America’s largest Lutheran denomination made history this weekend with the elections of two African-American women as bishops.
The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport holds the distinction of being the first African-American woman bishop in the 3.5 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Her election on Saturday made her the bishop of the ELCA’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, a region that includes the city of Philadelphia.
One day later, the ELCA’s South-Central Synod of Wisconsin elected Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld as bishop.
Members of the church and observers hailed the elections as a positive move for the ELCA, which is one of the least racially diverse religious groups in the U.S. Only 2 percent of members identified as black in a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, compared to 96 percent who identified as white.
The ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said she hoped the elections are the start of a new chapter for the denomination.
“This is good news for the ELCA,” Eaton told HuffPost in an email. “Both women are leaders who have served our church for years. I think God is opening our eyes to see the giftedness of people of color. I am excited and honored to serve with them.”
The denomination formed in 1988 as the result of a merger between three American Lutheran churches. It traces its roots back to the mid-17th century, when Lutherans from Europe came to America to settle in the Virgin Islands and in the New York area. Further back, the framework for Lutheran beliefs was laid out by the German theologian Martin Luther, a pivotal figure in the Protestant Reformation.
Like other mainline Protestant churches, the ELCA has seen its membership shrink in recent years.
Watch a video message from Rev. Patricia A. Davenport below.
Thomas-Breitfeld, 65, was the interim pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beloit, Wisconsin, and a graduate of Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary. She told the Wisconsin State Journal that she hopes she can help the ELCA become more open to change and more relevant to minorities and young adults.
“I think that, sometimes, our beloved ELCA is stuck on just being, ‘Oh, this is the way it is.’ There’s a reason we look the way we look. It’s because we have not valued those who don’t look like us,” she said.
Davenport, 63, currently serves as her synod’s director for evangelical mission. She is a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
The pastor told HuffPost that she believes “systemic racism and socio-economics” have contributed to ELCA being one of the least diverse American religious groups. She said it was difficult for the ELCA to sustain congregations in poorer and urban communities. Davenport added a lack of accessibility to higher education among low-income communities limits the pool of pastoral leaders of color.
“And there is White privilege that does not permit equal opportunities for people of color to serve in all three expressions of our denomination: congregations, synods and the national office,” the pastor wrote in an email.
Davenport added she hopes these elections become a “tipping point” for the ELCA.
“I was the first of two African Descent women who have pushed through the door marked ‘for Whites only’ for 30 years too long,” she wrote. “Change has come because people of color will be at the table, even more so because we are resilient, equipped and willing to live into the Prophet Micah’s call, ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ on behalf of those who have elected us to serve.”
Thomas-Breitfeld and Davenport have installations scheduled for this August and September, respectively.