Today, I’d like to highlight a church that has made equality for all people its core mission. In 1954, Augustana Lutheran Church was one of the first churches in Washington, D.C. to racially integrate. Having adopted an “open door” philosophy, in the 1970s Augustana began to welcome newly arriving Latinos, which blossomed into an ongoing commitment. In the late 1980s Augustana kept its doors open to those most affected by the HIV-AIDS crisis.
LIRS Outreach Intern, Juliet Sohns, conducted an interview with Senior Pastor John S. Kidd about the welcome the church has provided for decades.
Juliet Sohns (JS): How has the church continued to be a leading example for social justice activism?
Pastor John S. Kidd (JK): Augustana is an inter-relational congregation. Over the past 60 years, the congregation has consciously made decisions to open its doors and repeatedly affirmed the core value of welcoming everyone. Through the years, “welcoming” became internalized and evolved into an interpersonal culture that takes pleasure in diversity. As relationships have formed, cross-over support and resources, often on a person-to-person basis, becomes common.
With Latino and other immigrants in the congregation, this may take the regular forms of a Sunday community where one feels welcome, included, and safe. At key moments in a person’s life, the caring may take the form of legal advice; assistance in meeting government requirements, or accompaniment of individuals as they navigate health care, court, or school procedures; English as a Second Language support; help with food, rent, or other tangible needs. While the pastor does some of this, the more important role is one of connecting people to each other and facilitating their stepping up and caring whether by providing a meal or joining a march.
Augustana is a small- to medium-sized congregation. Its people do not pretend to fix problems but they consistently offer help and companionship. At times, this commitment to vibrant relationships among diverse people has been at odds with the dominant cultures of the larger society and church. But the congregation’s understanding of Christian community is one of persistent openness to all, responsiveness to everyone, and walking with one another as best as one can.
At Augustana, we have not used the term “social justice activism.” I think we are simply people committed to maintaining relationships in which we do what we can to help one another overcome life’s personal challenges and systemic inequities. These relationships embrace a broad and diverse range of people and lead people to do and say a variety of things in a variety of ways.
JS: You have demonstrated a strong commitment to ministering to immigrants in your community. What inspires and motivates you in that ministry?
JK: Diversity feeds me and makes me feel more whole than homogeneity does. Relationships with immigrants connect me to a world of experience, languages, situations, problems, opportunities, and riches. I can only encounter wholeness when I step away from those who are just like me and whose lives are just like mine. I more effectively engage with the world by speaking and singing in Spanish as well as English and by slowly reading my way through other languages. There are days when I pause to look around me, see the diversity before me and think I have caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as God intends it to be.
JS: What are the main challenges migrant populations have to overcome in the U.S. today?
JK: Challenges? As I listen to people, I think the single biggest challenge immigrants face is that of finding people whom they can trust. They are accustomed to being personally and systematically ignored or exploited. I think this quest is at the heart of our community – the yearning for people to whom one can entrust confidences and vulnerabilities and on whom one can turn to for help or consolation. I see and hear this yearning in those who live in dark shadows with a fear of public places.
JS: What advice do you have for Lutherans who are engaging in immigration advocacy?
JK: In my experience the best advocacy speaks from the perspective of the people and situations that one knows and cares about. In the District of Columbia it is virtually impossible to eat at a restaurant or shop at a grocery store without engaging immigrants as people. In the long term, when people speak from the actual facts of their lives their voices carry farther and longer.
Augustana includes people baptized in the Wisconsin Synod, Missouri Synod, the ELCA, the Lutheran Church of El Salvador, the Lutheran Church of Sweden, a secret Lutheran church in Serbia, Lutheran churches in India and Tanzania, and perhaps other Lutheran traditions (not to mention Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Searchers, and more). Every element of our religious denominational identity can be directly traced to the immigrant or refugee experience of coming from other places seeking religious freedom, political and/or economic rights. Acknowledging and owning this truth, changes the framework for discussing immigration today and gives one the authority to speak. I am stunned by the false witness of those who speak as if their roots were grown from purely American soil.
At the end of the day, I do not work for a cause. I work with people for whom I deeply care. Out of these relationships comes my desire to engage, support, laugh and weep with the people for whom I care and who care for me. In these relationships, their pain is my pain. In my past and present world, I cannot pretend that I am not personally bound to immigrants. I may differ from others in that I can attach personal names to so many faces. Seeing faces and naming persons as they hide under the shadow of current law compels me to pay attention, pray, and to act as faithfully as I can to be worthy of their trust.