Keys to the Church

by Rev. Kelly Chatman

I was 5 years old when my parents moved our family from the segregated South to the industrial North. We were a part of what is known as the great migration of Black families starting new lives during the industrial boom in the U.S. Like many Black families, new life in the North was filled with new adjustments. The neighborhood we resettled in was primarily Black, Polish, Baptist and Catholic and a different kind of segregation. As a newly settled family, our church practice was to attend the closest Baptist church on Easter Sunday. 

In my earliest years, my picture of a pastor was Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. I was incredibly young, perhaps as young as 7 years old, when I sat with my family and watched a well-dressed Black man speak on television. He was standing behind a podium and speaking to a large crowd of people about justice and freedom. In the following days and months, I continued to see Rev. King marching with others, their arms and hands locked as they were attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses and arrested by police. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., did what I thought all ministers did. It was not until I wandered into a Lutheran church that I encountered a different pastor picture.  

My family moved to a new neighborhood, and I was sitting in seventh grade as one of my new classmates Willie Woods was describing the girls in his Sunday school. Inspired by Willie’s storytelling, I invited myself to visit Willie Woods’ church. I had wandered into a church looking for girls—Black girls—and had been surprised by the powerful sense of welcome I experienced that day from an all-white Sunday school. It felt so otherworldly, and accepting that, I returned the next Sunday and each following Sunday. Sometimes I was accompanied by my siblings, and soon they began attending the church as well. As time went on, neighbor kids from our block began to attend the church, and by the year I graduated from college, my parents had also joined that Lutheran congregation. When my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, my siblings wanted to do something special for them. Still, our parents’ only request was that we host a service of celebration in that formerly all-white Lutheran church. It is now nearly 60 years later, and that Lutheran congregation is filled with Chatman family memories. Three of us are Lutheran pastors, and one sister is now the church administrator.

By the time I reached high school, I had become a part of our church community. Sports was how my friends and I bonded in my neighborhood, and sports was our language. My church had a full-court gym, and on those summer days when it was too hot to play outside, my friends would ask me if I would see whether my pastor would allow us to play basketball in the church gym. This turned into a bit of a routine. I would call the pastor at his home and ask if my friends and I could use the church gym to play basketball; the pastor and his wife lived in the parsonage next door to the church. If the pastor said yes, my neighborhood friends and I would all walk to the church. While my friends waited and watched, I would walk to the door, ring the pastor’s doorbell and wait while he went to get the key to the door of the church. I would take the key and open the door, and my neighborhood friends and I would celebrate our friendship by playing basketball for hours. When we were done, I would simply return the key to the pastor’s house. 

My friends and I were Black, and that time we were able to spend in the church playing basketball was not only a time for recreation and bonding, but it was also a place of safety and belonging. We were blessed to spend time together in the safety and comfort of the church. In many ways, for me, this was an important part of my transition from childhood to adolescence, in having responsibility not only for myself but for my peers. This was my initiation into ministry, sharing responsibility for my brothers, my neighbors, experiencing the church as a place of safety and belonging.

There is another part of this story that I did not realize until many years later. It was not until years later, after I had graduated from college and was on my way to becoming a pastor, that I realized what my pastor had done. He had given me the keys to the church. In doing that, he had provided me with what I needed to make a difference in my peers’ lives and experience the sanctity of relationship with teenage peers. Who knows what kind of mischief I might have explored, had we not been given the keys to the church? 

I think about the experience of my pastor who trusted me with the keys to the church and the difference that made in my life and the witness that must have made in the lives of my peers and our neighborhood. I also imagine that perhaps, for my pastor, having entrusted me with the keys may not have been as much about trusting me as it was trusting God. The church’s role is to entrust people with the keys to the church and God’s blessings so that they might live faithful, just and fulfilling lives.  

That, my friends, is why I am writing this message, to thank you for your faithful witness as adults who trust young people. Thank you to youth directors, Sunday school teachers, coaches, pastors and volunteers. Thank you for sharing the vision and daring to believe in youth and their partnership in sharing the love and witness of Jesus Christ. You are the faithful who dare to see in young people their gift in being church, living their baptism in partnership with adults, in and beyond the church building. Thank you for all the ways you give the keys to the church so that others might experience church as God’s gift of welcome, safety and belonging.

Rev. Kelly Chatman

Pastor Kelly Chatman has served as an interim Director for Evangelical Mission with the Minneapolis Area Synod and was, until recently, pastor at Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, North Minneapolis and director of the Redeemer Center for Life. After retiring from Redeemer, he has started the Center for Leadership and Neighborhood Engagement, a training institute to support the work of congregations at deepening their connections to the neighborhood in which they reside.

He is a graduate of Gettysburg Seminary, Gettysburg, Pa., and has served as a leader at various levels throughout the church. He served for five years as director for Youth Ministries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and has been a distinguished church leader in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition, Pastor Kelly recently served on boards for Camp Amnicon, Aeon Housing Development, Gustavus Adolphus College, Cookie Cart, Plymouth Christian Youth Center, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Harrison Neighborhood Association, and the Wheat Ridge Foundation.

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