A Story of the Vestments


In 2003, I was honored to be a part of the ELCA National Youth Gathering as bible study teacher/preacher. The theme of the Gathering was Ubuntu. In the teacher/preacher role I was given a vestment from Africa to wear. After the Gathering I was gifted the vestment by then Bishop Mark Hansen.

When I returned to my congregation, a seamstress of the congregation, Nancy Bowman agreed to make me a copy of this vestment for every season of the church year. I gave her African fabric that had been gifted to me from a dear friend and I shopped at the African market in Harlem for some.

So, I have been wearing this type of vestment called a dalmatic for over 15 years. I wear this instead of a stole because this vestment to me seems women clergy friendly. It feels more like me and it allows me to represent all of my identity. I am a woman of African descent who is a Lutheran clergy person. All of my vestments made of some African Cloth in the design I believe help me to be fully who I am and walk fully in my call.

In May, when a historic moment in the ELCA took place, the election of two African American Women clergy to the office of synodical bishop, I reached out to my sister clergy and asked would they like vestments like these for the installation of these two bishops. I stated that I could commission dalmatics from tailors in Africa. They were as excited as I was about these events and wanted something special; I said that I could commission fifteen. I knew that I was traveling to Cameroon, Senegal and the Gambia before the installations of the bishops. Though I said fifteen, the request grew to over thirty.

My job takes me to Madagascar, Rwanda and countries in West and Central Africa. I have come to know tailors in many of these countries. Commissioning tailors in countries in Africa would do a number of things: 1) it would help the local economies; 2) it would connect African descent women clergy to their ancestry; 3) it would be a public witness of our support for our sister bishops.

To help with this task I enlisted missionaries in these countries to help. First was Anne Langdji, regional representative in Cameroon, she and her husband , Willie, helped me shop for cloth;  commission their tailor Ruben and delivered vestments to the USA when they came for home assignment. Ruben made 20 of the vestments.

The next missionary who helped was Rev. Kristin Engstrom who serves as the YAGM coordinator in Senegal. She also shopped with me, helped me think of designs and commissioned Sellie a tailor that she graciously shares with me to make the vestments. Sellie made seven. Kristin delivered them to the USA in July.

I was also in the Gambia where I used the tailor Aliou who works in his cousin’s shop to make two of the vestments.

The last five vestments were made by Rev. Janelle Neubauer’s tailor, Mark, in Rwanda. Janelle is the YAGM Coordinator there.

vestments Viviane installation
African American Lutheran Pastors

Above is a picture of African American Women Lutheran Clergy gathered for Bishop Viviane Thomas Breitfeld’s installation wearing these vestments.

We wanted to wear these vestments as a sign of our identity and of support for our two African American Women Bishops.

I am now commissioning vestments for other seasons of the church year. I am able to do this because I am always westafricabound.

These Trees


I wonder how old they were then. When Africans were hustled to the sea for transport. Some of their roots are above ground. These ancient roots are tangled perhaps from trying to see, then hiding from the atrocities that took place. They saw Africans, those who lived on the land; those who had families, tribes and villages. Africans who grew food and hunted among these trees were driven to the shore in chains and herded into ships hewn from the wood of trees. They were packed like sardines on wooden planks made from the relatives of these very trees, to be shipped to the new world.

Could these trees like the Baobab all over West Africa have provided shelter for those who were running, trying to find a place of protection? Probably not, some of them have branches with leaves that are too far off the ground to provide protection,. Though some of their cousins that stood nearby tried to provide a hiding place. Every now and then because of trees, perhaps the thick trunks, or the ability to climb, one African, man or woman or child escaped capture to run back to the village to tell. They were able to call the names of those who were now gone, to remember those who were carried out on the water that did not end.

The stories that these trees could tell: of hurt and pain and capture, of love and family, of fun, of how it used to be before those with pale skin came and how it was after. These stories were whispered as I sat in a lounge chair, enjoying the African sun so close to the Atlantic Ocean. I sat a descendant of those taken and those who took. I sat with many who may be ancestors of the captors. These oblivious visitors who now sit listening to the sounds of the ocean that once carried Africans as profit for their lives. Now they come to sip fresh juice and rum. Now they come to dip in the cool water and listen to the waves.

The days of capture are over, yet the Africans still feel the affects of those days. The affects of colonization are still so apparent. Poverty is rampant in this country outside the walls of this oasis of luxury. In this place the Africans serve and wait on those who once stole their relatives. The Africans laugh and entertain to make a living in this place of vacation leisure. And the trees are still witnesses.

