ELCA Head Makes Call to Church Against 'Sin of Racism'

An apparent increase in noose incidences has religious and community leaders crying out against hate and "the sin of racism."

"I write to you today with grave concern about the 'spiritual crisis concerning race relations' that we continue to experience in this country," the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), wrote in a letter released Thursday. "This spiritual crisis affects both church and society and calls us to respond with the urgency and strength as those who have gone before us."

In September, the widely publicized Jena 6 rally drew thousands of protestors demanding just treatment for six black teens who attacked a white schoolmate last year. Since the rally, nooses – a symbol of racial violence and hate – have shown up on the doors of black professors, on school campuses, and outside a Valley Stream, N.Y., home and a post office near New York City's ground zero. Swastikas have also popped up in several places.

Racial tensions were already aggravated when three white teens hung nooses on a tree in August 2006, a day after a group of black students received permission from school administrators to sit under the tree.

New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn announced Thursday a "Day Out Against Hate" to counter the rise of bias crimes. The day, Nov. 29, is to begin with an interfaith prayer breakfast.

ELCA's Hanson made a call to the denomination's leaders to "name the sin of racism and lead us in our repentance of it."

"Therefore, we confess our sinfulness. Because we are sinners as well as saints, we rebuild walls broken down by Christ. We fall back into enslaving patterns of injustice. We betray the truth that sets us free. Because we are saints as well as sinners, we reach for the freedom that is ours in Christ."

The Lutheran head's message comes as he has pushed for transformation within a denomination that is 97 percent white. ELCA launched a branding campaign this year in a push toward diversifying membership. Its goal is increase ethnic membership to at least 10 percent.

As part of the campaign, ELCA leaders have been called to "preserve in their challenge to [this church] to be in mission and ministry in a multicultural society."

Amid declining membership, Hanson has recognized that racism has remained a problem in the predominantly white church.

While he's looking for more minority groups, he has specifically called the church to be "multicultural," where various ethnic and cultural groups worship together rather than forming separate ethnic churches.

"Largely white congregations in a largely white church are simply unwilling to confront the realities of how we will be changed by virtue of the presence of persons of color in our midst," Hanson has said.

Now in the midst of a spate of bias incidences, Hanson called for honest engagement with issues of race and to further educate young people that they might be better equipped to live in a multicultural society.

Hanson's recent letter was released on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, when Christians honor faithful saints and martyrs. Hanson expressed gratitude to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., among other civil rights leaders particularly during this time of racial strife.

"I call on members of this church of all races to remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us, especially those who have suffered from racism and injustice, and to stand in opposition to this evil spreading across our country," he wrote.

ELCA adopted a social statement in 1993 called "Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture," in which the church committed to at least a 10 percent ethnic membership, providing for the representation of cultural diversity in its staff and decision-making bodies, and supporting multicultural ministries.

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