Exchanging Walls for Welcome; A Practical Examination of Relational Intersectionality in the Parish

by Jessica Davis

This article was originally published in the Women’s Issue of the Connect Journal in 2018. We invite you to read it again and consider how your community could be more intersectional in its ministry. 

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14)

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”– Audre Lorde 

Developed by Black feminist scholars such as Bell Hooks and Audra Lorde in the 60s and 70s, and systematized by civil rights activist and feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in the 80s, intersectional theory posits that while legal, political and other social systems may treat aspects of the human condition like gender, race, age, sexual orientation and disability as separate entities, in reality, all of these aspects are inextricably and complexly interwoven. Intersectional theory further suggests that in order to understand the human condition, we must look at how these aspects of identity exist in relationship not just within individuals, but within communities and the entire human race. 

Jessica Davis

Intersectional theory impacts every aspect of our lives where power differentials exist. All of us, every individual and community, are Venn diagrams of overlapping privilege and vulnerability. Because churches are organizations where we endeavor to invite people to bring their whole selves, awareness of intersectional concerns is paramount. As Christian educators and faith formation professionals who have been blessed with the opportunity to observe, inform and challenge the ways in which people grow in relationship with God and one another across the age span, we are in a unique position to assist parishes in actively working to be places where we all, individually and collectively, can engage in the types of radical welcome that Jesus models for us. 

For Lutherans in particular, our focus on becoming theologians of the cross calls us even more powerfully into this mission. The Jesus who died for us is not a single-issue savior. The brown, poor, refugee, frequently homeless enemy of the state who lived, died and rose for us was the purest embodiment of what I refer to as the “them too God”—this creator, redeemer and sustainer who constantly causes scandal by extending welcome to the very people excluded by those in power.

So how does that translate to communal lived experience? How do we engage in the work required to help parishes step into the process of becoming truly welcoming to the messiness and beauty, celebration and strife, illness and incarnation that are inevitable when we invite people to bring their whole selves to bear on our lives together as the body of Christ? The process is complex and the needs of every community are different, but in my work as a Christian educator, pastoral counselor and co-conspirator with the #decolonizeLutheranism movement, I have noted some common tools and processes that may be of assistance. First and foremost, among these is making specific efforts to observe for the intersectional needs and identities represented in the parish and local community. To this end, I recommend regular periods of intentional observation that focus on the following:

1. Examine how your parish does and does not look like your local community, figure out why this is, placing an emphasis on the most vulnerable populations.

How are the demographics of your congregation different from those of the surrounding community? If your surrounding community is 60 percent Caucasian, but your parish is 95 percent Caucasian, there are reasons for that. If your community, like most, has a populace where 15-20 percent of its members are disabled, yet you are only aware of 2 disabled people in your parish, there are reasons for that. Examining who is actually represented in your parish and community and becoming aware of any disconnects can be painful, but it is crucial to providing authentic welcome. This part of the process may take a year or more to engage in earnest, but it’s worth it.

The best resource for understanding why particular groups of people can’t or won’t attend your parish—or do attend, but are not comfortable sharing certain parts of their identities—Is the people themselves. Start with those who are already there. For example, speak with your members who are openly LGBTQIA+ and ask them, “We want to be sure that this is a place where all people feel truly welcomed, and I notice that we have far less LGBTQIA+ people attending that we might expect, given the demographics of our local community. I wonder if you have any insights as to why that is?” Ask these sorts of questions of all of the marginalized groups in your community who are under-represented in your parish. Provide safe spaces for frank and honest feedback, remembering that these individuals and families are putting themselves at risk by providing you with that information. Set clear expectations about who will be given access to it, what it will be used for, and a potential timeline on when they can expect action to be taken on their concerns.

If there are vulnerable populations in your community that are not represented at all in your congregation, you will need to go outside of your doors to gain access to crucial information about why they may not feel welcome. Though the impulse to simply say “Oh, ____ people just don’t want to go to our church” is understandable, I urge congregations to carefully listen to the people of color or other vulnerable communities in their region to find out why that’s so. Why do particular groups of people feel that your church isn’t a place they want go to be in loving Christian community? One of the best ways to gain reliable information about these types of disconnects in communities is to speak with community organizers from the marginalized groups in question (and pay them for their time and labor). 

