Four years ago my service in the office of bishop began with the murder of five law enforcement officers protecting a peaceful protest in Dallas. It was a protest of communal anger and frustration at the shooting deaths of two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, by law enforcement officers who later were either acquitted or not charged. During the protest Dallas Law Enforcement officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patricio “Patrick” Zamarripa were targeted and murdered by Micah Johnson. This act of domestic terror took an emotional toll on the DFW community and reminded us of the dangers law enforcement officers take on as part of their sworn duty to protect and serve all the public.
Today our nation is once again witnessing collective frustration and anger. The murder of George Floyd by law enforcement officers in Minneapolis, caught in gruesome detail, demands a visceral response from us all. This murder and the rage simmering from years of unequal treatment for marginalized communities has generated protests, many peaceful, as well as rioting and clashes between police and protesters. White supremacist groups have been seen infiltrating communities along with other extremist groups sowing additional seeds of discord and distrust in an effort to achieve their ideological ends. All of this within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has put a particular strain on national institutions and society creating moments of intense dissonance and question.
While these moments have created immense pain and confusion, we have also seen great joy. There is great joy seeing Holy Trinity Lutheran in South Minneapolis open its doors to serve and provide respite for protesters and neighbors as have congregations in many cities. Across the country we see neighbors protecting local businesses from looters bent on destruction and then in the morning joining together to clean the streets and provide food and supplies for families. The church stands at the center of many of these actions across our country.
On Monday evening in Washington, D.C., federal and local police used force to physically clear away clergy and others from the steps of the parish house of St. John’s Episcopal Church without permission from the diocese or bishop. This action was taken to provide space for the President to have a photo taken in front of a church sign and boarded up building that had been damaged by fire during protests. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church stated, the President used the church for partisan political purposes in a time of deep national pain. As a pastor and bishop I could not help but be disturbed at this disrespect and lack of concern for the clergy and members of this historic congregation where every president since James Madison has worshipped.
Emotions and feelings are inflamed in this time. These dissonant scenes also show the importance of the church to both the political and civil realms of our society. While we may often feel, in our secularized world, that the church has no clear place, in this moment, with the nation engulfed in crisis, the church is a community where people turn for help or seek to be affiliated with.
The events of July 2016 prompted my first pastoral letter to you as bishop, a communal service of lament and mourning at Shepherd of Life, Arlington, and a number of community events held in churches across DFW in which we engaged issues of race, policing, and violence in our communities. That work has continued through our NT-NL Public Witness team, the priority I have placed on gathering our historic African descent congregations together, and our 2019 fall leadership convocation focused on anti-racism that many of you attended. All of this has been good. But it is, I realize, not nearly enough. As I wrote last Monday members of the body of Christ are hurting and when one member hurts the entire body hurts. So what then are you and I to do?
My intended message to you today was to be this blog. It asks questions that you as a leader in NT-NL need to be asking about your leadership, your community, God’s presence in your midst, and how you will move forward. Questions that invite you not to waste this crisis moment but to learn and grow from it. Given the shaking of the foundations of our communities and nation that these protest movements and COVID-19 have caused these questions may seem premature. Yet it is essential for you as leaders to act in the current situation, be fluid in your leadership and objectives, but also to continue to look beyond the current crisis into the future. This is one of the lessons I learned in 2016 and something I will be asking you, our leaders, to prioritize in this time.
We have resources and a Word for this time. A Word against the wheel of constant marginalization and separation. A Word the world values enough that in the midst of crisis our civic and political communities look for the church: for comfort or for affiliation. We are not irrelevant. We have this Word for today: God’s way of justice and radical honesty about institutional and systemic bias. As a member of The ELCA Conference of Bishops I have affirmed our stand against systemic racism and the ideologies of white supremacy that feed it. As NT-NL leaders, you and I are called to do that work together so that our evangelical witness is authentic and true to the gospel.
The Pentecost moment demonstrates God’s vision of the church is not racially or culturally homogeneous. God’s vision is multi-lingual, multi-national, and for all. If our church’s evangelical work results in congregations that remain homogeneous then we must examine the institutional and systemic structures in ourselves that make that so. This is work you and I have to do, the world is looking for us to do it, and the God of Pentecost has sent the Spirit to encourage it.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic I remarked we are leading in a generational moment. That generational moment has been amplified by the continued exposure of the cracks and fissures in our society, exemplified in the murder of George Floyd. In this generational moment, we as the church have a role to play. As your bishop and synod staff we have resources to assist you and your congregation in this time. Most of all know that you and your community are in our prayers and God’s Spirit is upon us. The gift of Pentecost, the promise of Holy Trinity, is that we do this #InMissionTogether.
Bishop Erik K.J. Gronberg, PhD