Jenga, Babel, and #decolonizeLutheranism

This winter, I was invited to accompany a congregation from the Houston area on a delegation to visit some Lutheran congregations in El Salvador. It wasn’t a mission trip to construct a building or paint houses. Rather, the purpose was to get to know better our Lutheran sisters and brothers in El Salvador and to develop friendship between the two groups. This goal of accompaniment can be difficult, because there are differences in culture and in language. However, I’m reminded of a line from the hymn we just sang, Miren qué bueno es cuando nos reuinimos juntos (Look how good it is when we gather together).

On the trip, I was often asked to translate, and I did, but Salvadoran Spanish is somewhat different from the Spanish I have been learning here on the Mexican border. Also, translating and interpretation are different skill sets than just speaking a language. One must know the cultural details and invisible rules of communication.

During the visit, we worshiped together, participated in a retreat, and saw the agricultural hardware store that helps support the Salvadoran ministry. For me, a powerful moment was when I started to see some of the divisions between the Salvadorans and the Texans start to break down. During a New Year’s Eve party at the pastor’s house, between dinner and fireworks, the young people from both countries began to play Jenga. jenga blocks

Jenga is a game in which you deconstruct a wooden tower, one piece at a time, with patience and concentration. The Salvadorans taught us a fun song and dance to sing in playful shame each time you lost. There was much laughter and togetherness. It was a moment of Pentecost. Although not everyone spoke the same language, there was a connection. Upon destroying the Jenga tower, understanding and unity were being born. It was like Babel in reverse.



In Genesis 11, the people try to build a gigantic tower reaching the heavens. It’s a story that explains the diversity of language and culture in the world. For Israelites in exile, it was a way to describe their differences from the Babylonians and celebrate their own identity. The Hebrew root word for Babel means confusion. In building their tower at Babel, there was confusion. In tearing down that Jenga tower in El Salvador, there was a glimpse of connection and unity.

We can also think of this festival we celebrate today as another Babel in reverse. In the story of Pentecost, the apostles in Jerusalem didn’t need dictionaries, vocabulary flashcards, or Rosetta Stone software to understand each other. They had the power of God’s Holy Spirit. With wind and fire, God gave them a gift to speak and to understand. It’s a story of unity in the midst of so much diversity. Miren qué bueno es cuando nos reuinimos juntos.

Through this Holy Spirit of God still working in our world today, we are all bilingual. Even if we only speak one human language, we are bilingual because God gives us the language of faith. In Jerusalem, some thought the apostles were drunk. Sometimes in our world, the Christian message might seem similar. In a world of violence and war, “Love your neighbor” and even more so, “Love your enemy” seem strange and foreign. In the midst of conflict, racism, and homophobia, Christian values like forgiveness and peace seem contrary. As Christians, the Holy Spirit gives us the language to share love with the world. We aren’t drunk; we are filled with the God who guides and consoles us.

We speak the language of faith (sometimes even without words) when we have patience, practice reconciliation, encounter Scripture, and speak against injustice. To grow in our faith is to learn a new language.

Sometimes, we don’t recognize the diversity and the unity that the Spirit brings. There’s division and racism, even in the Church. Too often, our communities are more like Babel than Jerusalem. We think in stereotypes and put limits on God’s presence. There’s a stereotype that suggests that Lutherans are only White people in the Midwest of Scandinavian descent, like my own family. Such stereotypical thinking is wrong, and excludes the Mexican Lutherans at San Lucas, the Salvadoran Lutherans I met in January, and the millions of Lutheran Christians in Tanzania, Namibia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and other places where very few people, if any, eat lefse, that Norwegian bread.

One time a Border Patrol agent at a checkpoint asked me about my job. I told him I was a Lutheran pastor. He responded incredulously, “Lutheran? Shouldn’t you be in Minnesota or Wisconsin?” “Well, we’re here,” I replied.

Old Lutheran is a company that makes fun t-shirts and bumper stickers with Lutheran sayings. I have their Martin Luther bobblehead doll. However, Old Lutheran has been sharing jokes on Facebook drawing on the same stereotype as that Border Patrol agent. These jokes and memes (You might be a Lutheran if…) suggest that Lutherans, with their lutefisk and potlucks, are just of Scandinavian descent. A few weeks ago, I saw this one:Meme old lutheran

You might be a Lutheran if you have more than three friends whose first names have the letter “j” as the second letter. Here in Eagle Pass, I don’t know anybody named Bjorn, Kjersten, or Hjalmar, but I know plenty of faithful Lutherans with names that end in “z:” González, Martínez, Ramírez, Rodríguez, et cetera.

