Go … And Teach! Changing Faces in Lutheran Schools: Racial, Ethnic and Cultural Diversity

Dec 10th, 2010 | Category: Columns, Go…And Teach!
By Jane Buerger

One of the true joys of my years spent on the faculties of Concordia College-New York and Concordia University Chicago has been the time that I’ve spent with the teachers, children, and schools of the Lutheran Church. I’ve been able to meet and speak to teachers and administrators at conferences. On a more personal level, I’ve had the opportunity to teach future and in-service teachers, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, and I’ve been able to help teachers join the roster of commissioned ministers of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod through teacher colloquy programs. I’ve visited schools, first as a student teacher supervisor, and more recently as a consultant and as a board member.

This column is being written in early November 2010, a time for looking toward the coming Advent and Christmas seasons. Perhaps the fact that I’m also looking forward to attending a local performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is causing me to think of times past, present, and future (minus the ghosts, of course!). I’ve been spending time reflecting on Lutheran Schools Past, making observations about Lutheran Schools Present, and anticipating Lutheran School Future— noting in particular how the faces of the children have been and will be changing.

Lutheran Schools Past

The Lutheran school that I attended for most of my elementary education was located in Central Illinois. The enrollment was usually around 200, and all the children were Lutheran. The only factor that provided any diversity was the fact that three LCMS congregations sent students to that school. We could compare notes with our classmates about Sunday school and confirmation classes. There was a year when four children who had previously attended a Catholic elementary school were enrolled in our Lutheran school. These students were seen as somewhat mysterious, especially since they consistently stood up to ask or answer questions in class. The rest of us didn’t do that!

All of us, students and teachers alike, came from northern-European and mostly German descent and, with a few exceptions, we came from the same middle-class economic status. The other Lutheran elementary schools in our area were similar in terms of the make-up of the student body. I’m assuming that things may have been different in other parts of the country, and I’m wondering if there are still Lutheran schools like the one I attended anywhere in the United States.

Lutheran Schools Present

Making generalized statements about the students in today’s Lutheran schools in terms of religious background and affiliation, race, ethnicity, or economic and cultural background is impossible. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit a Lutheran school on the south side of Milwaukee that was similar in size (about 200 students) to my own elementary school. That is where the similarity ends. St. Martini Lutheran School has a student body that is 92% Latino, 4% black, and 4% white. The new principal does have challenges, one of these being that, in order to communicate directly with families, he has set a personal goal to learn to speak Spanish (Asche, 2010).

As I re-read that last sentence, I realize that, even though the children of St. Martini look different from those of my own elementary school, there is a point of similarity. There are parents at St. Martini who speak only Spanish. It is true that English was spoken by the parents of my classmates, but it wasn’t unusual to find parents or grandparents who were fluent in German. It wasn’t unusual for Lutherans in my parents’ generation to attend school where German was used to teach some subjects, including religion. I’ll write more about this later.

Back to Lutheran Schools Past

Before moving to Illinois, my family lived in upstate New York. I was much younger then, but I do remember schoolmates who were like me—northern European, middle-class, English speaking (except for one German speaking boy, a recent immigrant). I also remember standing in line waiting to go to the annual Sunday School picnic and, while we waited, we sang. One of the favorites was “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” which included the line “We are not divided, all one body we…” (Baring-Gould, 1864). Of course, this refers to doctrinal unity, since we were all Lutherans, but perhaps there was more to it than that. We looked alike (white, non-Hispanic), and we came from similar family backgrounds.

That was then, this is now. What does the future hold? We know that our country is changing, our cities are changing, and our whole existence is changing. How will the faces of the children in our Lutheran schools change?

The Situation Today

Some of us remember days when Lutheran churches were willing to support their schools simply because it was assumed that the church’s members would send their children to the Lutheran school. The congregation often gave substantial financial support to the school so that members’ children attended with little or no tuition charge. Families tended to be larger then. For example, my own father had nine siblings, but the families of those ten brothers and sisters raised, on the average, two children per household. This was my generation. Given the fact that many of my cousins do not have children, I suspect the next generation will not show an increase in numbers.

As the pool of school-age Lutheran children decreased, neighborhoods, especially urban ones, often underwent a population shift. As black and Latino residents moved in, the white community left. Those who stayed with the Lutheran church were generally those whose children were grown. Schools that were able to adapt to the changing neighborhood have, in some cases, thrived. Many others have closed, and the churches that supported those schools financially often closed as well when their members become too old to attend services.

The fact that Lutheran schools and churches often fail to attract people from their changing communities is causing some people ask important questions. Here are some examples.

Is it possible that the Lutheran Church is somehow attractive only to those of northern European descent? The growth rate of Lutheran churches in many African countries, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nigeria, would indicate that the answer is no.

Is it possible that Christianity is generally dying out in the cities? If that were true, it seems strange that a number of non-denominational Christian churches are attracting fairly large numbers of un-churched or “formerly churched” worshippers each Sunday.

