For the last few years, I’ve been coming to terms with a couple related realities. First, I am a white male pastor in what is pretty much the whitest denomination in the country. Second, I am getting old enough that I am being keenly aware that I will soon be passing on the mantle of church leadership to another generation.
As we were leaving the 2018 ELCA youth gathering in Houston and settling in for what would be an 18-hour non-stop drive to get back to Iowa, we passed a statue of an old Sam Houston along I-45. We didn’t stop. The almost 70 foot tall, whitewashed likeness of the person who the city was named was literally a concrete reminder of what I had been thinking about the past week at the gathering, and for the last couple years: what should the role of an old white man be in this church, and particularly in this denomination?
On Saturday night, the opening speaker was Stephen Bouman. He is a man of good reputation, a former bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod. He was in his office in the city when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He was present at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath. It was a fine talk, but as he acknowledged—most of the youth present had not even been born yet…
Rebekah Brusehoff, an 11-year-old transgender girl with purple hair, followed Bouman. The fact that an 11 year old could stand in front of a crowd of 30,000 is amazing, but that she could articulately talk about what it was like to be born a boy, but be a girl was astounding. The theme for the event was “This Changes Everything,” I found myself thinking that while the planes crashing into the World Trade Center changed the world, hearing from an 11 year old transgender girl was changing everything. Close, but not the same. I found myself thinking that us “old white men” need to start listening more and talking less.
On Sunday morning, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached a good sermon on the difficult text of Jarius’ daughter and the women with a flow of blood. It was a good sermon following the reading of the text from the Gospel of Mark. It was a good message in the usual place and how we usually do things in church.
Then all of a sudden, Savanna Sullivan was on stage. It was a place in the service where someone normally does not deliver a message. She introduced herself as a former Young Adult in Global Mission. She talked about the time 3 years ago when in the summer after being assigned to a year in Rwanda, she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder. Her doctors suggested that she stay home. She described a conversation with her father, where he asked if she was willing to die in Rwanda. It was a question she could not answer. Savanna said that while she wished she could have answered yes, it was not the answer that came to her. She said she cried ugly tears that night and the answer came to her: going to Rwanda was not something she was willing to die for, it was something she was willing to live for.
In this juxtaposition, I found myself realizing that not all the “old white man” are actually men. There is an establishment of power that gives privilege to some, myself included. It is not always a power that is abused and I certainly did not think that listening to Elizabeth and Stephen. Yet, if the Gathering showed me anything, it was that we ought not presume to speak for others; instead, we need to empower them to speak.
One of the many people I ran into at the Gathering was my dear friend AJ. I remember the conversation when she was discerning that God might not be calling to use her finance degree to sit in an office and just make money. I remember her YAGM experience. I remember marrying her and her wife Carley a couple years ago. I remember being careful not to ask the bishop’s permission. I remember not being the most forthright about her sexual orientation when she came to preach at the congregation I am currently serving. It was not really my truth to tell, it is theirs!
But here is the important thing I know about AJ–I know that she will change things, and she already is! She is in the middle of a growing place in the church. I, on the other hand, am an old white man, who has been contemplating retirement. I look too much in the past… If I am to be of value, I will have to empower what comes after. I remember my father-in-law after he retired from ministry saying how glad he was he was not in the middle of all of the church changes that were happening at the time. I remember being a bit offended, because I was in the middle of my ministry and so in the middle of the issues. Now that I am near the end (I will not work until I am 80 like he did!), but also because I do suffer from the white, male power and privilege reality, I am in need of figuring out how to empower and how not to pronounce. The problem is that proclamation is not all that far from pronouncement, and one can easily become the other. This is a learning place for me…