I was frustrated with Old Lutheran and their jokes that tell an incomplete story: That Lutheranism is a cultural expression of the Midwestern United States by people descended from Northern European immigrants. My own Minnesota grandparents had spoken Norwegian; I get the jokes. However, my ministry in Spanish-speaking communities has given me a broader understanding of what it means to be Lutheran. After complaining and commenting, I decided to make my own meme, using a picture I snapped of food at San Lucas:MEME TOSTADA

You might be a Lutheran if your VBS snack is tostadas. I posted it on Facebook as a joke, but also to show that there are Mexican Lutherans, too. Lutheranism is theological, not cultural. We’re Lutheran because we celebrate God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus, not because we eat a certain food, use a certain hymnal, or tell certain ethnic jokes. Later, other people posted similar memes reflecting other non-Scandnavian cultures—roasted goat for dessert in Tanzania and pupusas from my new friends in El Salvador.

With these internet memes, eventually the hashtag #decolonizeLutheranism emerged, with a renewed enthusiasm for change. I was even invited into a conference call with the Presiding Bishop to talk about this developing movement. A conference is in the works. A website is online. Lots of talented leaders from many backgrounds are lifting their voices. Its a prophetic conversation that has been brewing for a long time. It’s a conversation we need to have in the Church.

Colonialism is the process throughout history in which Europeans came to a “new” country and put their will over others, usually with force and blood. One must speak their language, eat their food, sing their songs, practice their customs. Decolonization, then, is the process to remove this European influence and tell the story in ways that respect the dignity of the oppressed culture. For example, it is decolonizing to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day.

In the Church, we, too, are colonized. Although there are African American, Cherokee, and Chinese congregations in the ELCA, it is almost always the Anglos who make the decisions. That I am the pastor at San Lucas is itself a sign of colonialism. We have not fully developed Mexican leadership. Which young people from San Lucas will we send to seminary to be pastors? But there in seminary, what will they learn? Anglo theology? Mexican theology? Scandinavian culture? Colonized thinking? After graduating, I had to unlearn so much of my education in order to contextualize myself for ministry on the Mexican border—what books I read, what stories I tell, and what songs I sing.

It’s easy to fall into systems of colonialism. Babel is still in our memory. It’s difficult to decolonize, to break the chains of injustice, to walk together in accompaniment and mutuality. Here at San Lucas, we’ve long waited for funds and helpers from the North instead of developing our own stewardship, identity, and purpose.

This Wednesday in our multigenerational spiritual formation time, we’ll play Bible Jeopardy, reviewing what we’ve learned in the past year. Last year when we played, the prizes were all sorts of ELCA swag that I picked up at Synod Assembly—notebooks, keychains, and other ephemera. Somebody from church asked me why we don’t have trinkets with San Lucas’ logo. I replied that that stuff is expensive to print. I was told, “You need to ask your people to buy them for us.” I didn’t know what to say.

This thinking is completely colonized—that the Whites from Iowa always send money to non-White congregations. This is what we’ve been slowly moving away from in my five years on the border. Even with my Norwegian roots, as pastor here, “my people” are those of the congregation of San Lucas. So, what will we give? What will we do to be the Church? How will we continue the Pentecost story? How will we be the next chapter of the Book of Acts? How will we decolonize? How will we dream our own dreams and live our own visions?

In Pentecost, the Spirit comes to decolonize, to share the story in a new way—with wind, and fire, and new language. The Spirit comes to destroy the walls and towers that divide us. The Spirit comes to give us unity and guide us in ways that love and that seek peace and that celebrate God’s diversity.

We live in a world of sin that needs transformation, that needs decolonizing. We need to understand one another. We need to be open to the Spirit. We need that Pentecost moment. We need Babel in reverse. 13217122_10100139705251682_5538953685342656680_o

Pentecost is more than an excuse to decorate with red balloons and wear red socks. It’s more than an ancient history lesson. Pentecost reminds us who we are today—God’s people. People with future and possibilities. People with visions and dreams. We’re a community of faith, animated to live, empowered to transform, guided by the Spirit.

It’s the same Spirit that moved over the waters of creation. It’s the same Spirit that breathed new life into dry bones. It’s the same Spirit that was upon Jesus in Nazareth to bring good news to the poor. It’s the same Spirit that we receive at Baptism when the pastor puts her thumb on your forehead saying, “Child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It’s the same Spirit we find in this meal—bread and wine, body and blood. Come Holy Spirit. In Eagle Pass. In Minnesota. In El Salvador. In Tanzania. In Jerusalem. In all the world. The Spirit decolonizes our injustice and our human systems. The Spirit breaks down our Babel, our confusion, and gives us language of faith. Miren qué bueno es cuando nos reuinimos juntos. Amen.

[Adapted and translated from a sermon preached in Spanish at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas on May 15, 2016].


2 Comments on “Jenga, Babel, and #decolonizeLutheranism”

  1. Janet Kraatz says:

    At Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest in Austin we began our cross cultural training on day one and it continues to today. Blessings on your ministry at San Lucas, a church I enjoyed visiting on one of our border immersion experiences. Pastor Janet Kraatz Faith Lutheran Church Fort Worth.

  2. Luanne Neumann says:

    Interesting read as I prepare for my Global Teach experience in Slovakia this August. Companionship is letting the Spirit work while walking with fellow Lutheran in a new (for me) locale.

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