USA: "We are part of this, together”
Voices from the Communion: Kathryn Lohre, ELCA Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations
(LWI) - Ms Kathryn Mary Lohre, Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations & Theological Discernment for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) values the relationships that build bridges toward authentic ecumenical and inter-religious encounters. Through her work in the presiding bishop’s office and her personal experiences, Lohre, a Harvard Divinity School alum talks about how these relationships are rooted in Christ and span the globe.
Tell us about your vocation?
My primary vocation is with my family, which includes my spouse and our four children. They keep me grounded, and inspire me in my other vocations, including my daily work.
Ten years ago, I joined the Office of the Presiding Bishop’s staff and began a two-year term as president of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA – as the first Lutheran and youngest woman to hold that post. I was a new mother, juggling the demands of my job with the demands of family life. Whenever I was struggling, my predecessor, Bishop Don McCoid, would remind me that family is always our first, God-given vocation. This simple encouragement, which he modeled for me in his own life, has been my guiding compass. The vocation of family takes many forms, but for me, family is where I feel at home, where I practice giving and receiving unconditional love, and where I can listen for God.
As I listen for God, it is my family that reminds me to ask big questions – to wrap my heart around theology, and not just my brain. The other day, my youngest son asked me, “Where was I before I was in your belly?” Without giving it too much thought, I responded, “In the Creator.” The grin on his face upon hearing this was the most profound theology I encountered all day. He embodied the delight we have in our Creator, and our Creator in us.
What was your early religious formation growing up? What inter-religious and ecumenical encounters do you recall as a child?
My ancestors were Norwegian Lutherans who immigrated to the United States as settlers. Their faith was the most precious thing they brought with them, an anchor in a sea of uncertainty. Passed down from my grandparents, this inheritance formed the center of my parents’ life together. My father is a retired Lutheran pastor and my mother is a retired church publishing house executive. Growing up, church was life, not just Sunday worship. My fondest childhood memories are of playing my violin at hospital or nursing home visits, serving meals as part of the “Loaves and Fishes” program at the Dorothy Day Center, and participating in ecumenical events to welcome the newest refugees to St. Paul, Minnesota. Through these experiences, I came to understand that church was not only about what we believe or say, but also about how we live that out as a community of faith.
I was also aware that as Christians we were not the only community of faith. My dear friend Emily in elementary school was the daughter of a rabbi. Naturally, we bonded over our common experience as children of clergy. Our friendship – and the window it gave me into another religious community – shaped my life in ways that would only begin to make sense many years later. After school, I often tagged along with her to the Jewish Community Center (JCC).
In 2017, when the JCC received a bomb threat during a spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the U.S, I felt the violation experienced by the community in my heart. I wondered about Emily and whether she still goes there, perhaps with her own family now. I wondered if she felt safe, and if she had children she worried about. It was a reminder that personal relationships are at the heart of really understanding - and thus authentically loving – other people, made in the image and likeness of God.
How have you incorporated ecumenical and interreligious encounters for your own children?
Within my lifetime, the religious landscape in the United States has changed rapidly to reflect the world’s religions and global Christianity. This is even more true for our children. At their young ages, they have already invited me to learn about their ecumenical and inter-religious encounters. They tell me about the religious holidays celebrated by their classmates – such as Eid and Diwali – and ask questions. They understand at a much younger age than I did that some Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in January, that Black Christians are not always safe, even at church, and that Jews, Muslims and Sikhs sometimes experience hate.
As parents, we are intentional about cultivating in them curiosity rather than contempt, and a spirit of reconciliation as part of their baptismal vocation (II Corinthians 5:18). My eldest son participated in the joint prayer service commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, led by the ELCA Conference of Bishops and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee. He understood the historic nature of the occasion, and he was also a witness to us of a future with a different narrative about Lutheran-Catholic relations.
My hope for my children is that they will continue to learn about their neighbors, but also learn how to build bridges across divides. Bridge builders do not ignore the gap, they intentionally build something over it that can bring people together from either side. On the bridge, people can appreciate their shared humanity, and partner together for the sake of justice and peace for all people and creation.
In a “Journal of Lutheran Ethics” 2011 paper, you wrote about your inter-religious fieldwork abroad. Does this statement continue to drive your passion for ecumenical and inter-religious commitment?
A few months after I wrote that paper, I left my work in research at the Pluralism Project at Harvard University to begin my work with the ELCA Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations. It was a transition I did not anticipate when I wrote that paper, but the questions I pondered then, like "What impact does this have on my daily living in a multi-religious world?” and “What resources does my tradition offer for engaging with religious difference in practical ways?" have been my roadmap for the past decade.
