07/31/2015 01:47 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Changing Hearts in the Heartland

Christopher Futcher via Getty Images

I have just returned from two significant events: The ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit and the ELCA Worship Jubilee. Both were splendid experiences that we can unpack at another time. It was visiting the Civil and Human Rights museum, then worshipping at Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, both in Atlanta, that both moved me to tears and forced me to consider our life together in the aftermath of the shootings in Charleston, and many other places, and the riptide that needs to be addressed. Hate.

Whenever one of my children would say something like, "I hate hot dogs," or "I hate when people make that noise," or "I hate anyone of a number of sports teams that played against Minnesota teams," I would say, "hate" is a strong word. I write you now because I have the sense that hate, more than a very strong word, is affecting our church and communities, and pulling us under. We see it manifested in intolerance of others and appears with any one of a number of labels; sexism, anti-cityism, anti-ruralism, anti-youth, anti-aged, feminism, anti-feminism, ecclesiastical arrogance, and especially racism (both covert and overt).

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has written a letter addressing racism and called on us to spend time in mourning and repentance. In 1993 our church agreed on a social statement FREED IN CHRIST: RACE, ETHNICITY, AND CULTURE . In Western Iowa, the synod I serve as bishop, we are experiencing a huge influx of new neighbors who do not look like us nor talk like us, and some folk here are not always comfortable with strangers. I sense that we need to start with the core issue of hate before we work to end racism. I have wondered how and why God has defined the path I've journeyed on so far -- sending me to places ranging from Tanzania to Chile to church basements. Then it occurred to me these are some of the areas where hate has taken its greatest toll.

• Bagamoyo, Tanzania is a coastal city just north of Dar Salam, and was the point of departure for slave ships for centuries. In current times the markets in developed countries for rhino horns and elephant ivory are decimating the animal populations in Tanzania and pushing them to near extinction levels.

• In the early 19th century freed slaves were becoming an issue for many in the United States. Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society to send them back to where they came from. Little thought was given to the indigenous people of the area and it became another place where the new comers where not welcome and fighting erupted over who would control the country's natural resources. War, fed by greed, has been a constant reality for over two hundred years.

• Dissident clergy where sent to Buchenwald for their anti-Nazi preaching and refusal to support the fascist movement during WWII. The Maritim Hotel (our base in Berlin) is across the street from the Resistance Museum, the place where many leaders of the movement where murdered.

• The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Chile split from other Lutherans in Chile 40 years ago because they were compelled by their faith to be in solidarity with those detained, tortured and murdered by the Pinochet regime, supported by our CIA. That church schism remains today.

• Refugees are fleeing the danger in their Central American home countries, facing extreme peril in Mexico, hoping to find a life of safety in our land of abundance.

• Then to be in Atlanta and visit Martin Luther King, Jr's congregation and site of his grave brought my travel together.

• It comes much closer to home. I have also seen the monster show itself in the struggles around the acceptance of gender orientation, and civil and church policy changes concerning homosexual unions, by folks from both sides of the issue. People may not have died, however relationships were destroyed and the church crippled.

All of these locations graphically demonstrated to me how sinfilled hate can result in sinfilled behavior. We need to address hate now.

I am praying that a lay and clergy leaders will agree to join me in planning a process (differing from being a "program," in that it will be the beginning of a new era) and do holy dreaming about what would be effective in casting out the unholy from the church and the community in our area. I will be forming a task force to be known as "Changing Hearts in the Heartland" and need your help. First, pray for those who have been oppressed by hate throughout the world and for those who have afflicted them. Work with the other leaders of your congregation and community to bring hate to the discussion table. Then pray that we may find a way to bring about a change of heart. If you are moved through prayer to be a part of this process, please contact me.

Seeking Peace and Justice,

Bishop Rodger Prois
Western Iowa Synod, ELCA