Alumna Rozella White describes her pioneering ELCA work with millennials in today’s world
White also speaks poignantly about serving as an African American executive in a predominantly white denomination
The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) alumna Rozella White (MAR, 2010) wrote in a recent blog post (and follow up) that she considers herself “a bit of a unicorn — a Black Puerto Rican, third generation Lutheran. I was baptized, confirmed, married, educated, and called to ministry in this church [the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America].”
She was awarded her Master of Arts in Religion from LTSP with concentrations in pastoral care and counseling. She majored in sociology in college and for two years has served the ELCA as its Program Director for Young Adult Ministry, helping the denomination in its search for relevancy among millennials like herself, young adults aged 18 to 30 who feel out of touch with the church. Her journey the past two years has been “exciting.” She describes her pioneering role in the church denomination she loves as having a three-fold emphasis.
She has first worked externally (outside the church) to establish a networking platform to help young adults explore faith formation, discernment, identity, and leadership development. (This emphasis came to her with no roadmap or blueprint, and it has not always gone as she thought it would.) Internally, she has helped colleagues in Chicago to network more effectively amongst themselves about the many ways they have ministered with young adults in areas like stewardship and global ministry. She’s been part of a “strategic administrative table” focused on how to develop ministry with young adults and give support to young adult development. Thirdly, she has been a staff advisor for a multicultural leadership event in advance of this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering, which is happening this week in Detroit with 30,000 youth and youth leaders in attendance. A concern for the multicultural event preceding the Youth Gathering has been to figure out how to do a better job of formation with young people of color.
“There were always small pockets of communities of color within the denomination and people of color who were members of largely white congregations,” White wrote in the recent blog. “But as a whole we have not been good at addressing the cultural divisions that our church continues to embody.” She recalled in the blog that when the denomination formed in 1988 a goal was to attain a 10 percent membership of people of language and color within 10 years. The ELCA never achieved that goal, and White acknowledges that members in that profile have been declining in recent years.
White mentions in the blog that “I’ve been ignored in congregations that I go to visit until people realize ‘who I am’.” And she noted, “I’ve been asked when I became Lutheran because surely a black woman could not be born into this tradition… I’m always cognizant of the way I present myself in mostly white spaces. I think about who’s going to be there, what expectations they might have, how I talk about race and politics, what I wear, what my facial expressions are, and how I am present… I know without a shadow of a doubt that there are at least two worlds that exist — the white world and the world of people of color. We have to translate language, social norms, and behaviors in order to ‘fit in’ and survive.”
In her blog she writes poignantly and powerfully about the events of the Emanuel AME Church mass murders in Charleston, South Carolina, involving the young white supremacist perpetrator who is a member of an ELCA church and who committed the murders during a Bible study in which two of the participants were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, a sister school to LTSP. (See the blog link below.)
In a July 7 interview offered as she prepared for the Detroit Youth Gathering, Rozella White talked about some impressions she has formed as she has addressed her work since 2013.
- “It is no longer relevant to think in terms of ‘bringing millennials into’ our church. We need to be involved in some divine risk-taking that reimagines new ways of being.”
- “Millennials have an entrepreneurial, creative spirit,” White maintains. “They want to be connected to something that matters to them, that leads them into a different way of life and that impacts their community in positive ways. Most of them don’t see the church in that way. “
- “We have done a crappy job of storytelling,” White contends. “If we can’t talk (easily) about who God is, why God matters to us, and how God has changed our lives, then it will be hard for people to see that our church is relevant.”
- “The structure of the church makes no sense to millennials,” White said. “Millennials will not sit in church with people who all look the same and don’t engage (in ministry) with the community around them. That makes no sense to them. They will decide Sundays are for brunch.”
- Millennials do not think “silo-like” about issues of justice. Rather they think about matters in an “intersectional way,” she said. “They are looking for a platform that gives them resources to consider issues of racism, gender equality, immigration, world hunger, Native peoples who live on reservations, economics, mass incarceration, and the environment. They are interested in all of those aspects rather than focusing on one of them.” She said that in offering a relevant platform through her networking efforts, she works hard at forming a faith-based Lutheran lens for it all, “one that explains who God is and who Jesus is.”
- The platform for her work has included an annual trip for young adults to visit the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Another program has been the “Peace Without Walls” campaign, which has brought 16 young adult leaders from eight ELCA synods to the Middle East to consider the issues involving Israelis and Palestinians. LTSP alumnus Ray Ranker has also offered leadership to this initiative. White has been impressed that the young leaders have written not only about Middle Eastern politics as a result of their visit, but also about issues such as race and housing in their own home context as a result of their learning. Also of value has been “Faith Online” conversations in the aftermath of Ferguson, White said. “People are looking for an authentic place to converse about such issues,” and she said she believes that is a place for the church to be.
- “I am deeply thankful to the staff and faculty at the seminary for the rich tapestry of my educational experience,” White said. She praised the diverse perspectives and experience afforded to her by Professors Stephen Ray, David Grafton, Katie Day, Pamela Cooper-White, and Storm Swain. A 2009 seminar experience in Egypt profoundly influenced her, she said.
- White said that she hopes the current teaching approach at LTSP incorporates into the daily teaching approaches the chance to thoughtfully reflect about the justice issues of the day, such as seen across today’s headlines. She said she favors that approach over single events, such as an anti-racism workshop, which during her student days she felt was always a “hit or miss” thing.
- She urged the seminary to contemplate an expanded approach to webinars or web-based initiatives to reach out to alumni and church leaders concerned to deal meaningfully with a congregation-based responses to events like the Charleston mass murders tragedy. “I spoke this week to a pastor in Iowa who said she is not sure how to address effectively her white congregation about such events,” White said. “Pastors and leaders need to know they are not walking alone in trying to effectively respond. They need support and encouragement.”