Several Lutheran pastors have started a petition for a churchwide day that honors the victims of the 2015 Emanuel AME shooting but also fights the racism the pastors say exists within the Lutheran church, in which the gunman was baptized and also attended.
“If we can help in the healing of the state of South Carolina and our country as we go through these times of racial diversity, then I think our church is distinctly called to be that place to say God wants healing in the world and healing in these tragedies,” said the Rev. Michael Vinson of the Purdue University Lutheran Ministry in Indiana, who co-wrote the resolution.
The resolution for an “Emanuel Nine Feast Day” calls on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to reaffirm its commitment to repentance from racism by, among other things, venerating June 17 — the anniversary of the shooting — as a feast day of repentance in the ELCA for the martyrdom of the victims; directing the church’s Division on Worship to develop future worship prayers and litanies around repentance from racism; giving prayer and financial support for a memorial to be built in memory of the victims; and having deeper conversations with African Methodist Episcopal churches on ways of reconciliation and repentance on matters of white supremacy and racism.
Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist from Richland County, carried out the mass shooting during a Bible study at the historic African-American church in hopes of launching a race war. A jury found him guilty on 33 federal hate crimes charges and sentenced him to death in 2017.
Roof was baptized in an ELCA church and attended a Lutheran church in Columbia, according to the petition. Also, two of the nine victims — Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. and Rev. Clementa Pickney — graduated from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, according to the petition.
“Earlier in the year, some folks started talking about a way of acknowledging the ELCA’s part in the events that took place,” Vinson said of the resolution. “This is an opportunity for us to face some real facts about our part that we as a church played in this and to move to this place that our confessions call us to, this place of repentance, this place of forgiveness and being repentant in even our complacency in the events that took place.”
The ELCA, which authors of the resolution say is battling a reputation as the whitest Christian denomination, is 96% white, according to the Pew Research Center. African-Americans, Asians, Latinos and others together make up 4% of the total church population.
Vinson said the church’s racial makeup has its roots in history, with the Lutheran church starting in Germany.
“Part of the issue is, when we walk in, the assumption is that we are not Lutheran enough to be accepted into a Lutheran church,” said the Rev. Kwame Pitts of Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park in Chicago, who is African-American. “Because for many people, Lutheran means Danish, Swedish, German, Norwegian. So, it means white.”
Pitts said she’s heard stories from Lutheran people of color who attended another Lutheran church besides their own.
“And they were told at the door, ‘Oh, you must want the Baptist church down the street,” she said.
Lutherans, like any other denomination, can have different views and understandings of what their denomination looks like, Vinson said.
“I think, unfortunately, one of those things that has gotten lost in our theology is that the theology is distinctly one culture or distinctly one region of people,” he said.
Vinson refuses to refer to Roof by name because “he doesn’t deserve that.”
“For someone like the killer — the murderer — he could grow up in a church that lives in the bubble where everything looks white,” he said of the ELCA. “And if your God is white, you take that and you match that with the racist rhetoric that you receive in society. You get to this place where you can be broken, and that brokenness plays itself out in the violent act that took place.”
The resolution for the Emanuel Nine Feast Day will be presented next month at the ELCA’s churchwide assembly in Milwaukee, where Vinson and Pitts are optimistic it will get the 2/3 vote required to pass. Vinson said the real sign of support will be if the ELCA backs it financially.
The ELCA cannot comment on a pending action, but Judith Roberts, program director for racial justice ministries under the office of the presiding bishop, said the church has several projects and initiatives aimed at tackling racism and making inroads with AME churches.
Beginning on the anniversary of the shooting last month, the church started “A 60-Day Journey Toward Justice in a Culture of Gun Violence,” Roberts said. That helped segue into a discussion of racism in the church.
“What we have committed to is building relationships with historic black churches,” she said.
Local synods have made commitments to participate in anti-racism trainings and workshops, and next month the ELCA will issue a formal apology to people of African descent for the legacy of slavery and the church’s complacency.
Roberts praised the work of Bishop Herman Yoos of the South Carolina Synod, who she said has been instrumental in connecting with AME churches in the state and creating relationships with them, which included holding discussions with pastors of different races and denominations after last month’s release of the documentary “Emanuel” on the anniversary of the shooting.
The South Carolina Synod also is planning a pilgrimage in September to the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery that will include visits to various civil rights landmarks and a prayer at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” conflict.
The issues within the church that ministers hope to remedy with the resolution won’t be fixed in a year or two, they say, and the feast day needs to happen every year on the anniversary. Pitts said some in the church don’t want to talk about it, or just want to “get over it and move on.”
“We still have to confront it,” she said of racism in the church. “We still have to work on it. We can’t just bury this.”
The resolution also calls for the names of the nine Emanuel victims on future ELCA publications to venerate their martyrdom.
“For us to do that means that, annually, we are revisiting their martyrdom, that the sacrifice that was made for the life of the church — for the church to learn and move forward — will always hold value,” Vinson said. “So even 200 years from now, celebrating those nine martyrs will be a point of value even if we have obtained whatever this post-racism world looks like, that it will hold value to show us where we were and what has moved us forward.”