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Independence in Inches: A July 4th Reflection by Nathaniel Viets-Van Lear

 Independence in Inches: A July 4th Reflection by Nathaniel Viets-Van lear

For the last four years, I’ve made the same walk on Fourth of July weekend. Each walk feeling as hot as any other before it. Shoes sticking to cracked Chicago concrete. Dots of melty black asphalt. Signs of streets deserving a little tender love, as my grandma called it.


These long walks on Douglas Boulevard in North Lawndale always have something to teach me about the past. In this all-Black neighborhood, it’s a street named after a white Illinois senator, slave owner and avid advocate for slavery. One of many dark legacies in a very American city.


For the last four summers, every July Fourth weekend I walked these streets. Because I am a youth worker. And the July Fourth weekend marks the final dress rehearsal for our youth-led community walks program. A youth job program of the organization My Block My Hood My City. A program that trains young people from the west side in how to tell the stories and history of their community. They lead myself and hundreds of guests through these same steps of North Lawndale civil rights history.


Each July Fourth weekend, walking past these iconic sites of old becomes a form of timeless therapy. A reminder of time shifting while the endemic remains all too similar.


A century-old funeral home. Formerly Jewish. Currently Black-owned. Agelessly busy during the summertime.


The corner store pharmacy. Providing affordable medicine for a class in need.


A former Jewish synagogue and then Baptist church. A building that became the center of Martin Luther King Jr.’s organizing during his time in Chicago. Stone Stars of David intermixed with stained-glass crosses. An eternal center of religion and activism.


It was here that MLK organized a movement against the relegation of blacks to slums and ghettos in the city. With gentrification and segregation as prevalent now as ever before, it’s a movement to which Chicagoans of today can certainly relate.


Independence Day comes and goes. But so much remains the same.


Yet each year I still cherish my time in this space especially. This annual walk through the aged stone temple building brings visceral images to the imagination. You can almost taste 60 years ago. MLK speaking to a packed crowd of Black folks. Sweating in that Chicago heat. Folks taking significant time and significant risk to be in radical community with one another. Many of them as young as the high schoolers I work with today.


I cherish that time in that space, because it’s in that nostalgia that you feel the weight of the movement.


On July 4, 1777, our American ancestors were still struggling as slaves.

On July 4, 1877, our ancestors were new freedmen struggling to survive.

And almost 100 years after that MLK was leading our struggle for civil rights.


That struggle is in the bones of Black folk. It is in our ancestral DNA.


And where will we be on Independence Day 2065? With God’s grace, I hope to live to see it. I hope to see it and smile, as my ancestors are today watching over me as I walk these same streets. Mere footsteps on the long path to justice. Inches closer on the road to freedom.


It’s the inches that I contemplate. And it’s for the inches I celebrate. Not with a burst like fireworks and loud sparks. More like a quiet flame. That same flame I see in the eyes of our young folk. Those passionate for justice. The ones who lead the way.




Nathaniel identifies as a multiracial activist, youth social worker, facilitator and teaching artist. Born and raised in Chicago, Nathaniel currently serves as director of youth development for the organization My Block My Hood My City. He has served in various leadership roles within the ELCA, including the Lutheran Youth Organization, the Multicultural Advisory Committee, the MYLE planning committee, and GLOCAL. He served as a multicultural consultant for the ELCA  and crafted an anti-bias curriculum for the 2015 youth gathering. Nathaniel believes radical change can happen in communities with the right tools and investment.

Relearning our shared history by Linda Post Bushkofsky

I was surprised as the next person when I received the Daughters of the American Revolution History Award my sophomore year of high school. I sure wasn’t one to memorize years of battles or know which general led which brigade into war. For me, the most interesting aspect of history has always been how people led their lives. What did their homes look like? What did they eat? How did they worship? What songs did they sing?

When I think back to history as it was taught to me in the 1960s and 1970s, I’ve come to realize that I learned incomplete stories. Many of my history classes were limited to dates, military campaigns, and the like. Most, if not all, historical figures were male. And white. And as much as I like the musical “1776,” it doesn’t tell the full story of what happened as our fledgling nation sought independence from Great Britain.

