Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

September 18, 2020
Week of Pentecost 15

Dear ULS Community:

First, let me say how grateful I am for the many kind notes and messages I have received from those of you who are reading these weekly reflections. I have written them primarily with the campus community in mind, but broadly enough that alumni and other friends of ULS could read them and get a glimpse into what I’m thinking about our seminary and our life together. As it turns out, it is from that outer ring of our friends that I am receiving a good deal of the comment—again, I am grateful for your kind words, and even for your occasional disagreement with me. I would far rather be in conversation with you than not.

This week I have something both meaningful and joyful to lift up to our community’s attention: the 40th anniversary of the Urban Theological Institute. The result of initiatives taken by local African American clergy and brought into the former LTSP as a program to connect the seminary more deeply to the Black Church community in Philadelphia, the program is now, in its maturity, a very significant part of the mission of ULS. It is a program of which everyone in the ULS community can be proud, and I invite you to join me in celebrating its 40 years of success. In normal times, we’d have celebrated this with a festival gala dinner and public lectures and sermons, but in this time of social distancing we are having a more muted—but no less heartfelt—virtual observance.

Main events beginning on Tuesday, September 22 will include a challenging and profound lecture by the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and on Wednesday a sermon by Dr. Wesley as well, on the theme of “good trouble.” The events will culminate on Friday with a 40-minute (for 40 years!) piano concert by Scott O. Cumberbatch of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Englewood, New Jersey. Also part of the celebration is our normal ULS Wednesday worship service—Alumni Chapel Worship—which will feature ULS and UTI alumna Bishop Patricia Davenport of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA as guest preacher. She’s a preacher I try never to miss! Details for all of these events can be found under ULS.edu/UTI40. Having the events online might not be what we had hoped, but makes it possible for more people to tune in. I hope you will join me at as many of these events as you can, and join me in congratulating the Urban Theological Institute, its faculty and students, and its executive director, Dr. Quintin Robertson, for all UTI has achieved and for what it brings to us today at ULS, in metro Philadelphia, and in the wider church.

In days such as these, when racial tensions have risen and the historic, systemic racism of our societal structures is laid bare in fresh ways, it can be difficult for those of us of European descent to hear how deeply and painfully the multi-generational trauma of racism has impacted our neighbors of African and Native ancestry. It is uncomfortable to learn how much the world in which we live has been tuned to the needs of White people, and has promoted their advantage to the disadvantage of people of color. But I know that is just as painful for those who have suffered in these ways to have to explain their own suffering again and again to those who have been oblivious to it because of their privilege. How do we learn to listen to each other deeply and without defensiveness, and together acknowledge the pain of racism, and the damage that has been done to people’s lives? We are a learning community: Can we learn this? I hope so, and I trust in God to help us.

Our on-campus Diversity Task Force has been revitalized and will be meeting regularly again, beginning today. I have high hopes that it will be able to speak into our present realities in useful ways, and can help us move forward into what I hope is a more focused anti-racist future as a community. I also hope it will help give voice to other marginalized groups, including the LGBTQIA+ community. It also lies close to my heart that we reach out more into the Latinx and Native communities less well represented at ULS, but still crucial to our life together. After the Board of Trustees meeting at the end of the month, I expect to be able to appoint a Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, who will work with me, the Task Force, and all the segments of the ULS community as we all—including the Board—engage in the ongoing work of countering racism. There is much to do, but even in a pandemic we can and must push forward.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 20 is the parable of the landowner who paid his all his workers the same daily wage, even though some of them had come late and worked much less time. It’s easy to imagine the anger of those who had worked a very long day, when those who had come to work much later received every bit as much as they. The power of this parable lies right there—in that outraged sense of justice each of us carries with us, and which we are unable to lay down. In the parable, Jesus tries to teach his listeners that the mercy of God is not based on their or our “deserving” (however we imagine that) but purely, exclusively on God’s own desire to be merciful. Lutherans make much of their basic Gospel conviction that God’s grace is free and unearned, but it is far easier to claim that than it actually is to believe it. Somewhere, deep within us, we still want to hang on to our own idea of justice—somehow we still want to deserve God’s love at least a bit. And if we can’t stop judging ourselves, we can’t stop judging each other.

Let me return to the point I raised at the very beginning, about remaining in conversation across differences of perspective and opinion—especially in this time of social distancing, staying connected is vital. Even as it becomes more difficult, we have to try harder to stay connected and to listen to one another with empathy and compassion. In the next few weeks it will be even more difficult to do that, as some politicians will—with greater and greater abandon—play on our fears and anxieties, hoping to draw us more firmly into opposing camps. Indeed, on fundamental moral issues there may be little neutral ground left: racism, economic inequality, and neglect of basic human needs of shelter, food, and health care are problems that go beyond party or a single election.

But we still have to remember that divided as we may be, we remain part of a single humanity. We all cherish our children; we want to protect our homes; we long to be part of a nation of fair laws that treats us as equals, and as free and empowered people. The true tragedy would be for us to be tempted to see those who disagree with us less fully human than we are, and to forget that they are real—to make them objects we can just despise or discard. I have a low enough sense of human nature to see that temptation all around me; I know it exists even within myself, and I am trying to resist it every day.

In the short term, watching less television helps me—at least watching less news. There is a whole media industry—not to mention well-funded political strategies—which profits from keeping our outrage at a full boil, and our eyes on their screens. But few of us have the emotional stamina to stay that angry all the time, and that is probably a good thing—we were created by God for love and not for hate. History teaches us that there is a way back even from deep political division, and our nation has been even more divided in the past than it is right now. I will come back to more reflections on the election as it draws closer, and particularly on the last Friday of October. In the meanwhile, wear your masks, hold those you love close, and try not to return hate for hate. For God is with us—now as ever—and loves us all, apart from our deserving.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
President
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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