This information-gathering process will be painful; there’s no getting around that. Staff and councils will need to work together and be very intentional about structuring conversations so that the safety and welfare of vulnerable people is the primary concern. They will need to share the information they obtain in ways that protect the identities of the vulnerable, and they will need to guide difficult conversations where defensiveness and shame abound. It is hard to discover that there may be scores of vulnerable people inside your congregation and in the wider community who don’t feel that your church is safe or welcoming to the fullness of who they truly are. But the good news of the gospel is that the radical and transformative love of G-d in Christ is ever with us as we engage in this holy work.

2. Articulate the power structures in your congregation, and determine if they are best for your community’s needs.

Most ELCA congregations have a pyramidal power structure, where clergy have the most institutional power, followed by other staff members, then the church council, then church committees, then “everyone else.” Whatever the power structure of your congregation is, say it out loud and put it on paper. Then examine if those structure(s) and requirements for moving from one level to the next actually meet your congregation’s needs. For example, if council membership is restricted to confirmed members only, yet more than half of your congregation is unconfirmed, this requirement may be unreasonable. It is inevitable and, indeed, healthy that organizations have structures in place for how decisions are made and which voices are given the most weight, but it is also essential that Christian communities are transparent about those structures and whether they are increasing or diminishing a community’s ability to fulfill its gospel mission. 

3. Notice the unwritten/unspoken power dynamics within your community.

Just as every church community has written rules about who gets how much power and why, there are also scores of unwritten rules about the same thing. There will be rules that everybody knows, but nobody says out loud. For example, everybody in your congregation might “know” that altar guild is “only for women.” They don’t need to say it out loud for people of other genders with an interest in altar guild service to know that they’re unwelcome. Everybody in your congregation might “know” that children aren’t welcome to serve on any committees or that childcare is “always” to be provided by the women in the parish, even if it’s not written down anywhere. Maybe it’s generally accepted that boys will make noise in church, but girls get the side-eye from members of the congregation for causing any kind of disruption.

There will also be unwritten rules that nobody, or only a few people notice. For example, if important committee meetings happen in a part of your building that is not accessible to people with certain types of physical disabilities, your congregation (likely unknowingly) has set in place a restriction that only able-bodied persons are allowed to serve in this way. Start to notice who speaks the most and when, particularly with regard to gender and age differences. Do your team meetings reflect those in the corporate world—where women and femme people speak less than 30 percent of the time, yet are perceived as having dominated the conversation? Perhaps your church has supported an Eagle Scout, but what about a Girl Scout working toward her Gold Award? 

Notice what groups of people are included in your liturgy. How is it decided who is welcome to serve in what types of liturgical roles? How often are the specific needs and gifts of trans people, or disabled people, or incarcerated people invoked from the pulpit? Do their stories come up in the lectionary? These are just a few of the ways that attention can be paid to addressing intersectional needs. A you gain more practice, and speak to more people, you will become more and more aware of places where unspoken power differentials exist.

Of course, once all of this data has been gathered, there comes the question of what to do with it. How do we actually do the necessary work of letting people know that the most vulnerable parts of themselves are welcome, needed, and celebrated in your midst? The answers to that will vary greatly based on particular needs, but they will always come from the people who are at the bottom of power differentials. Children will tell us how to make our congregation welcoming to children. People of color will tell us how to make our congregation welcoming to people of color, and so on. Some of the interventions they name will take an hour. Some will take three years. But when we truly take the time, and invest the love, care, self-reflection and sometimes money and physical resources that it requires to faithfully engage this work, we open up the possibility that we might truly begin to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and live in harmony with one another.” (Romans 12:15)

Jessica Davis is a Lutheran/Episcopal hybrid who is a pastoral counselor and Christian educator. She serves as the chaplain/educator for #decolonizelutheranism and provides freelance services as a writer, editor, musician and church consultant. When she is not engaged in her churchly pursuits, she is usually making music, or indulging her makeup obsession.

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