So much of what actually occurred in North America was not recorded or saved. What was recorded or saved was composed by the conquerors (mostly white men). How refreshing that finally, we are learning more of the truth. We are learning what occurred from the moment Europeans landed here and brought with them enslaved people from Africa. (See the 1619 Project, for example) We are learning about forced sterilizations of Indigenous sisters and the horrible ways in which they and their brothers were forced into boarding schools, stripped of their traditions, and subjected to violence. (See Reclaiming Native Truth, for example)

No, we are not responsible for these and other historical acts. But we are responsible for what we do with the knowledge of those acts here and now in the 21st century. We are responsible for learning as much as we can and for working to change systems that unfairly advantage some and discriminate against others. Our organization, through the churchwide executive board, has committed itself to undergird our mission and ministry with three anti-racism foci: awareness-raising, accompaniment, and advocacy. The work is all ours to share, in congregational units, in synodical organizations, and in the churchwide women’s organization.

So, on this Independence Day, I encourage us all to spend some time relearning our shared history. Take time to read through five reflections written by Women of the ELCA participants as part of a study of the ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent. Review the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, adopted by both the ELCA (in 2016) and affirmed by Women of the ELCA (in 2017). It’s a start. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to do the important work individually and working together. In that way, all of God’s people can love and be loved, as Jesus teaches us.


Bio: Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director of Women of the ELCA.


My Freedom Day as a Female, Black and Queer Pastor by The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson-Byers

My Freedom Day as a Female, Black and Queer Pastor


To be a female, Black and gay pastor on “Freedom Day” necessitates a certain amount of introspection, for my relationship with the church has long been a queer dance whose steps I don’t often apprehend.


Galatians 3:28 says: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Yet this oneness has been elusive in the ELCA and elsewhere, has it not?


There are still churches in the ELCA that won’t hire a female pastor. If hired, we are required to perform femininity in a way that is acceptable to the congregation. Dress like a woman, but don’t be too sexy. Be a strong leader, but never too emotional. Love the children of our church, but don’t spend too much time with your own.


There are churches in the ELCA that won’t hire a person of color — full stop. For those that do, we are often required to perform race in a way that is “nonthreatening” to the community. Be a dynamic speaker, but don’t be too loud. We know that you are Black, but don’t be too proud. And for the love of God, don’t talk about race or white privilege — it makes people uncomfortable. After all, we’re all the same ….


Finally, we know there are churches in the ELCA that won’t hire a queer person. If they do, we are required to perform our queerness in ways that do nothing to change the community. Don’t talk about being gay. Don’t teach our children “that way of life.” Don’t do anything that would cause our church shame in the community.


So, to recap, it’s OK to be female, Black and queer in the ELCA as long as it does not make the 97% European-American demographic of our denomination uncomfortable in any way. I call Bullshit.


Juneteenth is Freedom Day. June is Pride Month. And every single day approximately half of humans are female. Many have said that “none are free until all are free.” When God said that we “are one in Christ Jesus,” it was not an invitation to be all the same. It was an invitation to truly embrace our diversity and to become the beloved community for which Jesus died and the Holy Spirit longs.


Beloveds, what would it look like for us to truly value one another’s diversity and to celebrate one another’s cultures, experiences and way of life? How might our churches be transformed if we practiced radical hospitality, welcoming all just as we would Christ Jesus? What would happen if we followed the Holy Spirit outside of the four walls of our buildings and into the community to experience life with the neighbors God has given us?


Might we learn to dance together? Might the Holy Spirit lead our steps — both in joy and sorrow, lament and justice-seeking? Would she blow among us, compelling us to insist boldly on peace with justice for all of her children? How might she guide us to stop performing “welcome” and to actually be welcoming for the sake of Christ?


John 8:36 says: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Since Christ has made us all free, let us stop shackling one another and walk in the light of freedom as one.



