The Gift of Darkness
by Pastor Tim Feiertag | December 18, 2019One of the things I cherish about our ministry here at Trinity Lutheran Church is our commitment to being a place of welcome. Visitors often comment to me how warmly and genuinely welcomed they feel here. We make sure that our lifts are maintained so that people with mobility challenges can participate in all areas of our sanctuary building. Our commitment as a Reconciling In Christ congregation compels us to ensure that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions can find their place among us. We continue to seek ways that our building expresses a welcome on our behalf to the hundreds of people who meet in the church basement each week at Narcotics Anonymous and other community group meetings. Welcome is very important to how we live out our ministry together.
And yet, given the wide diversities within the human family, we know that our ability to welcome will never fully match up with God’s ability to welcome. Despite our intentions, our welcome is hollow if the other person does not feel truly welcomed for who they are as God created them to be. And so we strive to become ever more aware of the barriers that people experience in being welcomed into Christian communities in general and into our community specifically. We work at expanding our readiness to welcome whomever God might send our way.
Congregations like ours are increasingly attentive to our ability to welcome folk of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. In a 2014 Pew Research Center study, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (our denomination) was one of the least diverse denominations, with 96% of our membership being white. Our intention to welcome the full breadth of God’s beloved children has not led to actions of being truly welcoming much beyond our church’s historic origins in Germany and Scandinavia. In many and various ways, we are becoming educated to the dynamics of the sins of racism and white supremacy infecting our denomination.
As part of that education, I read the book Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. by Rev. Lenny Duncan, an ELCA pastor in Brooklyn, NY. Pastor Duncan helped me to see the insidious ways that we unwittingly reinforce messages of racial superiority. I found myself convicted as I read. Part of the problem is with our language
In scripture, we often read about light and dark, where light=good and dark=bad. In the original languages of the Old and New Testaments (Hebrew and Greek), the words for light and dark clearly referred to the presence or absence of a source of illumination. Light=in the presence of the sun or fire; dark=in the night or the shadows. But in English, those words can also refer to the intensity of color. Pink can be described as a lighter shade of red. And we can use those words to describe skin tones as well.
And in a country with a history of racially based slavery with its continuing legacy today, people of color continue to receive the message, subliminally as well as quite explicitly, that their dark skin tones make them less worthy than people with light skin tones. And those of us with lighter skin tones continue to receive the message, subliminally as well as explicitly, that our light skin tone is better, is closer to God even. This is sin which goes against the gospel message that ALL people are created in God’s image. Because the sin of racism is so sneaky, these messages get reinforced even when we don’t intend to send them. Those of us who are white are so enculturated to these messages as normal that we are often unaware when we are surrounded by them.
Pastor Duncan pointed out one place where this message is reinforced in many ELCA churches is in our liturgical garments, particularly the white robes that pastors and other worship leaders wear. Listen to how Pastor Duncan explains it: “[M]ost pastors wear a white alb or surplice while they lead worship—using whiteness to represent baptism, purity, and closeness to the creation. We’ve never stopped to ask why we equate the color white to goodness.” Pastor Duncan explained “So now I wear a black cassock when I lead worship, because whiteness does not equal holiness, and blackness does not equal evil, brokenness, or self-denial. Black is holy.”
We cannot instantly nor perfectly root out all the tendrils of racism within our denomination, within our congregation, and within our individual hearts. However, we can continue to grow in our awareness. And that awareness can inspire us to take new actions. We can repent, and we can be moved to action.
And so, having heard Pastor Lenny Duncan challenge my unexamined participation in a symbol system that does damage to the souls of many of God’s beloved children, I have committed to make at least one change. I purchased a black cassock, a liturgical robe, to expand the options I have for what I wear as I lead worship. During the season of Advent, you will see me in my black robe. Because black too is holy.
As we continue our march toward the longest night of the year, may we discover all the ways that darkness is a gift to us. In our language and in our behaviors, may we proclaim to all God’s children that they too are holy, beloved by God who made each of us in all our diversities. And may our welcome enact that same Gospel message.