by Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy
I recently opened up my email to see this subject title: “You Might Be A Lutheran If…”.
I had to ask myself if this was an email worth opening or will it only bring me sadness, anger, and confusion. Before we get into this, let me introduce myself.
I became a spiritual person in terms of my vocation when I was young. I’d say 4-5 years old. When I was that age, I lived in a rural area on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where I am an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Enrolled means I can trace my family to long before colonists came to this land. I know the names of my ancestors who resided in my area of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and beyond. So I had profound and intense experiences with my Native tradition when I grew up. I grew up in a family that spoke the Lakota language, understood the culture, and talked about it at home, which was central to our lives. My grandparents and elders in my family ensured that as a child and growing up, I would not forget the stories of my family and my people. That I knew the stories of my ancestors, that so often, many people forget or do not know about those moments connected to your life. A formative moment, some defining characteristic of your community or your culture.
For me, the way I celebrate our Creator, my spirituality, and how I interpret biblical readings brings me a deeper understanding of what authentic interreligious dialogue experience means and, dare I say, what it means to be Lutheran. So let’s break this down some more.
We are the Church
On the ELCA website, when you read “About the ELCA,” it starts with, “We are Church. We are what God has made us- people whom God has created by grace to live in union with Jesus Christ and has prepared to live faithful, fruitful lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
From my Lakota viewpoint, I can state that my people had already experienced the Creator God before the coming of the colonizers; the Spirit was already present, revealing God to the people via law, custom, and ritual. This was before the entrance of the colonizers and missionaries. Indigenous people were sustained by the love and grace that was wholly and ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ, and they were given specific insights into how God operates as a result.
We are Lutheran
Next up on the ELCA website it says, “We are a church that walks by faith, trusting God’s promise in the gospel and knowing that we exist by and for the proclamation of this gospel word. We understand that being Lutheran is to be ecumenical – committed to the oneness to which God calls the world in the saving gift of Jesus Christ, recognizing the Church’s brokenness in history and God’s call to heal this disunity.”
As an Indigenous woman, my Lakota traditions affirm the presence of the Creator God and the need for a relationship with our Creator and the world around us, and a call for holy living. Walking in prayer daily. Through Native thought and philosophy, our people, individually and collectively, are led by the Spirit of God to a greater awareness of God and community.
We are Church together
The ELCA website describes Church together as, “In Christ none of us lives in isolation from others. Jesus is our peace and has broken down the walls that divide us – walls of judgment, hatred, condemnation, and violence – and has made us into one, new human community.”
Perhaps we should reject how the empire seeks to unify by suppressing differences within communities that do not fit into the old Lutheran narrative. No longer should we as a Church suppress or erase people because of differences. My Lakota people’s story tells of God without having to compare it with biblical texts.
We can hear and see God within our story. My Lakota cultural understandings of the divine are examples of how God still informs and speaks to Indigenous people today. Indeed, if we take what it means to be Church together as the ELCA describes, we need to recognize that God in Christ comes to Indigenous people in our own culture and language.
We are the Church for the sake of the world
“In Jesus Christ, all of life – every act of service, in every daily calling, in every corner of life – flows freely from a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. As Church together, we faithfully strive to participate in God’s reconciling work, which prioritizes disenfranchised, vulnerable and displaced people in our communities and the world. We discover and explore our vocations in relation to God through education and moral deliberation. We bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ through dialogue and collaboration with ecumenical partners and with other faiths. In all these ministries, God’s generosity flows through us into the life of the world.”
Indigenous people, in our own culture and language, have come to understand God’s insights and can share those with the rest of the Church. The importance of community is something our Indigenous siblings understand very well. We know that God seeks us, no matter our culture.
This implies that lefse, hot dishes, and White Jesus are no longer synonymous with Lutheranism. You ARE a Lutheran if you welcome all people and no longer impose your cultural values or customs on others. It is no longer the “standard” to assume that we hear and experience the power of the Holy Spirit solely inside a Westernized, orthodox worldview. Being a Lutheran signifies to me that my Indigenous siblings and ancestors, like myself, have always known God via the Holy Spirit and have always known God, our Creator, within our languages and traditions. Our trust in the Creator gives us a new heart, understanding, and Spirit, guiding us as Indigenous Christians to lead our Church to a kind of unity based on justice and love.
Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy is a teacher, a listener, a story teller, a native theologian and a healer. Her Lakota name is Matt Taste Winyan (Good Bear Woman). She is a proud member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who makes her home in Minneapolis.