Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, May 29, 2017

In the International Fishbowl

As I went through security at the airport in Namibia to come home, one of the security people checking our bags through the X-ray machine quipped "Say hi to Trump for me!" I tried not to betray how mortified I felt. "I'd rather not!" I blurted out before I could stop myself. He looked aghast. Was that rude of me to say? (Probably true.) Or was he surprised that he had found a non-Trump supporting American? (Definitely true.)

It's easy to forget that our own fraught political situation is not just something we have to put up with every day. This is a new age of instant news, and people from all over the world get to watch us and judge us for what goes on in our country.

 At the 12th Assembly, I suddenly found myself in the midst of conversions - very uncomfortable conversations - about what was going on in the United States. And just about all of them mentioned Trump by name. I was not expecting to be called on the carpet for some of the actions of my country.

I realized very quickly that by participating in this event, I got to experience something that is very rare for people in my country. I was often in a room, sitting at a table, or in a small group conversation with people from all over the world, in which I was the only person present from my own country.

On the one hand, in the US it is far to easy to only see what effects us immediately, when there is literally a whole world out there with different problems and issues. At the same time, people NOTICE what is currently happening in the United States. And I found it to be very uncomfortable sometimes in conversation. One night, at the welcome reception hosted by the President of Namibia, I talked for a while with a pastor from Sweden who knew very well what was going on in the Unites States. But this conversation, which happened on my first night in Namibia, was only the beginning.

During one of the presentations on the day with the theme "Creation Not For Sale," Pastor Monica Villareal, of Flint Mich, shared about the Flint water crisis. For many of us, this is not "new" news, though it is of course unforgivable that this crisis is still going on. But for the international community, this was NEWS. People sat up and took notice. What? Something like this was happening in the UNITED STATES of all places?

But that wasn't the last of the discomfort for that morning. During the plenary, the presenter shared this slide:

I felt my face get really hot, and the rest of my body went ice cold. Though cleverly generalized, we all knew EXACTLY what this slide was about. I wanted my chair to swallow me. THIS is what intellectual people and world-famouspresenters from other countries think of us, folks. And they are not wrong. 

Pastor Monica Villareal, when asked a question that named the elephant in the room (at least for me), gave a very articulate and diplomatic response, and made it clear that not all Lutherans in the United States voted for or supports the present regime. A few minutes later, it a small group I was part of, with people from Zimbabwe, Russia, and parts of Germany and Norway, one of the German participants pointedly asked me to go further into the situation of Lutherans and current United States politics. I attempted to explain that our churches are deeply divided and contain people on all sides, though many pastors find themselves leaning toward social justice concerns, and thus tend to be more left-leaning. She seemed visibly relieved by my answer. 

The world is watching us. They see what's going on, how we treat our own. 

In the international politics that go on (Yes, even Lutherans have politics, even at the international leve1), I learned that there was discussion of combining the North American region (which just has the ELCA and the ELCIC) with the South American region. But if that came to pass, we (the US) could never host a regional gathering. 

Think about that. There is no way everyone could get visas to come, given our current political climate. And there is also no way that the United States could EVER host a Lutheran World Federation Assembly. Most of the attendees would not be allowed entrance into the country. 

For me, that was a sobering thought. For as "forward" we (the ELCA) are on some things like women's ordination, racism, gender justice, GLBTQI support (or at least trying to be) we have a lot of work ahead of us. 

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