African Descent Heritage Month: Reflections of Our Lutheran Legacy
Apr 26, 2018
By the Rev. Lamont Anthony Wells
Director for Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop
Each year during the month of February in the United States we celebrate African Descent History Month. This is a time to share with the world the many contributions of people from the African diaspora particularly in America. These contributions are often excluded or inadequately represented within recorded American History.
As the National President of the African Descent Lutheran Association, I am often asked why I am serving in the predominately "white" Evangelical Lutheran Church in America I may understand the optics and inferences from their query; however, I am here because this context is my spiritual and theological home of which I am called to serve God’s mission. My story as an African American and my Christian faith is nurtured by Lutheranism’s focus on God’s grace.
Although many still consider people of African descent as outsiders or newcomers to this tradition, history records that we are not. Dating way back to 1669, African Americans who were enslaved and/or free, became members of the Lutheran congregations in New York and New Jersey. In fact, African-American Lutherans have been in this country for more than 350 years, much longer than many Lutheran European immigrants.
I believe that African Descent History Month is important for all Americans. The month-long celebration engages the history of people of African heritage and cultivates awareness and understanding. We are all tied together by the circumstance of history.
In spite of the effects of slavery, negative stereotypes in the media, internalized oppression, covert racism even in a "post-racial" society, the framework of Lutheran theology helps many African descendants discern God’s directions and activities in their lives and in the communities in which they live.
In December 2017, it was leaked that President Trump had reportedly made some incendiary comments about Nigerian immigrants not wanting to "go back to their huts" and that Haitian immigrants "all have AIDS," which outraged quite a few people. However, reality doesn’t reflect those alleged remarks. Immigrants of African Descent comprise an important part of our country and particularly here in Metropolitan New York Synod territory.
Although, the public image of immigration stories tends to predominantly reflect the Latin community, African Descent immigrants to the U.S. total about 3.7 million and comprise about 8.4% of all immigrants and come from diverse places. The largest individual home countries of African descent immigrants in the United States today are Jamaica (693,000), Haiti (654,000), Nigeria (304,000), Ethiopia (237,000), and Trinidad and Tobago (171,000).*
Historically African descent populations have contributed much to America. In fact, African-descent immigrants are more likely to be active in the labor force than all other groups of immigrants. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of African descent immigrants, 16 and older, are in the labor force compared with 67 percent of all immigrants, and 64 percent of native-born Americans.*
Lutheranism in New York has always been a catalyst for change in our world and has produced African- American judges such as Dan Joy of New Hope Church, Jamaica, and Laura Douglas of Abiding Presence Church, Bronx, New York. Our heritage has given to the City of New York, Archie Spigner, who served in the New York City Council for over 15 years. Archie was a member of Resurrection Church, St. Albans.
This great history of New York Lutheranism, produced Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time Warner Corporation. As a cradle Lutheran, Parsons was confirmed by Pastor Winston Bone at Incarnation Church (now New Hope) in Queens. Dr. Nelson Strobert, retired professor of Christian education in the Paulssen Hale Chair for Church and Society at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, came to faith and maturity as a member of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Although not always an easy road to trod, New York Lutherans have the distinction of ordaining the first African American who served as a pastor in American Lutheranism. On October 24, 1832, Jehu Jones Jr. was ordained at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Matthews. Jehu Jones would later develop the first African American mission church, St. Paul’s Church, Philadelphia circa. 1836. In 2018, the Metropolitan New Synod will support a mission congregation development in East Brooklyn called "Jehu’s Table" that will engage that community with ministry of service, word, and sacrament in a multicultural tradition that is deeply rooted in Jehu Jones’ spirit of social justice and action.
Lutherans in New York also ordained another famous African American when Daniel Payne received ordination by the Franckean Synod at Fordsboro, New York in 1839. Daniel Payne, who received formal education at the Gettysburg Seminary, was the first African American college president when named President of Wilberforce University, Zenia, Ohio in 1863. Payne also holds the distinction of serving as the sixth bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
History shows African Americans have been a part of the New York scene for a very long time. They often were and still are key players in the life of their communities. I invite you to celebrate this great heritage of faith and struggle, along with survival and triumph during African Descent History Month 2018. Much of our story as Lutherans in America is a part of New York history.