by Judith Roberts

“. . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, [a] you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:35-40

During the church season of Epiphany, adults and children in our congregations celebrate how God was made flesh in Jesus Christ. We listen to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, where he identifies with those who live on the margins of society and those who suffer. Although Jesus, a literate and able-bodied Jewish man is in a position of privilege in his society, he chooses to identify with the least of these, children and the oppressed.

Jesus’ disciples walk with him daily, but they were not always aware that certain groups of people Jesus met faced insurmountable barriers, lacked opportunities and lived with the most meager of resources. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus works for justice and expects his followers to do the same.

Racism and other forms of oppression are violations of God’s intention for all humanity. Before we can work for racial justice, we must first be aware of the manifestation of racism within our thoughts, our institutions, our interactions and our society.

Defining racism

According to definitions provided by the organization “Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation,” racism operates at four levels across society.Internalized racism is the private manifestation of thoughts about our own racial identity. White people internalize a message of racial superiority based on their skin color. People of color internalize a message of racial inferiority. White people receive unearned benefits or privileges because of their skin and people of color are oppressed because of their skin color.

Interpersonal racism exists when we bring our personal thoughts about self and the other into interpersonal encounters.

Institutionalized racism is seen in policies, practices, attitudes and actions that advantage white people as a whole and disadvantage people of color.

Structural racism is racial bias across institutions and society. It’s the cumulative and compounded effect of factors that systematically benefit white people and disadvantage people of color.

Pursuing racial justice requires us to face the realities of social, political and economic injustices that create unfair opportunities for people of color.

The church that pursues justice will: Work for a society where racial and ethnic diversity is truly valued; challenge how race and ethnicity figure in political decisions on immigration, crime and environmental pollution; and will challenge economic forces that work against people of color in housing, medical care, education, and employment.1

Each new day we have an opportunity to participate and live out our values as people of Christian faith through our actions. Working for racial justice requires ongoing, intentional faith practices, actions and attitudes that lead to fair opportunity and access for all people in both church and society. Guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we work towards creating the world we wish to see.

12 faith practices for racial justice

1. Pray with and for individuals, families and communities impacted by acts of violence, discrimination and injustice.

2. Read and reflect on scripture. Pay attention to how the Holy Spirit may be leading you to act.

3. Listen to and learn from the experiences and history of people of color. There are many resources (for example, books, museums, documentaries, publications and lecture series) that lift up the stories of people of color. Listen to the concerns of people of color within your community.

4. Spend resources on causes that promote equity and access for all.

5. Use social media and technology (for example, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, texts and email) to inform your networks on ways to take action on injustice.

6. Speak up when you hear or see discriminatory comments or actions.

7. Have an open heart and open mind when introduced to ideas or beliefs that are different than your own.

8. Be courageous and take risks for racial justice, even if you don’t always get it right.

9. Join in solidarity with others who are working for civil and human rights. National organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have a distinguished history of working for equity.

10. Vote for political leaders and policies that promote the value, respect, dignity and worth of all people, both domestically and globally. Listen carefully for racially coded messages. Visit the ELCA advocacy page ( and sign up for action alerts.

11. Build relationships with people from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds than your own.

12. Participate in an interfaith and/or ecumenical community worship service.

Discussion questions

1. In what ways do you experience privilege or oppression because of your racial/ethnic identity?

2. What are the racial injustices within your community, church and society?

3. What commitments for racial justice will you make for the next 3 days, 30 days or calendar year?

Closing prayer:

Good and gracious God, you have called your people to work for justice. Help us to clearly see the ways racism resides within our private thoughts about ourselves, in our interactions with each other, and through the policies, actions and attitudes within institutions and across society. Guide our actions, transform our thoughts and stir our hearts to work for a society that values the intrinsic worth of all of your people. Amen.

Judith Roberts serves as ELCA Program Director for Racial Justice. The work of the ELCA Racial Justice ministries educates, equips and engages leaders to analyze the systems of racism and identify solutions that create equitable outcomes within and outside of the ELCA.

This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of


Photo by Jim Veneman.