Living into God’s image
Reflections of Light: The Odyssey of a Black American Lutheran Pastor During the Civil Rights Years. Lonnie L. Branch. Minneapolis: Kirk House Publishers. 2014. $15.95, paperback. 266 pages. www.kirkhouse.com.
Lonnie Branch’s personal memoir, titled Reflections of Light, offers powerful reflections on both church and society. The author has lived 82 years, just over half of them as a Lutheran pastor. He writes movingly of God’s love as a light that beams healing and justice into a culture whose racism reigns also in communities of faith.
Branch’s early life divides into four decade-long segments: 1932-42 childhood in Memphis; 1942-53 reaching adulthood in Chicago; 1953-62 marriage, family, early work in Chicago; 1962-71 civil-rights era and becoming Lutheran.
For his first three decades, Branch lived loosely in the black Baptist tradition. Just a few days shy of turning 20 he was baptized at a Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago; a year later he and wife Doris were married there.
In 1962 the Branches moved to the Cabrini-Green public housing complex in north Chicago. They soon became involved with nearby Holy Family Lutheran, a new congregation of The American Lutheran Church (ALC) that had both white and black members. Its young white pastor, Fred Downing, encouraged Branch into lay leadership at Holy Family, then helped him hear God’s call to become “a fisher of human beings.”
The 1960s civil-rights movement was moving U.S. Lutherans, overwhelmingly white, to seek more racial inclusiveness. In 1967, with financial support from ALC, Branch began seminary study at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. After a final year at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, he was ordained in 1971 upon call to a new congregation start in Houston, Texas. He was the ninth African-American pastor on the ALC clergy roster.
In the image of God
After three years in Texas, Branch was called by Lutheran Social Service of Iowa to be the first black chaplain in the Iowa penal system. He served three years at the Men’s Reformatory in Anamosa.
In 1976 he returned to parish ministry when called by Prince of Glory Lutheran Church, a mixed-race congregation located in a north Minneapolis public housing community. He served there with a young first-call pastor named Mark Hanson. (Yes, it was “the Mark Hanson” who later served as regional bishop in St. Paul and as presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) As co-pastors, their first priority, Branch writes, was to be “role models [by sharing] equally pastoral duties.”
In 1983 Branch returned to the South, accepting a call to a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation in Mobile, Alabama. Then he served Atonement Lutheran (ELCA) in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1989 to 1996. While there he became president of the ELCA Southeastern Synod Black Pastors Conference. In that role he was “a chief advisor and invaluable colleague,” says Harold Skillrud, first bishop of the new ELCA’s Atlanta-based synod.
Branch in 1996 returned to corrections chaplaincy — and to Minnesota. He was called by the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches to be chaplain at Hennepin County’s Adult Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Minnesota, where he served for three years.
Since 1996 Lonnie and Doris Branch have lived in Brooklyn Center and have been members at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis, where he served part-time as visitation pastor following his chaplaincy retirement in 1999.
In all his ministry calls, covering more than three decades, Lonnie Branch says he had one controlling goal: “to define African — black — Americans as people created in God’s image.”
Black Americans, he concludes, “must continue to pursue a place at the table of socio-economic and political equality. To do less ignores the sacrifices of our forebears and flies in the face of being created in God’s image.”
Charles P. Lutz is editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran. He is a member of Lutheran Church of Christ the Redeemer in Minneapolis.
Tags: ALC, Atonement Lutheran Church Atlanta, Cabrini-Green, Charles P. Lutz, Doris Branch, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Fred Downing, Harold Skillrud, Hennepin County’s Adult Correctional Facility, Holy Family Lutheran Church Chicago, Kirk House Publishers, Lonnie Branch, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Lutheran Social Service of Iowa, Mark Hanson, Men’s Reformatory in Anamosa, Missionary Baptist Church Chicago, Prince of Glory Lutheran Church Minneapolis, Reflections of Light, Southeastern Synod Black Pastors Conference, St. Olaf Lutheran Church Minneapolis, The American Lutheran Church, Wartburg Seminary