Nine years ago, I was about to move away from the reassuringly-Lutheran walls of Valparaiso University (after a brief time there as a post-doc) and the no-less-Lutheran fields, farms, churches, and rhythms of the surrounding countryside. I was moving to the American South to start a new position as professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, an interdenominational seminary on the campus of Samford University, a Baptist institution in Birmingham, Alabama. I expected a very different world—different not only from the New England setting where I had felt so at home during my graduate studies and early pastorate, but also unlike the familiar, even if at times rather nationalistically-flavored, Lutheranism of the Midwest.
What I was bracing myself for, however, wasn’t all yet. More surprises still awaited me. I was nearly done boxing my library when I received a phone call—an accentual culture shock if there ever was one!—from a Lutheran congregation in Birmingham. I remember it taking me a moment to grasp exactly what was being asked of me. My interlocutor showed remarkable patience and persistence, even when I was ready to throw in the towel. That in itself was testimony to the urgent desire that was being relayed to me. The congregation, Saint Paul, needed a pastor; they couldn’t quite afford one; a worker-priest was their only option; would I be their pastor; oh, they were an African American congregation—would that be a problem? I had no time to ponder how they’d managed to track me down. Despite the strange accent, or perhaps precisely because of it, this felt like a truly divine call!
Nine years later, I certainly know my bearings better. For one thing, the accents, together with the very human expectations, joys, anxieties, and sorrows wrapped up in them, don’t throw me off guard. Together, we’ve also been through a lot—the ups and downs of congregational life in an urban setting where most white folks don’t venture, and in a neighborhood which itself has long been in transition, or disarray, or may actually have just turned the corner, but barely, tough to tell. Even though I can’t quite call this my Bonhoefferian moment, since I didn’t seek the situation out, I am immensely grateful.
First and foremost, I have learned an awful lot. I don’t mean simply getting the hang of the practical aspects of congregational life, such as expanding my pastoral catalogue of cultural pitfalls, human needs, and Christian responses thereto, or navigating both chanted liturgies, so familiar to me from Europe, and African American spirituals, and spirituality. Rather, thanks to the witness of the good people of Saint Paul, I have, in serving them, found much theological food for thought—of the sort, I believe, that is not irrelevant for our present cultural and political moment. Even more than that, in mulling over the experience, I have come to realize that it places our very identity on the line.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of the Lutheran Forum.