How can we as Lutherans, and Lutheran teachers, serve the communities that are growing up around our schools? How can we meet the needs of children who don’t have the same racial, ethnic, or economic background as we do? According to Hawley and Nieto (2010), almost all of us feel uncomfortable with, or even antagonistic toward people who are not “like us.” We, as Lutherans, cannot afford to let these feelings drive how we meet our neighbors. Claiming to be “color-blind” doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. Teachers need to recognize the impact that race and ethnicity have on children and their learning. Following are some thoughts that might inspire conversations among those of us who serve our Lord by teaching children in changing populations.

The fact that all humans are very similar genetically is consistent with Lutheran beliefs.

According to Weissglass (2000), there are more genetic differences within the races than between the races. The perceived differences do not come from biology. Peterson (2001) is concerned that the over-emphasis on multiculturalism will also over-emphasize the dissimilarities between groups of people. According to Peterson, this could lead to a sort of new tribalism in the United States—where individuals are identified by the factions, rather than the commonalities within society and where the “tribes” are in direct competition with each other. Instead, Peterson proposes an alternative based on what we have in common. He identifies three areas of similarity for people in the United States. These are:  our American heritage, our divinely-created human nature, and our equal standing as believer in the household of faith. Teachers in Lutheran schools are in a unique position to openly proclaim all three of these commonalities.

1. Our American heritage

American culture was initially shaped by immigrants. Recent immigrants often want to preserve the language and culture of their country of origin. There was a time when the European Lutheran immigrants appeared to be reluctant to blend into American society. The fact that church services and school classes were conducted in German kept the group insulated. The fact that more recent immigrants are engaging in similar isolating behavior should be understandable. Part of our mission should be pointing out the blessings of living in this country where we have the freedom to practice our religion and to hold opposing opinions. The important thing is that we eventually come together rather than remain a collection of factions, each fighting for its own rights.

2. Our divinely-created human nature

We believe that humans were created in God’s image. As a result, differences that result from race, culture, or ethnicity are not as important as our shared experiences as part of God’s creation. We might not look the same or have the same experiences, but we are all children of a loving God.

3. Our equal standing as believers in the household of faith

Peterson refers to a familiar passage: Galatians 3:28.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

As humans, we all have faults. We all are sinful, yet we can all stand forgiven before the throne of our heavenly Father. There are no “favorite children” in His family.

All Lutheran students can benefit from a diverse school population.

Even though the United States is becoming more and more diverse, students are becoming more segregated in their schools (Gándara, 2010). White students are the most segregated of all, and this leaves them ill-prepared for a future when whites will no longer be the racial majority. The need for cooperation and collaboration among racial and ethnic groups has become apparent as Chicago prepares for a mayoral election in February 2011. The media has reported that the current Chicago population is approximately 1/3 black, 1/3 Latino, and 1/3 white. If each of these groups insists that it is imperative to elect a mayor from its own population, then whoever is elected will be unacceptable to 2/3 of the residents. It seems clear that our children need the ability to work with people who come from other races and ethnicities.

Research indicates that students in integrated schools are better prepared for life in an increasingly diverse society. Stereotyping and prejudice is reduced, especially when children are exposed to integration at an early age (Orfield, Frankenburg, and Siegel-Hawley, 2010). How this integration can be accomplished in public schools is not clear because of the segregation that occurs within neighborhoods and school districts. Lutheran schools can reach across the boundaries of public school districts. Even when located in neighborhoods that are largely black, Latino, or white, it is possible to bring children from these areas together in order to learn in a safe and Christ-centered environment.

Lutheran teachers can help students to overcome negative stereotypes

Students are aware of negative stereotypes applied to their own racial group, and children who are black or Latino may feel that they are not as valued as their white classmates. These children may also fear that if they get a lower grade on an examination, this will confirm that negative stereotype. (Gándara, 2010; Martin, 2009). Unfortunately the stress caused by these beliefs can actually result in the lower grade. Negative stereotypes hurt those in the other groups as well. Members of the majority group can become desensitized to jokes or remarks about the minority groups.

Here again, Lutheran schools have an advantage. The children who hear negative comments about their own racial group also need to hear about the love of Jesus. The fact that these children do have a loving Father makes the opinions of others less powerful. The classmates who repeat the negative comments need to hear the Law, followed by the Gospel. We are to treat others as if they were Christ himself, but the good news is that Christ forgives and loves all of us.

One way to overcome negative stereotypes is to set high standards for all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status. There is compelling evidence that setting high expectations for students can lead to high performance. This can happen when the expectations are accompanied by academic support and resources (Hawley and Nieto, 2010). All of us should be stewards of God’s creation, but teachers care for a very special part of that creation. Providing encouragement and support will enable children to meet those high expectations.

We can actually celebrate the diversity of God’s creation

This can be a bit tricky. Sometimes well-meaning efforts, such as having a special day to celebrate black or Latino students, can actually set the minority group apart from the rest of the children. We can, however, expand the idea to include other differences among all children apart from race or ethnicity, such as athletic abilities or outgoing personalities. The point is that each of us has strong points and weak points. Together we make a complete body or beautiful tapestry (pick your own metaphor). Thank goodness we aren’t all alike. Some jobs would never get done.  Thank goodness that we are all here. If we weren’t, our world would be like a hand without a thumb or a tapestry with a hole.

