A prophetic call

Breonna Lyons (left), Willie Korboi and Arlene Williams attend the annual gathering for Elisha's Call, an ELCA ministry discernment program for young Lutheran leaders of African descent. Photo: Erin G. Wesley

By Karris Golden

Not everyone sees urban planning and food security as “ministries”—but Alexis Pennie does.

Personally and professionally, Pennie is devoted to promoting health and wellness, the availability of quality food and equitable access to outdoor recreation. “My goal is to make sure [communities] work toward the same goals: engagement, sustainability, wealth creation,” said Pennie, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

His work as an urban planner and active transportation consultant is a calling, though it’s not a formal, church-affiliated vocation. Through Elisha’s Call, an ELCA ministry discernment program, he’s found like-minded peers in similar positions.

Elisha’s Call connects young adults of African descent to ministry resources and networks, including through an annual gathering. Pennie, now age 32, first attended three years ago, as did Sharei Green.

“Elisha’s Call [is] a safe place to come and be who you are,” said Green, Lutheran Disaster Response program coordinator and vice president of Bethel Lutheran Church in Chicago. “I don’t have words to describe how important that is for people of color in this church. It was the first time in a long time I’ve been in a group of people … who were young and Lutheran and black.”

The program emphasizes connecting attendees to local networks, said Lucille Mills, program associate for ELCA African Descent Ministries, adding, “[It] is intentionally designed to not be the start of a national cohort. Instead, the hope is this program will have its highest impact on their home communities.”

Each year, participants gather for an extended weekend at the Lutheran Center in Chicago. “It’s set at the churchwide offices to expose those in attendance to all the resources and staff available [there],” Mills said. “Having the young adults there also provides an opportunity for our staff to be exposed to these leaders in the church, [to] meet them and make connections they can call on in the future.”  

Bestowing the mantle of leadership

Elisha’s Call draws from seven metropolitan areas, said Albert Starr, director of ELCA Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries.

Designated leaders from each region offer the names of three young adults from their communities, aged 18 to 35, who demonstrate capacity for leadership and service—two of whom are new to the program, and one of whom is an Elisha’s Call alumna or alumnus. This model helps reinforce local networks while widening circles of leadership, Starr explained.

“We don’t choose who comes. These are the names that come from their local context,” he said. “We get young adults [who serve as] president, secretary, treasurer of their congregations, leaders of youth ministry, members of their synod council.”

The impact of connecting with other young leaders of color is profound, Pennie said. “In mainstream society, people of color are often depicted on the margins,” he added. “It’s incredibly important that we create our own narratives … about the motivated, engaged individuals doing things to improve communities. Young people need to see they can get there successfully and that they have support to get there.”

Such support requires bonds between Elisha’s Call participants and elders, Starr said. “We try to talk honestly and ask, ‘What are some of the hindrances—things that get in the way of relationships between young adults and elders?’ ” he added. “Part of my responsibility [is] to make sure we can facilitate development and transitioning of leadership in local contexts.”

The program is named to emphasize intergenerational ties, said Starr, referencing 1 Kings 19:19-21. In the passage, God sends the aging Elijah to bestow the mantle of leadership on the younger Elisha. “Using the imagery of that connection between two generations of servant leaders, Elijah and Elisha, and how that call and that exchange was made is very powerful,” he said.

“Always discerning”

Seminaries also have gotten involved in the program. A recent grant to all ELCA seminaries bolstered efforts to encourage theological education among African descent communities. In March, United Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania will host a local Elisha’s Call.

“This connection helps young adults take a look at what shapes scholastic life and look at the different degree options … in addition to ordained ministry,” Mills said.

Balance is essential, Starr said, adding, “I know there’s a significant need for rostered [ministers], but there’s also the need for encouragement of lay leaders in all ministry contexts.”

Green, who coordinated this year’s event after Elisha’s Call alumni were tapped to plan gatherings, didn’t initially see herself fitting what she perceived as the “traditional pastor” role. But being asked to envision the pastoral experience she’d create for herself changed her perspective.

“I talk about discernment as a never-ending journey that applies to different kinds of ministry,” Green said. “You’re not only ‘discerning your call’ if you feel pulled toward ordained ministry. And you don’t stop discerning once you’re a pastor. You’re always discerning.”

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