#decolonizeLutheranism ∞ A Namibian Story

The moment I first knew I would probably end up Lutheran was in the shade of the Inner City Lutheran Church in Windhoek, Namibia.

I had finally escaped from the hot African sun, and I was standing just inside the sanctuary — listening to The Reverend Ngenokesho Nakamhela preach in a stunning and fluid mix of Ovambo, Afrikaans, and, every once in a while, (was it hospitality directed at me, the white guy in the room?), English.

I stood around near the exit. At 20 years old, I wasn’t particularly religious — and learning about what “Christians” had done in this country which had labored for generations under de facto rule by the white supremacist apartheid regime of South Africa did not help matters — and so I hung back.

The pastor also doubled as part of the family who was hosting me in Katatura (one of Windhoek’s townships) and so I was mostly at the church that morning as a way to avoid being rude to my gracious host.

Myself and my host family in Windhoek, Namibia — the Nakamhela family (2003).

Katatura, home base for The Rev. Nakamhela, is an Otjiherero phrase that translates roughly as no place, which was created in an all-too-familiar African story: forced removal of the black population from the central part of the city by the white minority.

The main thrust of the sermon (from what I could gather) was the act of naming that the kingdom of God did not differ than much from Katatura, except in one radical way — the places where the world did not want to live were precisely the places where God unapologetically set up home base.

After the sermon had ended, my fundamentalist Christian upbringing fooled me into thinking the worship was almost over. I mean, what else was there?

That’s when Inner City Church transitioned into the Eucharist, something I had experienced only a handful of times in my life (mostly when I sucked it up and went to Sunday evening worship at Texas Lutheran University), and I suddenly found myself joined by many others in the back of the sanctuary.

I looked around and saw a line begin to emerge, out the door, down the street, even around the corner. People waiting. Emerging from the neighborhood. Looking to be fed.

That’s because once communion was finished, the table would then become a literal soup kitchen — feeding people in entirely different, and yet incredibly similar, ways.

Sharing in the Lord’s Supper in this packed room with other God-breathed people, I had what I’ve begun to describe as a mystical experience. I still don’t know what I happened. I just know that when I went back to stand near the exit of the sanctuary, I was crying.

This was my entry into the world of Lutheranism.

This was my experience of what some are calling #decolonizeLutheranism.

This particular Lutheran community wasn’t Lutheran because of potluck dinners or Scandinavian jokes or German piety.

It was Lutheran because of the radical news that we are fed by God at the table, given the free gift of grace to go out into the world, and to work for justice and peace. Right here; right now.

When I returned to the States at the end of 2003, I began a journey that saw my ordination as a Lutheran pastor in 2010.

As a Texas native who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community, I have never really fit into the dominant Lutheran identity in the United States — and I’m still a white, straight, cisgender man.

The aim of #decolonizeLutheranism seeks to dismantle the (Northern) Eurocentric dominant narrative of a church that the latest Pew Research Center report named as a community that is whiter than the Mormons — even though, in 1990, the newly-formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made such lofty goals as committing to be a church whose membership included 10% people of color in the course of ten years. We are now in our twenty-seventh year.

We must stop pretending that to be Lutheran means exclusively to know who Ole and Lena are; or to enjoy listening to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion; or to wade through the cultural milieu of a lutefisk dinner; or to jokingly refer to the “frozen chosen.” We. Must. Stop.

Let’s put it another way — we must stop pretending that to be Lutheran means to exclusively look, act, or otherwise identify as white.

We have work to do, people of God. And #decolonizeLutheranism is an important part of that work. Join us.