I began my religious journey in an ELCA predecessor Lutheran church body. It was there that I first encountered one of the chief theological tenets of the church embodied in a young white pastor who was sent to start a congregation in the all-black community of the southern city where I grew up.
Little did he know that his life and witness of God’s grace and unconditional love planted seeds in me that would one day lead me to follow the call to ordained ministry.
I have been a pastor for almost 30 years, but the lessons that I learned from that mission developer I have never forgotten.
Grace is important
As to the theology of grace, God’s unconditional love as expressed in Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection — while it has always been central to my ministry — has never been more important to give expression to than in my present ministry context where, daily, people are challenged in real and deep ways by the power of sin and where so many are bereft of spirit.
I often think of the day of my ordination and the text from Luke 4, Jesus’ inaugural sermon.
The preacher was a beloved churchman and my mentor Nelson Trout who so powerfully made that text come alive. I remember him coming down from the pulpit and standing right in front of me, looking at me with a strong compassion and asking me, “Little brother, what are you going to say to the poor down there in Jacksonville, Fla.? What are you going to say to those who are dying from genocide? Suicide, fratracide? Infantacide? Dying from everything but a natural death?”
Those questions were not unfamilar to me because I grew up at risk. I was a product of a broken home, raised by a single mother living in the daily shadows of poverty and trying to stay one step ahead. But now as a newly ordained pastor, what say you?
It has taken me 20 years to figure out how to answer those questions, but what I have learned, I’ve learned from those who walk with wounds, who live at the edge and at risk.
Serving God’s people
At Cross Lutheran Church we are privileged to walk with and serve many people who are living lives less than what God desires. They are homeless and living in poverty, with none of the safety nets that many of us are fortunate to have. But they come believing that they are worthy.
They are worthy to receive good things, good medical care, which many of them receive because of our free medical clinic, worthy to eat good, wholesome and delicious food each week as a part of our hot meal ministry, worthy to have someone fight for a good job for them, worthy to be treated with honor and respect and kindness and justice.
Powerful, relevant and life-giving
I’ve learned almost 30 years later not only what to say but how to serve. This is important for us as a congregation of the ELCA and for every congregation and every pastor of this church. When we learn, the church becomes powerful, relevant and life-giving.
I am grateful for the ELCA, for its rich theology. For grace that allows us to fail, for a faith that finds its meaning in power demonstrated in service and in suffering love.
I am grateful to God that I am where I am today, grateful that I was born when I was born, grateful for the life experiences that have shaped me, grateful that in 1962 there was a pastor who began to knock on the doors of unsuspecting people in the Georgetown neighborhood in a segregated South, grateful that my mother opened the door to him and grateful that God’s people were patient with this very new pastor who had not a clue, but who had enough faith in God to stay the course.