The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Denson-Byers hails from St. Louis, Mo. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn., in religion and African American studies. Her Master of Divinity is from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., with a specialty in worship, preaching, education, and pastoral care and counseling. Her Doctor of Ministry is in the field of congregational mission and leadership from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

Pastor Yolanda is a missional leader, with a heart for social justice issues, who has, for the last 23 years, been exercising her gifts through the vocations of pastor, evangelist, campus minister, hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor. In addition, she is very proud of her ministry as a wife and mother. Pastor Yolanda enjoys reading, writing, camping and anything pertaining to a warm climate with a saltwater beach!


A Pastor’s Reflection on The Feast Day of the Emanuel 9 by Rev. Kelly France

I had just started my car to drive to my internship site on June 18, 2015, when I learned from the radio about the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine. As I drove down the freeway and the details of this atrocious act spilled out of my speakers, I had to pull onto the shoulder and collect myself before making my way to the office for whatever meetings were scheduled that day.


The murders of nine people during a Bible study weighed on me throughout the week. That Sunday we prayed for their families. We prayed that such senseless violence would cease, that God’s vision of justice would be made manifest here and now. Then, as a worshiping body, we concluded the service and gathered for coffee.


I am a white pastor in the ELCA, the whitest denomination in the country. The man who committed the racist murders at Mother Emanuel AME is a white man who attended confirmation class in an ELCA church. This was in no way the first white supremacist terror attack on a church, but it was the one that changed me.


I wish I could say that this change was rapid, that the worshiping body and I began that coffee hour discussing how we could dismantle the machinery of white supremacy in our community. But my shaking voice and trembling knees when addressing issues that could make a majority of my congregation uncomfortable would make me a liar. The truth is that, before I could lead anything like that, I had to begin dismantling the hold that white supremacy had on me, often presenting itself as “the polite way to be in church.”


The prolific and prophetic voices of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color in this denomination remind white folks such as myself that being a faithful Lutheran has very little to do with being polite. The Holy Spirit empowers us to tell the truth. We confess that we are not going to do anything perfectly, and still we are called to be in the world, loving and supporting our neighbors. We are people who live in the unfolding kingdom of God, tasked as co-creators and stewards.


The past eight years have shown us that white supremacist violence is not going to go away simply by our earnestly hoping for it. From Charleston to Buffalo, the demonic force of racist violence continues to claim the lives of our siblings of color in this country.


As white people, we need to boldly proclaim that the end of white supremacy is our vocational calling. As a church we must continue to confess that white supremacy is intertwined in our church and our culture, and to provoke conversations on how we can change those systems. We must continue to pray for God’s justice, then unfold our hands and use them to build the world in which God calls us to live.



ELCA worship for commemoration of the Emanuel Nine



Rev. Kelly France is an interim minister who serves in the Southwestern Minnesota Synod. He is also vice president of the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice


Reflecting on and Commemorating the Emanuel Nine by Bishop Virginia S. Aebischer

June 2022 — Reflecting on and Commemorating the Emanuel Nine


On the evening of June 17, 2015, a white supremacist walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church, sat down and joined a Bible study focused on Mark 4. We all know now that he intended to start a race war. Innocent lives were taken in an act of hate, an act all too familiar in our society.


That evening nine innocent people were killed in a temple of the Lord, where love was shared and life in Christ was embraced. The Emanuel Nine are saints who still witness to us today from their graves . . . they witness to the power of God’s word and God’s love! May we never forget and may we be changed! Their family members stood up just days after this horrific tragedy and amazed the world when they voiced forgiveness in Christ’s name. They shared an understanding of the power of God’s word, that it will prevail over any attempt to stifle or kill it. God’s word will be spread far and wide.


Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has spoken often about God’s love. “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on social theory or the ways of culture,” he says, “but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are our sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”


This June, inspired by a request from an AME congregation we asked the congregations of the ELCA South Carolina Synod to study the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4, to substitute it as their Gospel reading for Sunday, June 19, and to include the names of the Emanuel Nine in the prayers of intercession. Each year our Inclusiveness Network sponsors a worship service in a central location; this year we have decided to reflect on Mark 4, the Scripture being studied by the Emanuel Nine the night they were murdered, and to ponder how it might shape the way we live into community as Jesus’ disciples.


