Shekinah Glory

Shekinah is the English interpretation of a Hebrew word for God and God’s dwelling. It is also the prophetic name of an ELCA community in Riverdale, south of Chicago.

When the presence of The Lord settled in the temple in Jerusalem, Shekinah is the word to express that relationship between God, God’s People and the place where they connect.

Worship at Shekinah Chapel was the fullness of that expression. Pastor Yehiel Curry is a force that is part spiritual mentor, part community organizer, part head coach, and part shepherd. Yes, he is a leader, but he has cultivated a network of leaders and structures that gives space for many voices to emerge. Shekinah is not brokered by the seminary trained leader; the presence, the indwelling is accessible to all.

I knew that Shekinah offered an invitation to discipleship – an altar call – at every service. Within the Lutheran tradition this is rare, our theology rooted in the idea the movement between God and God’s people always begins with God. Culturally, to ignore the altar call moment for some notion of theology purity is to dismiss the authentic connection many evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Baptists expect from a church. Like Shekinah, All Peoples’ community comes out of these experiences and I when I wanted to make the addition, I called Pastor Curry.

This is the strongest example of the fullness of a ministry that cannot be captured in a simple blog post: congregation and community rooted in culture and context.

Have a dynamic church is not rocket science. There is no magic spell that will make churches like Shekinah or All Peoples or any other not just relevant but signficant in the lives of folks inside and outside the church. It is about being rooted in culture and context.

When churches struggle to do this it is because, I believe, the culture and context is different from the leadership or the legacy or the history or most likely all of those. Rather than embrace fully the culture, mainline churches expect folks to check part of themselves at the door. We want you, but not all of you.

In the book of Acts, the apostle Phillip is sent to encounter the Ethiopian Eunuch. Racially, culturally, sexually this person is other. Given his position in the Egyptian government, he was probably of a higher economic class as well. Everything about this story is about redefining who is in and who is out.

This is often referred to as the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Theologically, which is really to say spiritually, this is accurate. The word is opened and he utters, “Look, here is water. What is to stop me from being baptized?” The answer of course is nothing. The Spirit of God comes to dwell with him in the waters of his baptism. He is encompassed with Shekinah.

He does not, however, stop being all the things that make him other. Racially, culturally, economically, sexually nothing changed. He doesn’t have to check his race or his job or his sexual reality at the door. Shekinah dwells among him in the fullness of who he is.

I’ve heard folks talk about Shekinah Chapel (and other ministries of color within white/mainline denominations) in terms of their otherness. Altar calls aren’t Lutheran. Black folks don’t understand our history. Latinos can’t have their Lady of Guadalupe.

What I love about Shekinah, and Pastor Curry, and what I experienced in the community was the boldness of the Ethiopian saying, “What is to stop us?” And God answers: nothing.

It is an imperfect metaphor, I realize, because it still assumes the otherness of people of color. (I have heard black leaders talk about the ways dominate white culture within the ELCA keeps people of color within the categories of otherness, as “specialized ministries,” which often means separate and unequal. There is a reality of otherness when people of color make such a small percentage of the national church, but too often it is this that defines our communities rather than, say, a belovedness as children of God). Better metaphors are the great commissioning, the sending out of the disciples, Joshua’s army at Jericho working to claim what God has already promised.

If Shekinah has any defining otherness it is their embracing of the priesthood of all believers. The congregation has a structure of empowering leadership, of shared responsibility, of accountability, of apprenticeship and mentorship. Of course this isn’t perfect, but when looking across the landscape of mainline churches this is what stands out. It isn’t the hue of their skin but the power of their effectiveness. They are Paul and Silas, continually locked up by the prisons of racist and buerocratic systems with the power of God busting down doors. They are the preachers on Pentecost where the Holy Ghost translates the Gospel so that all may hear. They are the yeast messing up the unleavened bread, the light shining in the darkness, the salt that has not lost its saltiness.

Because of the rootedness of context and culture, the dwelling of God was visible, was palpable, is powerful. May the whole church be enveloped by Shekinah Glory.