Diversity can be celebrated or at least recognized by finding ways to integrate the topic throughout the curriculum in a way that is natural and makes sense. It’s probably easy to imagine including non-Western art, music, history and literature in a traditional curriculum. Even mathematics can also have multi-cultural activities. For example, children may find it interesting to learn that some other countries have different algorithms for simple addition and multiplication (Phillip, 1996). Claudia Zaslavsky has developed a number of mathematics activities that use practices from other cultures to enhance children’s understanding of the subject. Some of her publications are listed at the end of this article.

Our Lutheran heritage can lead us to appreciate the desire to preserve language and customs

The immigrants who founded the various Lutheran bodies in the United States were anxious to preserve their language and culture, along with their theology. The result was a strong tradition that in which congregations built schools, sometimes before they built their churches (Rietschel, 2000). During the early days of the Missouri Synod, it was not unusual to teach religion classes or to have worship services in German.

It should not be surprising to us that people from other cultures desire the same thing, specifically to preserve the traditions of their families and countries of origin. Sharing stories about how families celebrate holidays can be a natural way to celebrate and recognize diversity because there will be variations even within racial groups. Breathing Spaces (Neumark, 2003) is listed among the references at the end of this article because it gives some insight into the challenges of planning worship and carrying out ministry in a congregation composed of both black and Latino members and led by a young white pastor. Each of the three represented cultures had specific ways of conducting services. Compromise and collaboration were essential.

The point is that these more recent immigrants are doing what other ethnic groups, including the European Lutherans, did during their early days in this country. We respect them for preserving their language and culture.

We can serve entire families by reaching out to parents and other caregivers

Families of students from diverse cultures can feel uncomfortable in a school where most of the other parents are white. Some of these parents might not speak English, and that adds another barrier. (Hawley & Nieto, 2010). Expecting the child to serve as translator for the family puts an additional burden on the child. Perhaps it would be possible to hire at least one teacher or staff member who is fluent in that language. Perhaps newsletters could be written in both English and Spanish. It might even be possible to plan ESL courses for parents— and that could lead to other amazing opportunities for evangelism.

And finally…

Lutheran Schools in the Future

Of course, no one knows what the future will bring. I do think that future Lutheran schools will be less likely to resemble the school that I attended and more likely to resemble St. Martini’s.  Perhaps the enrollment will be a nearly equal mixture of white, black, and Latino children, learning to work and play together.

We do have a responsibility to the neighborhoods where our schools are located. That is not to say that there are no challenges. Finances play a big role. So does our basic human discomfort that can kick in when we approach people that aren’t “like us.” It is almost certain that Lutheran schools, assuming that they are still in existence, will become more diverse in race, culture, and ethnicity. It will be our responsibility to make sure that those schools continue to be safe, caring, and academically stimulating for all children.


Asche, C. P. (2010). Moving forward with God’s help. Address to faculty of St. Martini School, Oct. 4, 2010.

Baring-Gould, S. (1864). Onward, Christian soldiers. In The Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Gándara, P. (2010). Overcoming triple segregation. Educational Leadership, 68(3), 60-64.

Hawley, W. D. & Nieto, S. (2010). Another inconvenient truth: race and ethnicity matter. Educational Leadership, 68(3), 66-71.

Martin, D. B. (2009). Does race matter?  Teaching Children Mathematics, 16(3), 134-139.

Neumark, H. B. (2003). Breathing space: a spiritual journey in the south Bronx. Boston: Beacon Press.

Orfield, G., Frankenberg, E., & Siegel-Hawley, G. (2010). Integrated schools: finding a new path. Educational Leadership. 68(3), 22-27.

Peterson, M. L. (2001). With all your mind: a Christian philosophy of education. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press.

Philipp, R. (1996). Multicultural Mathematics and Alternative Algorithms. Teaching Children Mathematics. Nov. 1996. pp. 128-133.

Rietschel, W. C. (2000). An introduction to the foundations of Lutheran education. St. Louis: Concordia Academic  Press.

Weissglass, J. (2000). No compromise on equity in mathematics education: developing an infrastructure. In W. Secada (Ed.), Changing the faces of mathematics: perspectives on multiculturalism and gender equity (pp. 5-24). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

 Zaslavsky, C. (1973). Africa Counts. Boston: Prindle, Weber & Schmidt.

Zaslavsky, C. (1993). Multicultural Mathematics: Interdisciplinary Cooperative Learning Activities. Portland, ME: J. Weston Walch.

Zaslavsky, C. (1996). The Multicultural Math Classroom: Bringing in the World. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Zaslavsky, C. (2001). Developing Number Sense: What Can Other Cultures Tell Us? Teaching Children Mathematics. Feb. 2001. pp. 312-319.

Tags: , , , , , ,