L.O.V.E. as an act of accompaniment (part 1)

I am on a plane flying back to Chicago from the African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA) Assembly.  This year it was a joint assembly with Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE).  Though I had to leave before the end of the assembly, the three days that I attended were full of challenge to be more fully who we are as justice seekers.  There was also ample time for worship and fellowship.  I hated to go.  There were speakers like Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, who asked us, “what does it mean to organize?”  And Rev. Leah Daughtry who told us to, “recognize our strength.”  I know as I left that the challenge and a call to do and be more in our church and world are continuing until Tuesday evening.

Invited to the assembly by the Rev. Lamont Wells, who is the association’s president, I was able to talk about the exciting work I do with ELCA Global Mission.  It became an opportunity to lift up the values of accompaniment, extend an opportunity to the gathered community and give thanks to God.                                                    img_7236

I began by lifting up the opportunities for service including long term missionary service, Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) and volunteer opportunities.

I told the gathered community I was not sure of the values of accompaniment when I first started this work.  I am clear about those now: mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment and sustainability.  I showed the group these values in my PowerPoint presentation.  I also mentioned my understanding of living out accompaniment; when I was initially interviewed for the position of Area Director, I told the interviewers, that accompaniment is an act of LOVE.  This means for me whenever you entire a new situation, a new congregation, a new culture, a new country, or a new relationship you: L- listen, O- observe, V- value, and then E- engage.

This has been my way of seeing my work and function since I began my vocation of pastor.  This way of being, this way of thinking, has held me in a good position as I preached and led a congregation and it influences and guides the work I do now in the Madagascar, West and Central Africa region.

I issued an invitation for the community to accompany me on small volunteer missionary projects through The MWCA4MWCA project.  I told them of the first trip to Liberia that two community members were able to join me on and the success that was had teaching preaching to 82 pastors.  I ended by telling them that when the Holy Spirit shows up, the Holy Spirit shows out and that is certainly how I feel about the work I do.  I give thanks for  this global work and I give thanks for God’s possibilities as more and more people of color get involved.

Doing What I Love!

IMG_6133My heart was broken open by pastors of the Lutheran Church in Rwanda. This happened as they responded to the brief three hour teaching that I did with them on Lutheran Theology and Preaching Law and Gospel. Rev. Kate Warn, YAGM Coordinator in Rwanda, and I traveled to Rukira, up a steep unpaved mountain road to be with this group. It was a request from Bishop Mugabo of LCR thIMG_6157at brought us there.

The teaching began as I answered the question that Bp. Mugabo had posed to me “Why Lutheran?” He wanted me to discuss with his pastors what difference it made to be Lutheran. I started my teaching that needed to be translated from English to Kinyarwanda. Right in the middle of my presentation the heavens opened up and there was a down pour. So, I stopped talking and the pastors began to sing. Not only did this mostly male group sing, they also danced. They stretched out their arms like cow horns and seemingly began to glide graceful around the room. It was amazing hearing songs of praise to God and seeing dance to accompany it. As the rain poured so did my eyes.

When the rain cleared the teaching continued. It was obvious that they were eager to learn; they were attentive and asked excellent questions. One of those questions was from one of the women in the room. She asked, “if God’s grace is free and there is nothing that we can do to earn it, why bother going to church?” All my seventeen years as a pastor, I had never been asked this question. This young Rwandan woman who was on the path to ordination astonished me. Fortunately, there is an answer and it was right on the tip of my tongue. I turned to my colleague Rev. Kate Warn and I said “the means of grace; right?”

I then began to explain that we go to church to be strengthened by the hearing of the word, to receive Christ himself through bread and wine, body and blood and to be held up by the mutual consolation of the faithful.  I am grateful that this seemed to be a satisfactory answer for this wonderfully inquisitive soon to be pastor. I am also grateful that the answer was in my heart and on my lips.

The day continued with sharing, conversation and listening to the teaching of Rev. Prince, general secretary of the church, and others. Liturgy and the Augsburg Confession were also being taught. For some, this was the first time they had heard about these major tenets of the Lutheran faith.

The next day they thanked Pr. Kate and I for making the trip up the mountain to be with them. They had a brief presentation and sang a song for us that included the beautiful, graceful dance that is part of Rwandan culture. They also prayed for the two of us. They asked God to provide us with health, strength and traveling mercies. They especially prayed for our safe passage down the mountain. They knew that we Americans would be frightened driving down a wet, slippery, muddy road.

