An Apology for the Art in #ELCAcwa Worship

Many following the #ELCAcwa this year have seen the image being discussed and heard the apology offered by Bishop-Elect Strickland. Many have asked how such an offensive thing could happen. As the person who selected the images for worship, I want to offer my apology as well. I apologize to you my colleagues, the Churchwide Assembly and Churchwide leaders and most of all to my African American brothers and sisters who were wounded by this. I know that many were troubled, shocked, hurt, and disgusted by the use of the image. Something I worked on was hurtful, and for this I am deeply sorry.

I do not intend to offer a defense of why the image was used, only an explanation that might help shed light. I was searching for images to align with the gospel text of the service:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.”
Matthew 25:35-36

This image of someone being visited in the hospital was selected to lift up the African American experience, support their inclusion in representation, and exemplify ministry to the sick. My own cultural situation and lack of knowledge on this genre of art caused me to not see what was evident to others. The representation of African Americans in minstrel art has a painful history. I was unaware, and we did not have enough diversity in our group that vetted and approved the images. I know these issues are being addressed and they will be handled more carefully in the future.

I am fully aware of the place that racism has in my own life. As a white male born and raised in rural south Texas, it is endemic to me in a deep way. At the same time I am deeply invested in anti-racist ways of being. I find Luther’s sinner/saint idea very fitting here. I have the sin of racism embedded in me while I learn to fight and dismantle it.

I want to echo the words my friend Kathy Patrick shared on Facebook: “(this apology) is a clarion call to recognize that we white people in the church have a LOT of work to do to increase our cultural competence, including by diversifying our leadership, so that we can see as we should see. This was not one person’s mistake, it is OUR mistake. We all make similar mistakes every day that injure our siblings of color and the terrible thing is, we do it thoughtlessly because we do not know what we should know.”

I personally intend to do some things differently as I learn and grow from this:

  • I will do some reading to learn more about the history of minstrel art and plays. If you have resources or websites you recommend, please share them with me.
  • I will make sure that any worship planning team that I am part of has a diverse representation of leadership.
  • When I am considering using a piece of art or music for worship, I will ask for feedback from African American colleagues.
  • I will encourage people of color to lead us in selecting images for churchwide events.
  • I will engage in our synod’s anti-racism training.
  • I will explore and lift up the work of African American artists. If you have a favorite, I would appreciate if you shared them with me.