Latino, one-third African-American and one-third Caucasian, Bolick said.

Yet the church is just beginning to take note, said Linda Norman, another member of Abiding Savior Church.

"This assembly is planting the seeds of change," she said.

Lenore Wilkinson-Watson, a task-force member from Charlotte, said the future, as well as the Lutheran Church's past, is a reason to embrace diversity.

"I don't think that the majority community of Lutherans understands the long history of blacks as Lutheran members," she said.

Despite widespread awareness of the problem, steps forward have been few and far between, she said.

"It's been kind of stagnant," Wilkinson-Watson said. "What causes amazement is, why do we continue to not make a lot of progress?"

The Rev. Dr. Carl Sachtleben, senior pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Salisbury, said a history of self-segregation has hindered progress.

"We were and we are an immigrant church," he said. "We associated in communities of people like ourselves, and our attention was on immigration and not integration."

Some difficulties have been different worship styles and different housing patterns, Sachtleben said.

In addition, integration takes time, he said. "Part of the dynamism of Americanism is that it's a melting pot," he said.

"But it takes a while for immigrant groups to become part of that melting pot."

Dostert said it's time to speed up the process. "I hope that pastors make steps to open their eyes," she said.

"I really think and hope that all Lutherans in North Carolina deeply hope to be with their black brothers and sisters."

The creation of the strategy team two years ago represented a move toward the right direction, she said.

The team drafted a plan for better integration tactics, which it presented at last year's Synod Assembly.

Among other points, the strategy includes adding minority membership, listening to current members and building leaders in minority communities, Haywood said.

The progress of the church and task forces — both African American and Hispanic — will be celebrated during Friday's session of the assembly.

And although there is much work to be done, the outlook is not as bleak as it could be, Dostert said.

"It's a huge deal to have the assembly's theme based on this issue," she said. "It's an admission of the church that this is important."

Bolick said leaders are beginning to make changes, too. In the past six months, for instance, places for Lutherans to worship in Spanish have been established.

"We are prayerfully spending time thinking of how we can do things better," Bolick said.

For now, a discussion of multiculturalism in the assembly is a good place to start, Haywood said.

"We are able to highlight our strategy with the Synod Assembly to build a vision of the heavenly feast," she said.

"There's a feast going on now — we just have to invite people."