by Rebekah Thornhill
"When we gather for our biennial assembly it is like a big family reunion," says Pr. Lamont Anthony Wells, National President of the African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA). About 150 Lutherans gathered in Cherry Hill, NJ and nearby congregations in Philadelphia, PA recently for their 16th Biennial Assembly. ADLA is a part of a network of 255 congregations with 8 chapters over the ELCA. Those who gathered for the conference were lay and rostered, often from active chapters in ADLA, but truly from across the Africa diaspora.
This year was marked with new and deepening relationships. For the first time, there was overlap and shared planning with the Union of Black Episcopalians, an organization similar to ADLA in The Episcopal Church. ADLA’s biennial was extended from two to four days to give more time to share in worship, learning, and conversation. "We are making history by gathering together in one place and one accord in ecumenical cooperation as people of African descent," wrote Pr. Wells in his welcome.
The theme, "Like a mighty stream, let justice roll: Absalom, Jehu, and beyond," invited participants to look at the foundations of each tradition in the United States and how that shapes our work today, particularly in regards to social justice. The joint gathering coincided with the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation and the 225th anniversary of the founding of St. Thomas’ Church, the first black Episcopal Church in the United States. Worship was held at St. Thomas and attention was given to celebrate the life of their first leader, Rev. Absalom Jones. Similarly, groups visited the historical marker that honors Rev. Jehu Jones Jr., the first African-American Lutheran pastor and founder of the first African-American Lutheran congregation (St. Paul’s on Quince St).
Prior to the event, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton wrote, "it is fitting that we join together in honoring the history of those Episcopalians and Lutherans of African Descent who are our foremothers and forefathers in the faith, including the Rev. Absalom Jones and the Rev. Jehu Jones Jr., and countless others, named and unnamed. Their lives and ministries are an essential part of the history of the Protestant Reformation, and therefore, inform our lives together today."
Speakers ranged from public officials like City Councilmember David Oh and Rev. Leah Daughtry, the CEO of the 2016 Democratic National Convention Committee, to professors and theologians like Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Rev. Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, and Dr. Brittney Cooper. They shared personal stories of their faith in society, encouraged interfaith work, and challenged religious leaders to be strong advocates for participating in elections and voter registration in their communities.
"In so many ways, we have literally come this far by faith," said Pr. Wells in his report to the assembly. "Now it's time for us to go from fellowship to a mission minded movement...our method is love." ADLA has identified four objectives to continue the work started by figures like Absalom Jones and Jehu Jones. They include making sure that the people of African Descent are strengthened for these and new models of leadership and supported by congregations. They are also looking for ways to address health and wellness, particularly regarding HIV/AIDS with people of African Descent. Finally, they are working on relationships; internally and with partners.
One hope for the future is that local congregations and chapters will continue to build these relationships. They can do this by seeking out ways to collaborate with full communion and interfaith partners in their area. There is also intentionality towards making connections and creating conversations among individuals. "Relationship building was one of the great collateral blessings of this gathering," said Former-Bishop Rimbo. "It is important to listen," continued Pr. Wells. "We have to sit together and hear our stories."
Learn more about ADLA’s 16th Biennial Assembly through their Facebook page and Guidebook.