Only God’s word in Christ has the power to stretch and transform us, to equip us and entrust us with a message and a ministry of reconciliation. Only God’s word can open our hearts to the truth that Jesus came not only for me and you but for all God’s beloved children. Only God’s word, Jesus, can bring hope for our communities and the world.


In Jesus we have the power to become communities that reach beyond themselves, and to bring the transformation of God’s extravagant love to every sister and brother. Thanks be to God for this word of life and love. “Lord, let our hearts be good soil!” In Jesus’ name. Amen.


We remember Rev. Clementa Pinckney · Tywanza Sanders · Rev. Sharonda Singleton · Cynthia Hurd · Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor · Ethel Lance · Susie Jackson · Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons · Myra Thompson.



ELCA worship for commemoration of the Emanuel Nine



The Rev. Virginia S. Aebischer was elected bishop of the ELCA South Carolina Synod on July 25, 2020. Previously she served as assistant to the bishop (2008-2020). She received her Master of Divinity from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and was ordained in 1989. She has served as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Charleston, S.C. (1989-2001) and Mt. Tabor Lutheran Church, West Columbia, S.C. (2001-2008). Ginny is married to the Rev. Paul Aebischer, pastor of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Columbia, and has two grown sons: Joshua, who is married to Addie and lives and works in Columbia, and Micah, a graduate student at Clemson University. The newest addition to the family is granddaughter Rosie.



Remembering Tulsa by Bishop Michael Girlinghouse

For a long time, no one in Tulsa’s white or black communities talked about the massacre that destroyed the Greenwood district in May 1921. Those who were there remembered.  A few kept the memory alive.  But most simply chose to forget. Shrouded in silence for decades, it lay there in the heart of the city, eating away at it like a cancer.


History — especially difficult, painful history — needs to be remembered. It needs to be talked about, studied, examined and explored. Not to make people feel guilty or ashamed, but to be honest, forthright and aware of how history has shaped who we are and what we are about. A sanitized history only drives the painful stuff underground, where it eats us up and slowly destroys the fabric of society. Besides, a history with no pain, suffering or struggle is a lie.


I have always appreciated how honest the Hebrew Scriptures are about the painful history of the people of God. If you have any doubt about that, just read the prophetic writings. Why did God’s people preserve those difficult, painful indictments of their own greed, idolatry, disobedience to God’s commands and mistreatment of the poor and powerless? Because God’s people knew that, forgetting, they might turn their backs on God again, and they knew the results of doing that were disastrous.


Today, Tulsans remember. A year ago, we marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre with much fanfare and national attention. This year we will remember again. And we need to. The destruction of Greenwood still shapes this city. The systemic racism that led to the massacre persists. The work of reconciliation is ongoing. The debate over reparations for those who lost land and homes and lives continues, even though it has continued for far too long.


We need to remember. The Tulsa massacre may have been the worst racial violence of the early 20th century, yet massacres, lynchings and riots took place in communities across this country. In 1919 a massacre similar to Tulsa’s took place in Elaine, Ark. At the same time, not far from Tulsa, Osage people were being murdered so that whites might take their land. Today, racial violence continues to plague our nation, as we recently witnessed in Buffalo, NY.

Like the people who preserved the prophets’ writings, we also need to remember the churchs’ role in this difficult, painful and bloody history. Here in Tulsa, on the Sunday after the massacre, the black community was blamed for the death and destruction from pulpits across the city, including in our Lutheran congregation.


Across our church, we need to continue our work for racial justice. We need to study, with honesty and forthrightness, who we are and where we come from. We need to learn from the past and make the changes necessary to become the inclusive, grace-centered communities we aspire to be, where all people no exceptions — can experience and live in the steadfast love of God that is ours in Jesus Christ.


To learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, visit:


John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation


Tulsa Historical Society and Museum


History Channel: Tulsa Race Massacre


BIO: Michael Girlinghouse has been bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod since 2011. Prior to becoming bishop, he served as a campus pastor at three universities and as a parish pastor. A devotional writer, he is author of Embracing God’s Future Without Forgetting the Past (Fortress Press, 2019). Bishop Mike graduated from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, has one adult daughter and lives in Tulsa, Okla., with his wife and their two dogs.