Every year the Conference of Bishop's holds an event that serves as its major focus of continuing education called the Bishop's Academy. Typically, the event meets in one of the 65 synods, and includes guest speakers, and the opportunity for bishops to engage in mutual learning. The latter is perhaps the most helpful, especially for one who is new to this office. This year, and for the first time ever, the event was held in heart of the Caribean Synod, which consists of ELCA congregations in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This synod actually contains some of the oldest Lutheran congregations in the western hemisphere dating back to the 1600's. While it will be easy for some to critique a visit like this as simply bishops wanting to get some sun, infact there were two essential and more significant elements to this particular academy. (Next year I'm told we'll be in fishing huts on a frozen lake in Minnesota)
First, this was a strong affirmation of the most multi-cultural synod of the ELCA. Nowhere else in our denomination do we have such a large population of non-whites. Why is this significant? Because the Lutheran church is a denomination of some 97% white people. Yet, we live in a nation that is rapidly becoming 50% people of color by the year 2050. Affirming the value and importance of the people in the caribean synod cannot be underestimated.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, this event gave me clear direction in one of our major efforts going forward here in New England. We need to be very proactive and intentional about broadening the complexion of our church. We must become a more colorful church. Starting new congregations, ministries and programs in, with and through the latino community is essential, and I believe should become one of our top priorities.
While in Puerto Rico, I benefited from three important presentations by Dr. Daisey Machado. She is the Dean at Union Theological Seminary, and professor of Church History. Her lectures covered immigration issues, understanding of latino experience in America, and the rise and dangers of the prosperity gospel movement. Her presentations were not simply academic papers, rather they were pastoral and practical, as well as scholarly. She helped me understand the importance of the role of faith in the latino community.
Attending worship on sunday, during the festivities surround the "tres reyes" or "three kings" day was a highlight. Perhaps even more significant than Christmas worship for Puerto Ricans, the day includes family gatherings and gift giving. Children are encouraged to put a small box of straw at the foot of their beds to feed the camels. In the night, the camels will come bearing the three kings (aka the three wise men) who will then leave gifts for the children. The Puerto Rican equivalent of leaving cookies out on the living room table for Santa.
Lisa and I worshipped at the Lutheran Church of the Reconciliation. Dynamic music and a gifted preacher have made this congregation an exciting ministry. Good Jesus stuff is happening here. Afterwards during a meal, we learned that their Pastor is fond of extreme sports and invited us to return in order to experience some sky diving or para-sailing. This is my kinda guy, I thought.
What I learned in Puerto Rico is that our church is birthing new kinds of ministries in new places, and we have an opportunity to learn from these cultures and embrace them.