When I think of my schoolmate Emily and wonder what impact an act of anti-Semitism had on her, that changes how I work within the ELCA to repudiate Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes. When I remember how my childhood church welcomed refugees, I am moved to join the airport protests in early 2016 against the former president’s so-called “Muslim ban” with a placard that read, “Lutheran Christians love our Muslim neighbors.”
When I think about my colleague’s grief in the wake of her cousin’s martyrdom at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a self-professed white supremacist who happened to be raised in a Lutheran church, I am compelled to teach my children Lutheran theology and social ethics that are intentionally anti-racist.
In the end, it boils down to the risk of relationships – yes, human relationships, but first and foremost our relationship to Jesus Christ in whom we are already united and reconciled. The lifelong journey of prayer and study thus becomes a joyous expedition of discovering what is already true.
Can you talk about the importance of the ELCA’s involvement in regional dialogue with other faith communities and how it impacts the global church?
In 2006, I was invited to be the young adult in the ELCA’s delegation to the World Council of Churches’ 9th Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil. I remember sitting in the assembly hall, utterly disoriented, and overwhelmed by my first experience of the global ecumenical movement. At the opening worship, as I realized there would be no Eucharist, my heart broke open. In that moment, I began to discern a call to a vocation at the crossroads of the ecumenical and inter-religious movements – in the heart of the Oikoumene, God’s whole inhabited earth.
Fast forward ten years to the ELCA’s 2016 Churchwide Assembly. Bishop Hanson, Bishop McCoid, Dr. Kathryn Johnson, and Dr. Joy Schroeder, along with their Catholic counterparts, were leading a hearing on US Lutheran-Catholic text called The Declaration on the Way that compellingly demonstrates 32 points of agreement reached over a half a century of dialogue at the international level. The presenters were prepared to answer technicalities about the text, but instead of asking questions, participants had come to share their yearning. A young woman, Khadijah Islam, told her story as the Lutheran child of an inter-religious family, and the Godmother to a baby baptized in the Catholic church. She shared her deep longing for the kind of unity in her lifetime that would allow her and this beloved baby to share in the fullest possible sense the sacramental life of the church. There was not a dry Lutheran or Catholic eye in the room.
These stories are why local, regional, national and international dialogues matter. They matter to – and for – real people. Our yearning for that which has been divided to be reunited points us, not only to our vocation, but to the vocation of the church for such a time as this.
The 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the September 11th attacks in the U.S. is this month. How did the hate speech against Muslims during that historic time impact you?
In the twenty years since 9/11, anti-Muslim hate has risen sharply in the United States.
In 2010, Christian and Jewish leaders joined together to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans and to end anti-Muslim bigotry and violence. In 2010, The ELCA became a founding member of the “Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign: Standing With American Muslims. Upholding American Ideals” and I’m serving my fifth year as co-chair. For me, the work of this interfaith campaign is the most compelling long-term response I can offer, along with equipping the people of the ELCA to better understand Islam, and to reach out in love to their Muslim neighbors.
Within the ELCA, we have a committee developing pastoral guidelines for ministry in a multi-religious world. While the guidelines are not yet finalized, one of the committee members, Rev. Kristen Glass Perez, wrote a blog post based on the work to date titled, “Pastoral guidelines for inter-religious observance of 9/11”. We hope that during this anniversary, with all the challenges unfolding in relationship to it, the church can lift up the narrative of inter-religious cooperation and solidarity in the face of trauma, violence, and loss - this may be one of the most meaningful after-effects of 9/11.
What does it mean for your church, for your work and for you to be a part of the communion of churches?
There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about what it means that we are part of the global communion. Daily I receive gifts from our colleagues in the communion office and across the world. I have been profoundly enriched by participating in various LWF networks, round table discussions, initiatives, and projects. This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a summer program offered through the Strasbourg Institute that allowed me and my ELCA colleagues to engage with a cohort of peers who are also passionate about the intersection between ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.
I am continuously reminded of the people I have met – in person and online – who bring the global Lutheran movement to life in my heart. I am reminded through them that the ELCA does not exist for itself, but as part of a whole, and that what we do and how we do it affects people all around the world, even as we are affected by others. This has been tremendously important at this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the gift and task of life in community, life as Christ’s church, united.
I will never forget the experience of being on the bus in Windhoek heading to the stadium for the Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. As I heard the people who had already arrived from far distances singing songs of praise, despite the heat, a lump formed in my throat. I am part of this. I squeezed hands with my sisters from the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus with whom I was sharing a seat. We are part of this, together. All of us who are part of the LWF share our joy for the polyphonic witness of the Lutheran communion. Together we rejoice that what it means to be church is pure freedom: freedom from sin, and freedom for the neighbor. Thanks be to God.
Video: Ms Kathryn Mary Lohre
The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.