By Andrea Schultz
On April 17, the Rev. Dr. Roosevelt Gray Jr., director of LCMS Black Ministry, led convocation at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. (CTSFW). Convocation occurs most Wednesdays after chapel at CTSFW and features speakers on various topics. Gray, who graduated from CTSFW in 1988 and received an honorary doctorate from the seminary in 2015, spoke on both the pastoral ministry and the history of LCMS Black Ministry.
Remembering his first Divine Call after graduating from seminary, Gray advised the seminarians in the audience to “get involved in agencies of the community.” He described how he would volunteer to read to children at nearby schools, attend local events, and visit funeral homes, handing residents his card. As he put it, “I can’t do anything about the dead, but I can do something for the living.”
As a result of this outreach, funeral directors would call Gray when a family who had no pastor needed pastoral care, and his church grew by leaps and bounds. Recalling that time in his ministry, Gray exclaimed, “Wow! Evangelism does work!” to appreciative laughter.
As Gray spoke of the tenacity and love a pastor must have for his community, he also repeatedly returned to the same theme: that witness and mercy work are about sharing the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins. “In the Great Commission,” Gray said, “Jesus was speaking to Galileans — and speaking to Lutherans. We cannot be ashamed or afraid.”
A focus on education
The history of LCMS Black Ministry is nearly as old as the LCMS itself, serving the longest existing ethnic group in the Synod (“besides the Germans,” Gray pointed out with a laugh, reminding his audience that “we’re all ethnic people”).
In “The History of LCMS Mercy Work with African Americans,” Gray relates how, in 1877 (only 30 years after the Synod had formed), the Sixth Convention of the Synodical Conference unanimously resolved to begin mission work among blacks, particularly in the Southern and Southeastern districts where the slave trade had driven African migration to the United States.
Mission efforts were educationally focused, meant to bring the Good News and schooling to a people in desperate need of both. With the Civil War barely in the rear-view mirror, freed African-Americans were still living in slave-like conditions, denied basic rights under “black laws” and lacking access to education or jobs. They were impoverished, physically and spiritually.
Mission work started with the children. In 1878, a Lutheran Sunday school was organized in Little Rock, Ark. (St. Paul Colored Lutheran Church would be built in Little Rock years later), and the first black Lutheran parochial school opened in the fall of 1879. Every new mission (traveling farther and farther south) was connected to a school.
In 1889, four black pastors attended the North Carolina Synod convention as voting members. On May 8 of that year, they formed themselves into the Alpha Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Freedmen in America on recommendation of the North Carolina Synod. By 1926, the Carolinas had increased from five black congregations to 23, served by 16 pastors and professors (four times the original four), and started seven day schools and Immanuel Lutheran College.
Rosa Young, arguably the most famous figure involved in early Black Ministry (specifically in Alabama), made herself known to the LCMS in the early 1900s. Born in 1890 in Rosebud, Ala., Young was a schoolteacher who saw her people “groping in spiritual darkness.” When the cotton boll weevil invaded Wilcox County in 1914, devastating an already impoverished area, she wrote to Dr. Booker T. Washington for help. He suggested she ask the LCMS for assistance, as he knew of the Synod’s reputation for educational work among blacks in the South.
The partnership blossomed quickly. Young turned her school, the Rosebud Literacy and Industrial School, over to the LCMS shortly after the mission board sent assistance, which then became Christ Lutheran Church and School and the mother church of black Lutheranism in Alabama. Together, Young and the pastors and teachers sent to the area ultimately planted 30 schools and 35 congregations in Alabama and Pensacola, Fla. Concordia College in Selma, Ala., eventually grew from these endeavors.
“I hunted lost souls for Jesus somewhat as I hunted for money to build and maintain my first school,” Young wrote in her autobiography. When speaking of her people and the spiritual leaders who had failed them, she explained, “None of them ever told us: Christ is your Savior, who died for your sins. Believe in Him; then you are saved.”
‘Give them Jesus’
At the convocation, Gray explained that there are third- and fourth-generation African-American Lutherans in places so geographically and culturally isolated (such as St. James in Buena Vista, Ala., begun by Rosa Young as a Sunday school) that the members have never seen a white Lutheran. “They think the LCMS is a black church,” he explained, then got another laugh when he immediately added: “Don’t tell them!”
“This [Synod] has done powerful work,” Gray said, especially considering that the LCMS was still very young and very small when it started reaching out to African-American communities. “But we have to revisit that,” he added, noting, “Lutheranism is growing faster among Africans than African-Americans.”
Gray explained engagement in very simple terms. “Be culturally sensitive to the community you serve. It doesn’t mean you give in — but be sensitive to it, and then get on to serving the church.”
Much of Gray’s insight comes from his own experience in the parish, especially that first call. “Thank God for two elders who taught me how to be a pastor. I learned great, great theology from the seminary, but gained my experience in that church, learning to work with people who are broken every day. … That church taught me how to love people.”
“Give them Jesus, brothers,” Gray concluded, speaking directly to the seminarians who will someday be his colleagues. He added, “You’ve got to preach the Law, but the Law won’t change them. I am not ashamed of this Gospel. It is a bludgeon against fear and hopelessness.”
LCMS Black Ministry began only 30 years after the Synod formed, when there was not an abundance of either money or men. Gray, however, says the Synod has always had everything it needs. “We have the resources [because] we have the Gospel.”
Read more about LCMS Black Ministry at:
Andrea Schultz (email@example.com) serves as seminary relations and marketing specialist at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.
Posted April 26, 2019