Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

September 25, 2020
Week of Pentecost 16

Dear ULS Community:

It’s been a busy week, a good week and a tough week at the same time. On the good side has been the wonderful set of events sponsored by the Urban Theological Institute for its 40th anniversary. We have had great presentations, with a powerful and stirring lecture by the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley and inspired preaching by both Dr. Wesley and Bishop Patricia Davenport of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. One more event tonight: a concert by Scott Cumberbatch of 40 minutes (for 40 years) of sacred music on the piano. Tune in on the ULS YouTube channel at 7:00 p.m. this evening and be uplifted! And please consider contributing to the UTI’s work—I have made a pledge and I hope you will, too.

Another good thing for me is that each week I continue to learn, and now feel increasingly like I know enough about my new call as ULS president to be able to make some judgments about where I need to focus my priorities, and I have figured out some ways, in spite of the COVID-19 limitations, to do that. I am also excited about the Board of Trustees meeting next week. I have always enjoyed those meetings as a board member, and though my relationship to the board has changed, I still look forward to seeing this extraordinary and extremely varied group of people who care so much about our Seminary and its future. It’s also a joy and a “good thing” to be able to bring the board a relatively positive report on ULS’s condition right now—because even as we cope with the pandemic we also have some good news—our financial situation is better this year than it has been in the recent past.

We still have much to do before we can say we are prosperous, but at least we’re stable. Like many institutions, we depend in part for our operations on income from invested endowment funds, and though I am confident in those who manage those funds, I am less confident in the financial markets and the nation’s economy right now. Our major challenge remains how hard it is to meet our expenses with our current income, and the weight of maintaining under-used property and (mostly old and inefficient) buildings when we’d like to have resources for programs, people, and innovation instead. Our costs are stable (and rise with time) but our income is variable. I am working to build and re-build relationships with donors and those on whose generosity we depend, as well as trying to use what we have as wisely as possible. The past wrestles with the future every day at ULS, and the past still has a slight advantage. But I am confident that that will change over time.

Personally, good things continue to happen to Rob and me: we move slowly but now surely toward securing a permanent home reasonably close to campus. I had hoped for a walkable distance from the Mt. Airy campus (I’m having a strong counter-reaction to years of LA commuting and spending two hours a day on the freeway) but the real estate market ruled otherwise, and our prospective home is about 15 minutes away by car (5 miles). It’s a wonderful home, perfect for two men and a parrot (and lots of guests) and we are very excited about possibly moving in in early November. We are also making progress in setting up a permanent Gettysburg home in Lewars House—but that will be a bit of a project yet. In a way, the coronavirus limitations are working to our advantage—we will likely be ready to open our home(s) to the ULS community in the same gradual way we are likely to come out of this pandemic.

That’s the good stuff; the “bad” is more general: the death of Justice Ginsburg is sad, and what that may mean in the long term for those of us who—in various ways—have depended on the Supreme Court to protect our rights. It is also troubling to see our constitutional processes unnecessarily brought into question; to hear of the ongoing meddling in our election by foreign powers antagonistic to the United States; and generally to experience the heightened tension of an ever-more-polarized nation. Last week I told you I was watching less television news as a way of coping—I may have to give up broadcast news altogether and rely on print for a while. We’re all on edge, and it’s hard not to let that generalized anxiety bleed over into everything else we do. I am resisting that, and I am firmly committed to waking up each morning “with my mind stayed on Jesus.”

Especially painful is the grief and sorrow of all who mourn Breonna Taylor and call for justice for her. We have a litany of names of those to whom justice was denied because of their race, and it reaches back centuries—but since Trayvon Martin we have been counting in a new way, and each new name echoes louder and louder, and the response is angrier and more determined. It is not just in Louisville that justice is denied; it is not just there that people are giving up on a system they could never trust to begin with. I pray that no more will be injured or killed. The death of one does not remove the pain of the death of another. Property is not sacred; the life of our neighbor is. But I respect the anger of those who rage at injustice, as I believe we all should.

When I started writing these reflections several weeks ago I thought it would be important to address questions of racial prejudice and white privilege as one of the topics important to us both in the ULS community and in the nation as a whole. I (in some unconscious way) thought race was a topic I could just take up occasionally, as needed. But then I have written about it every week. And I will continue to do so—for I have realized that my approach was just another manifestation of my white privilege. I see more clearly now not to treat race and racial prejudice like a “topic” but as a constant, inescapable, daily reality of existence. I have the luxury to move on to other subjects—but many do not.

Race, and the legacy of racism in America, is a subject that we’ll never exhaust, and a problem we will likely never completely solve. But it is, I am convinced, important for those who are white (or are seen as white—the realities of race are complicated) to understand that anyone who can look on race just as an “issue” and not as an existential reality, can’t break out of their white privilege bubble. I know I can’t break out of mine—though being Native-identified through my ancestry and upbringing puts me at least liminally (and occasionally) in a non-white space. I don’t live “on the Rez” all the time, and I have a privilege based in education and status that protects me the rest of the time.

Being gay is another liminal place—experiencing real prejudice and real hate is a terrible and life-changing thing—but even that I have not worn on my skin from my birth like racial difference, and is to some extent something I learned to manage in self-presentation, depending on how safe I feel. I am only speaking here of myself, as—in the end—none of us can do more than that. But here I stand: trying to understand and identify with the “otherness” that causes so much prejudice and pain to those different from me; trying not to claim any superior insight into the suffering others endure because of experiences I can’t share; and desiring to be part of a solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

I am working on this, and—as in this writing—doing so somewhat publicly. I do this even at the risk of looking self-indulgent to those whose suffering is acute; but I do it because I must, and also because I want others who enjoy the privilege of “whiteness” in this society to do it along with me. As I white person I don’t have to think every day about what it means to leave my home and encounter a world not designed for me; a world which has perils for others a white person can’t see. Even remembering each day (as I do) that I am also Osage doesn’t change that—the world sees me as white, and it treats me that way. Even if I would like to reject some of that privilege, I have it anyway. And I think what God calls me to do is to help others like myself “see” what the white-constructed world around us obscures: that “whiteness” is not normative, not “better,” not valuable in itself and in fact an obstacle to a more real way of seeing the world. I think of this is seeing—and showing others like me how to see—both the forest and the trees at the same time.

So I think it natural and proper for those who learn and teach and maintain a seminary for the preparation of religious leaders to cultivate a stance of humble but genuine desire to experience human life from the perspective of others—especially those different from ourselves. We move from self-centeredness to true community in doing so; but awareness of “otherness,” openness to difference, and modesty in making truth-claims are not natural to us, and fear—fear of difference, of competition, of self-doubt—gets in our way all the time.

It is my prayer for this community that it learn truly to listen to the voices of others, that it watch the signs of the times, and that it practice humility and kindness toward each other whenever it can. We are far from perfect, but we have the advantage of a shared commitment to knowing better a God who can never be completely known, and to serving an impossible, unavoidable example of neighbor-love in Jesus. This keeps us humble.

As Jesus teaches in this Sunday’s gospel story of the man with two sons, if we truly listen and believe—and then act on what we believe—we will be changed. May God bless you in the week ahead, as I offer you my own blessing.

Yours in Christ,

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

More ULS news