We were blessed. I am not sure what the pastors got from our time together. What I received was a strengthened love for Jesus; a renewed passion for the proclamation of the gospel and a heart for the people of Rwanda. From this visit I felt a wonderful sense of being and doing exactly what God would have me do! And doing what I love. I thank the bishop for the invitation and the pastors simply for being.

As always, I am continually Madagascar, West and Central Africa bound.

*(excuse the upside down video, I just wanted to share)

Race, Ethnicity and Culture …..continued

This beautiful picture is the first thing that you see as you walk into a church in West Africa. While it is a well done rendition of Jesus greeting and blessing the people, there is something problematic about this picture for me. Everything I have read tells me that Jesus was of Jewish descent and was able to blend in as he and his family fled to Egypt.

That Jesus is not what I see represented here. Even in 2017 this is what can be seen in an African church. Enough said.

As always, I am westafricabound.

Give them Grace

Sermon preached for MWCA4MWCA Preaching Workshop in Totota, Liberia

Ephesians 4:25 -5:2

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”img_5256

Pray with me:

Sometimes we don’t feel like preaching. Sometimes the news is anything but good. Sometimes nothing but corrupting talk wants to spill out of my mouth. Yet as a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ. That anything I say, as the writer of Ephesians says “may give grace to those who hear.”

But today I’m not feeling it!

If I had to preach in a congregation in the United States this morning, I would be preaching with a heavy heart, with anger and sadness. By now everyone in the world has seen the election of a man that has:

bashed immigrants,

disrespected women,

threatened to build a wall

and bragged about what he can do to women.

The US has elected a man who has fed into many Americans worst fears: fear of having a black man in the “white house,” fear of increased diversity in the US, fear of an America that is different than it was 50 years ago. He has said, that he will make “America Great Again.”

And that makes me angry!

For those of us who have ancestors stolen from the shores of Africa, enslaved and treated in justly from the founding of the United States, I wonder just who America has been great for. Yes, I am proud to be an American when America is at its best, but now?


As an American descendent from Africans this election makes me sad and worried. I am not worried about myself, I can in my travels get away from all the prejudice that has risen -up in the US. I worry for my dark brown son and all the little brown boys like my grandson. I worry because they may be in places in their own country and still be treated as though they don’t belong. I worry about women and little girls.

I also worry about all those who I encounter around the world who voiced their fear as soon as the newly elected person came on the scene. They thought that his throwing his hat in the ring to be president was a joke.

Now the joke is on all of us!

As a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ. That anything I say, as the writer of Ephesians says “may give grace to those who hear.”

But this stinks.

I cry out is there a word from the Lord? While I wonder, how this will affect those who travel as US citizens? Will other countries close their doors? What does this mean for all the people I have come to love on this amazing continent of Africa? Will this election make it even harder for black and brown people to travel to the U.S.? What does this mean for you my friends?

I ask because we all know that what happens in the United States affects the world. How I wish it weren’t so, but it is!

Even so, as a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light- of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ.  That anything I say may give grace to those who hear.

I am not doing so good this morning. The law is holding sway at this moment, because to me this situation really – leaves a bad taste in our mouths and a foul smell in the air. In the African American community, we have become used to foul smells. The smell of gunfire on the streets as a black or brown male child lays dying.

The smell of decay as communities suffer from the greed of corporations, the prejudices of people, corruption and malice just because we are the countries darker citizens, and our lives don’t matter to some. I know the smell of flowing tears as parents and grandparents suffered injustices at the hands of others, for just wanting to do better.

And I have even experienced the smell of death as a child because the neighbors didn’t like the brown people moved in next door and killed our pet. I am afraid that recent events and especially this election may have set the U.S. back to such a time. A time when hurt anger and fear were always right at the surface – back over 50 years.

This makes my heart heavy and has me feeling ill and I hear the words of the writer of Ephesians that tell me despite how we feel and what we are going through

We are to be kind to one another, to forgive, to be like God, to walk in love. Because perfect love casts out fear . . .

I know the writer of Ephesians isn’t necessarily talking about the preaching task; he is talking about the new life that we live in Christ; he is taking about words that come from our months; he is talking about our better nature made possible through Jesus the Christ.

With the recent events in my country I don’t want to preach, what wants to come from my mouth is a loud scream.


Then I remember, I am descendent from a people who despite the hurt, anger and fear they experience time after time in the history of the United States have devised a mechanism to cope. Through it all Black American preachers developed a style and a way of preaching that sustains the weary with the Word. Preachers like my grandfather knew how to encourage a congregation after they had been beaten, treated badly and attacked as they protested for equal rights. He used poetry, rhetoric and song,

But I am not my grandfather and it’s hard right now. So, I am looking for a word… a word that isn’t dependent on my actions, a word that doesn’t expect me to get it right when I can’t – a word that isn’t dependent on how I feel – good or bad.

I know, as a preacher, I preach and my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ. That anything I say may give grace to those who hear.

Yet I don’t know if I can. I suppose this may have been the way you felt in the middle of the Ebola crisis, afraid, cautious, angry at the injustice of it all. I can imagine that your pain was ten thousand times worse than how I feel right now.

I can imagine you wondering when it would be over and what would happen afterwards . . . And yet Sunday after Sunday you were called to stand and preach, a word – a word of grace, a word of hope, a word of love. I can only imagine what strength, what dedication, what love that took. And yet you did!


When there are trials, and hardships, sickness and death we – who are called to preach have a task: that is to set whatever is wrong in our time, whatever is wrong in our place, whatever is wrong in our situation-in-light-of the faith that we have in Jesus Christ. “That what we say may give grace to those who hear.”

And preachers, the only way I know how to do that is through the word. Not through what I think, but through the word made flesh, through the words that point to hope and love, through the words of scripture.


And reading to the end of the lectionary text for today I found that word. The word that is beginning to lift me from the depths of my despair at what has happened in my country-a word that calms my doubts and soothes my fears. I found that word that encourages me and keeps me going. Preachers I found that word that helps me remember that God can make a way out of no way; I found that word bishop that gives me joy deep down in my soul; I found that word that has the power to pick me up turn me around and place my fight on solid ground.

I found that word right in the fifth chapter of Ephesians

That word is: “. . . Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Did you hear that Jesus is described as a fragrant offering?

A sweet-smelling gift like perfume

a fragrance that is pleasant to the senses

Jesus — a fragrance so sweet that the stench of disease cannot overcome it

Jesus — a fragrance so powerful that principalities and powers

Election results and uncertainty cannot whisk it away

Jesus a fragrance so lovely that it gets in our nostrils and gives us the ability to keep on keeping on

Jesus, a fragrance my brothers and sisters that covered up the stink of death

Jesus, a fragrance that permeates the air even after three days as he rose from the grave

Jesus is a fragrant offering that stays with us, in and out of season

Jesus is a fragrance that floats in the air as love!

Yes, people of God, I am hurt, angry and disappointed because of all that I have heard in the news about the elections in my country this last week, I don’t know what is going to happen! Yet, I am a preacher, and as I preach my task is to set what is wrong with the world in-light- of the faith that we have in Jesus the Christ.“That it may give grace to those who hear.” And I need God to help me!

So, whenever I stand to preach, whenever you stand and preach whether the situation is pleasant or brings out feelings of anger, hurt or despair, take a deep breath and pray that you may draw in a whiff of that sweet, sweet fragrance – Jesus the Christ and give them grace!



Changing the World One Song at a time

This week, I was able to step out of my normally scheduled program to be the chaplain for the ELCA/Global Mission Annual Musician Training. This is a once a year event where musician educators come together, to share, to learn and to be feed. It is one of the most diverse and ecumenical spaces that I have had the privilege to occupy. The gathering includes musicians that represent in their ethnicity most of the world: African, Asian, European, Indian, and Latin American. It also includes people from denominations and faith traditions other than Lutheran.


For me this is a group that represents what the kingdom of God looks like. It was an amazing five days. The keynote speaker for the event was Daniel Onyango, a community activist from Kenya. He works and lives in one of the major slums in Nairobi Kenya. He brought with him his love for his people, his passion for justice and his skills as a musician. The gathering was blessed beyond words by his presence.

Some of the people in the room were not church musicians; they were people who hold justice and love in their hearts and were there to sing, listen, pray and join in the spirit filled way that this event comes together. They were there to take back what they saw and heard so that they might be able to live out and be about the love of God that was evidenced in that place.                                                                               img_5608

All of this is possible because of the love and commitment of Rev. Sunitha Mortha who works in Global Mission as an educator for mission. She heads the Mission Formation team and is tasked with teaching the principle of accompaniment during events of the ELCA and spaces she is invited into. This group of glocal musician educators assist her in this task. This beautiful woman is all about mutuality, inclusivity, vulnerability, empowerment and sustainability. She walks it, talks it and lives it. This space is a space of accompaniment, justice and love.

I was also privileged to preach at the pre-event with a group of musicians called “the core.” These are the musicians who lead and teach the rest of the participants. Below is the sermon I preached.


I will not forget what I have seen and heard and how I have been strengthened in my work and witness by these amazing people and this event.


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