Augustine, bishop of Hippo, 430; Moses the Ethiopian,monk, martyr, c. 400
August 28, 2020
Dear ULS community:
Another tragic and senseless shooting of an African American man by law enforcement this week, this time in front of his young children, has once again sparked outrage around the country,and convulsed a community. I ask that you take a moment to read my statement on the ULS Facebook page and join me in prayer for Mr. Jacob Blake and his family and community. Once more we are confronted with the deadly realities of racism in our land, and our hearts ache again. How long, O Lord, how long?
Of course we don’t have to look faraway to find evidence of racism’s tragic legacy: Pennsylvania has its own stories, too, and even our seminary’s history is clouded by the racism experienced by some of its own students, faculty, and staff. In my short association with ULS (two years as a board member and almost a month as president),I have heard several stories of the negative experiences of ULS community members of African descent.
I regret that, for our whole community’s sake, and take it very much to heart. The work of being anti-racist has not been fully understood in our community, and it still remains work to which we at ULS need to commit more fully. I will confess my own shortcomings in this regard, and though there is intersectionality that cuts across racial and identity lines, being mixed-race myself or from a marginalized community does not make me immune to the racism laced through our society. This week has also been painful for Native communities, as once again—in the execution on Wednesday of a Navajo citizen in spite of that community’s opposition to the death penalty—our Federal government has shown unwillingness to honor agreements it has made with Native nations.
On this day in the church’s calendar when we remember two great African saints, Augustine of Hippo (from present-day Algeria) and Moses of Ethiopia (usually called “Moses the Black”), we are reminded that the gospel we cherish and the theology we study are not just white or European but universal—we have learned from Christian witnesses of every epoch,race and nation—and today we join across the globe in the same song of praise.Especially during the global pandemic, the efforts of Lutheran Christians of every nationality and race has drawn us closer together as a communion of churches, as we work together to reduce infection rates.
While I have had a full schedule of activities this past week in many areas of the community’s life, and today am on the Gettysburg campus, I want to devote most of today’s message on steps ULS is taking to confront and combat racism. Even before the events in Kenosha, I had a meeting with the ULS student government in which we discussed ULS’s ongoing efforts to resist racism within our community
In that meeting the student leaders presented to me (and Dean Sebastian later) a letter describing a number of areas of work that still remain open to us to do, including a reexamination and intensification of regular anti-racist training across the ULS community, the promotion of diverse and anti-racist pedagogy and curriculum, the appointment of a staff person on campus to guide diversity and anti-racism work as a core aspect of our mission, and to efforts to recruit a more diverse faculty. I believe that the text of the letter was made available to ULS students. I have forwarded it to faculty and staff. I am grateful for it, and have told the student government so, though I will make a more formal public response next week.
Each of the goals the letter emphasizes is something to which ULS is already committed, and the more immediate ones (a review of our anti-racism training and the appointment of a diversity officer) I believe can move forward this semester. I have begun conversation with faculty about how anti-racism training fits into our degree and certificate programs, and what the best ways might be to undertake curricular and pedagogical review. Together with the Board and faculty, we can work on the more long-range effort to diversify our faculty as resources become available and positions open up.
I think that even within the financial constraints the seminary continues to face (and which have been exacerbated by the pandemic), we can take meaningful steps forward on man parts of this very soon. It is important to me to do so, and I know that the Board of Trustees supports these efforts too. The campus-wide Diversity and Equity Task Force will also re-convene in the next two weeks to re-organize itself and discuss next steps it can take moving forward.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew 16, Jesus predicts his own suffering and death, and calls on his followers to take up their crosses, and to follow him. Each time another painful racial injustice comes to our national attention, we are called—as Christians and as neighbors—to take up our own shared responsibility for the unjust social and economic conditions prevailing in our nation, and the racism that lies at their root. Especially in an election year, we need to engage in reflection—and in action—that provides a Christian response to injustice among us and in our nation as a whole.
Jesus’ call to sacrificial service to neighbor in that gospel lesson is a powerful encouragement to us in times of division and challenge to think and act in ways that lift up the weak and the disadvantaged. I hope it provides us with inspiration to live justly and show mercy in the community we share.
Grace and peace,
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary