Late last week, Pastor Paul and I headed into Manhattan and the Inner church building to enjoy the Urban Leaders Institute, a conference organized and run by the Black Pastors group of the Metropolitan New York Synod. ¬†I, sadly, was only allowed to attend two out of the three days (day one was only for clergy it seems). ¬†Around 100 people registered for the event.
Day Two (but day one for me) started with breakfast which is always a good way to start a conference. The fact that I ate breakfast before I came did not stop me from buying everything I could. ¬†Well, that’s not entirely true. I would pick up a bottle of diet coke (nectar of the gods) and a piece of fruit. ¬†The cashier would always hesitate to ring me up, stare me straight in the eye and go “that’s it?” ¬†I love commentary with my dining choices.
What’s great about this kinds of conference is, for me at least, isn’t the workshops or the keynote speakers or the like. ¬†What I love is meeting different pastors and lay leaders – hearing stories and struggles and the struggles pastors have leading their congregations. ¬†This is research for me. ¬†Since the conference was organized by the Black Pastors (and the Asian Pastors were in attendance as well), I got a window into a world that I will be entering in four years. ¬†The ELCA is not a racially diverse organization – the Metropolitan New York Synod’s diversity is an exception to the rule. ¬†The struggles of race permeate through the entire organization – from individual congregations through interaction with the bishops office and church wide. ¬†And much of it is coached in the language of black struggles since before the days of civil rights. ¬†It was quite interesting to see the fact that the Latino Pastors were not in attendance, that the third day of the conference was less well attended than the first, and – in the stories with the individual pastors – how congregations do self-segregate. ¬†I find all of this fascinating and it will always be a big part of my future ministry.
One other thing that I love seeing what the different languages that were being spoken at the conference. I don’t mean that spanish was heard or korean or anything like that. Rather, the black cultural religious experience was on full display. The names of big black pastors were dropped easily, with the assumption that everyone in attendance would know who was being talked about. Bishop was a common descriptor of pastors by other people. ¬†The use of praise and worship songs, the call-and-response preaching style, and the active participation of the congregations were all part of a language that I don’t experience quite often. And it’s all a language I love to be a part of. ¬†Many years ago, when I first began church shopping, I attended a black baptism/pentecostal church for several months. Three hour long services, call and response, lots of shouts of “Amen!” and Amen being used as a language convention like “right?” – I enjoy it. ¬†It wasn’t where I was called to be but that’s okay – the service was always fun for me.
Pastor Iglata, in his sermon during opening service, mentioned something that drew me in for a moment and leads into something I’ve thought about quite a bit recently. ¬†As long as Jesus is being proclaimed, how the service works isn’t THAT important. ¬†I, personally, go to a high church Lutheran service. ¬†It is how I prefer to worship. ¬†But the low church service down the street or the luther-costal service out on Long Island doesn’t mean that my church experience, what I need, is everything that everyone needs. ¬†The Church is large enough to include what I need. ¬†And that’s a comforting feeling. ¬†That, to me, is the important of being at the Urban Leaders Institute. ¬†It’s a reminder of how BIG the church is – the variety of worship, of views on leadership, and on different ways to praise and proclaim Jesus. ¬†But the church is also very small – something that I experienced in spades while at the conference. The Black Pastors group opened up to me, supported me, and gave me a million pieces of advice before I head off to seminary in 3 weeks. ¬†I might have experienced something many seminarians don’t but I did feel like the pastors actually cared about me and want me to succeed. ¬†The future pastoral leaders of the church need that kind of support – a support that comes from the ministerium and not just one individual pastor or their own congregations. ¬†It’s a big affirmation of calling, of direction, and purpose.