Michelle Townsend de López on Unity and Change

Michelle Townsend de López smiling at a church lectern

When Michelle Townsend de López, MDiv ’09, stepped foot in the halls of ELCA in 2004 alongside several other students of color, she had high hopes that she was entering a bastion of progressive diversity.

In some ways, she was. But in others, a considerable amount of work remained.

Back in 1998, Rev. Frederick E.N. Rajan, executive director of the ELCA’s Commission for Multicultural Ministries, called racism “the misuse of God’s gift of diversity.”

His words held great importance for the leadership of the ELCA, keenly aware at that time that while 28% of the population of the United States self-identified as people of color, 98% of the ELCA was white.

The discrepancy in numbers was only part of the problem. As outlined in the ELCA’s Multicultural Ministry Strategy document, “A Strategy for Proclamation of the Gospel” (1991) and the “Recommitment to a Strategy for Proclamation of the Gospel” (1997), it was widely understood that for the seminary to achieve authentic diversity it would require more than just demographic remodeling. It would require a new approach to thinking about race, class, and lived experience and a commitment to honoring the values that people of all different backgrounds brought to the table as they sought God and life through faithful expression.

Rajan and his colleagues devised a plan. They would begin offering anti-racism trainings across synods, providing additional education and support to communities, both inside and outside the Church. They hoped this support would start a conversation that was desperately needed to align the values of the ELCA with the experiences of people in various congregations.

Such an alignment was desperately needed. Many people of color, including Rev. López, were converting to ELCA Lutheranism precisely because of the stated values of diversity, equity and justice that defined the denomination.

As Rev. López made the decision to serve the ELCA, she knew the practice of such values were more important than the promise of them.

“It goes beyond social statements,” she said. “It’s more important to see people actually living out our values, not just having them on a piece of paper we can point to.”

Rev. López decided to attend LSTC because she knew she would be part of a seminary that upheld the Christ-centered values of being responsive to context, committed to excellence and attentive to diversity through lived experience.

LSTC was a place of great personal transformation and growth for Rev. López, It’s where she became a Womanist theologian, following in the footsteps of one of her many mentors, Dr. Linda E. Thomas. It’s where she built a supportive community of scholars and leaders in faith who continue to support her today.

LTSC allowed Rev. López to chart her own path with an emphasis in Hispanic/Latino ministries by reinstating programmatic elements that had been discontinued prior to her enrollment. It’s a place where she made lifelong friends and memories.

But LTSC was a place of pain, too. Rev. López remembers participating in a protest in class that ultimately stopped a professor from showing racist and lascivious art as openings to students.

She remembers witnessing the children of other students playing with her young boys in Creation Courtyard and noticing that the Brown and Black children often ended up in fictitious “jail.” She took note that the play never seemed to include the adopted children of a gay couple on campus.

At LTSC, Rev. López had personal friends, other women of color, who had dropped out rather than face four years of fighting for the respect they deserved in seminary.

Those experiences are the reason that four years later, in 2013, when classmate Michelle Townsend de López, MDiv ’09, approached Rev. López to suggest she serve on the alumni board, she took pause.

She had to think about it.

“I always thought I didn’t have a place at the table,” Rev. López admitted. “Here was somebody inviting me to the table, so I thought I better take a seat. And that’s what I did.”

Thankfully, LSTC was ripe for change, and her work as an advocate for justice was welcomed by the administration, faculty and staff at LSTC, many of whom experienced discrimination themselves as students that had an impact on them or their careers.

Rev. López saw unlimited opportunities at LTSC to make lasting change.

The many diverse facilities continue to provide invaluable resources for LTSC’s diverse student body, including A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice (CCME);  the Albert “Pete” Pero Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies;  the Zygon Center for Religion and Science; and the LSTC Leadership Development Initiatives; as well as offerings from other ACTS consortium schools and the University of Chicago.

Learning about the unique lived experiences of the global student body helped Rev. López understood that the stated values of LSTC. She quickly realized these values, espoused and lived out by leadership, faculty, staff and students, were worth fighting for.

“The support of the dean, professors, and President Echols, then later President Nieman encouraged everyone not to give up,” Rev. López said. “People owned their mistakes as they worked for something better.”

She continued, “In my work, I wanted to figure out where we could enter together and do the divine creator’s work together.”

Rev. López’s vision to transform pain into power and possibility served not only the interests of LSTC and the Church, but also provided a framework for managing other difficult situations like mergers, sales, and changes in ministry leadership.

Her favorite lesson? “My experiences speak a lot to the reality of LSTC wanting to live into our social values…that has been a solid thing for LSTC. We haven’t stayed immobilized. When there was a problem, we did something. We were always willing to bite the bullet and do the thing.”

LSTC continues to work towards a future that clearly and intentionally aligns with our stated values. Over half of the 2023 Strategic Plan focused on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice with an emphasis on seeking equity, BIPOC student recruitment and retention and authentic diversity, tenants borne out of the commitments adopted by the ELCA in the 2019 Churchwide Assembly meeting.

Together, we are convening a reparations task force, engaging with the student body around the needs of our BIPOC community members, and making best use of the Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr. and Cheryl Stewart Pero Center for Intersectionality Studies directed by Dr. Linda Thomas.

LSTC – and Rev. López – look forward to facing the challenges of the future with an open heart and a willingness to do the work.

“Thanks to what I went through in seminary, I’m well-equipped to face these challenges,” Rev. López says. “I would never trade it in for something different because it has shaped the way that I’ve pastored and the things that I’ve learned.”

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