USA: from summer camp leader to Chicago bishop

19 May 2023

In this Voices from the Communion, we hear from ELCA Bishop Yehiel Curry, former pastor and mission developer with the Shekinah Chapel Lutheran Church movement for African American youth.

Bishop Yehiel Curry

Bishop Yehiel Curry of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Photo: MCS/ELCA Gaby Valladolid 

Voices from the Communion: the unexpected journey to ministry of Bishop Yehiel Curry 

(LWI) - Vocations can be found in the most surprising places, as Bishop Yehiel Curry, head of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), knows only too well.  

Raised as a Catholic on the south side of the city, it was an unexpected invitation to a vibrant worship service in St Stephen’s Lutheran church, back in the 1990s, which led him to discover a calling to ordination and the leadership position that he holds today. 

Before his election in 2019, he served first as lay mission developer and then pastor of the Shekinah Chapel Lutheran Church movement, which started as a mentoring program for young and vulnerable African American men. But his journey to ministry, he says, began with a summer camp when he was working as a 7th grade teacher in a Chicago public elementary school.  

Tell us about that move from public school teacher to Shekinah Chapel leader? 

Yes, I was working with 7th graders when a college friend invited me to this worship service. I didn’t realize it was a Lutheran church, but I went along because I had heard that the church also organized a summer camp and I wanted to take my own students camping.  

I discovered this innovative, vibrant worshiping community which was unlike anything I’d ever seen. There were more men than women and the average age was about 21 or 22 years old. The community grew out of a summer camp experience called SIMBA, or Safe In My Brothers Arms, offering young African American men a two-week opportunity to learn about spirituality, community, reverence for their ancestors and harmony with nature.  

So you got involved with the community, but how did that lead to training for ordination? 

Yes, I became involved after the ELCA partnered with SIMBA to support the initiative and Shekinah Chapel held its first worship service in 1995. The movement kept growing and attracting more young people, moving from Fridays to Saturdays, to every Sunday afternoon.  

When the original leader left, my name was lifted up by the worshipping community to replace him. I didn't have the language to say that I discerned a call to ministry, but I did have a feeling of wanting to serve and work with young people. I also didn’t have any of the right vocabulary for ministry, so I started taking some seminary courses at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. In 2007 I became lay mission developer and in 2009 I was ordained and installed as pastor for Shekinah. 

What do you see as the success of that ministry? 

SIMBA camp is described as a rite of passage for young men and there is now a camp for young women as well, called Safe In My Sisters Arms (SIMSA). Our camps aren’t just about playing games, but about building relationships and having fun. Space is created for learning from adult leaders in the community. Today these camps have morphed into a non-profit organization called ‘Rescue, Release, Restore’ and it became a model for similar programs in Detroit, Indianapolis, California and elsewhere. 

This type of ministry doesn’t make the news, but I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t discovered the camping organization and become involved. I came for the camping experience and ended up finding my way into ministry. 

You say you were raised as a Catholic – how does this affect relationships with other Christian communities in Chicago? 

When we were growing up on the south side, I never heard anyone talk about different denominations. We just wanted a transformative worship experience and the opportunity to serve and learn, or to know where there was a food pantry. But I still have relations with some priests and Catholic institutions from those days so that helps with our ecumenical work today. 

Tell us about the community that makes up the Metropolitan Chicago Synod? 

This Synod is unique because it covers some really diverse communities. Currently, we have about 165 congregations with around 70.000 baptized members. There are about 200 active pastors and another 200 who are retired but remain pretty active in the church. There are about 40 rostered deacons and we also share the territory with the ELCA’s churchwide office, so it is always bursting with energy and ideas and innovation. 

ELCA has spoken out strongly against racism and worked hard to attract a more diverse membership – what impact has this had? 

I am extremely concerned that racism is still a major problem. The ELCA has been very supportive, but there is still a lot more to do. People of color make up small numbers in the ELCA so we must continue to be innovative and to lift up leaders, otherwise our efforts won’t be sustainable. We have to start centering the voices of those on the margins and find places for them in the church. I don’t want to take away from the progress that has been made with younger, more diverse leaders in the church, but this is still a significant issue. 

What does it mean for you to be part of the wider LWF family? 

When I first went to LWF’s Retreat of Newly Elected Leaders (RoNEL) last year, it really changed me. I needed to see how the LWF was doing advocacy and gathering young people, because it is easy to get so caught up in your own location that you don’t see this global witness of the church. 

I realized that when we talk about racism or gender justice or food security, we have partners around the world who are providing resources and scriptural framing for these same issues. Whenever there is an opportunity now for others to come and learn more about the LWF, I encourage it, but I also encourage us to share how we, in the U.S. are learning from our global partners throughout the world.

LWF/P. Hitchen