Lonnie L. Branch received a Master of Divinity by completing a curriculum between the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He was the ninth black pastor ordained in the American Lutheran Church. He served in ministry full-time at four different parishes near Houston, TX; Minneapolis, MN; Mobile, AL; and Atlanta, GA. He also served as a chaplain at Iowa State Men’s Reformatory and at Hennepin County Adult Correction in Minneapolis.
Early in his life, Lonnie worked as an IBM programmer in various settings, working his way up to be a computer programmer supervisor. This, however, would not be Lonnie’s career. Instead he felt a calling from God and what he calls an “epiphany”. During this occasion, he says Jesus spoke to him saying, “Come to me, and I will make you a fisher of men.” This, along with encouragement from his pastor, eventually led him to enroll full-time at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 1967. This led to a ministry that lasted over three decades.
Lonnie Branch wrote his book in order to, “affirm and build on our accomplishments, revealing our family roots and our mutual love and faith in God to overcome racism and poverty” (11). He also explains in the introduction, “So I wrote my memoir to share my experience of God’s love in my blended black family” (12). Based on those quotes from his introduction, and the reading of his book, there were two prominent recurring themes. The first being, that the purpose of this book is to combat racism and social inequality. He does this by sharing his experiences with others in order that they may better understand the struggles black families face or have faced. Second, he seeks to encourage the growth of Christian love and unity among different races.
Lonnie Branch shares some of the difficulties of racism he faced. He paints a picture of a childhood where racism, systemic and overt, was the norm. As a child, he had polio and recalled, “we had no medical or hospital insurance for therapy treatments. The only insurance Negroes had was burial insurance—and only if we could afford the premiums” (20). He shared an experience which his step-father, Elbert, endured. Elbert went to an employment office to find a job. A white man gave him a piece of paper and told him to go to another window. This happened again and again until one of the men told him there were no jobs available. Lonnie writes, “Disappointed and hurt, still clutching the note in his hand, my stepfather went outside and handed the note to a black friend who read it to him. The note read: ‘Keep this ‘nigga’ moving from window to window ‘til he gits his ass the hell outta here!’” (26).
Having moved to Chicago with his family, Lonnie speaks of when he first became aware of certain unspoken racist institutions. “This is when I first became aware of segregated morticians and funeral homes. There were no signs reading, ‘Colored’ or ‘White;’ it was an implied taboo for Negroes and whites to not build true relationships. The divisiveness of covert racism became firmly crystallized in my mind” (41). It was around this same age in which he experienced his first violent racist experience, as boys threw rocks at him he describes, “One night, on the way home, following a Scout meeting, four young white boys turned their flashlights on me and began shouting and screaming, calling me a ‘nigger’ and threatening to beat me up” (41).
Lonnie’s second goal of encouraging Christian love and unity is closely tied to his desire to promote social justice for blacks. As an adult, Lonnie became involved with Holy Family Lutheran Church (a congregation of the ALC) in Chicago and helped carry out ministry to those living in the Cabrini-Green public housing projects. He speaks about this congregation saying, “What God did in our congregation was to give blacks and whites more freedom to change the inequalities in our socio-economic and political lives. We didn’t just feel we were making a difference—we knew we were!” (86).
Throughout the book, it is clear that Lonnie Branch sees that two of the primary duties of the church are: to advocate for social justice, as well as promoting Christian unity to carry out ministry. These goals often came at the expense of decreased emphasis on doctrine. For example, ministry was planned with other denominations when Lonnie served in Texas. He writes, “Weekly mission strategy meetings continued at the church, attended by neighborhood non-Lutheran black churches, mostly African Methodist Episcopal (AME), United Methodist, and Disciples of Christ. This experience ‘opened the eyes of my heart’ to see how well blacks and whites worked together in a common Christian bond of justice and respect for the oppressed poor” (147). Later on, in his ministry in Alabama, Lonnie writes about working with two black LCMS churches, “Our work was productive because we did not spend time and energy with endless discussions of doctrinal differences” (222). There are other places throughout his book where social justice and the desire for Christian unity outweigh doctrine.
Lonnie’s book was a bit difficult to follow at times, especially in the first half of the book. He jumped from thought to thought every paragraph in a way which did not flow. In the second half of the book, the line of thought became clearer, perhaps as some of these memories were more vivid to him than in his early life.
This book was helpful by giving insight into how some black Christians see the role of the church. Understandably, with the United States’ history of slavery and racism, it can be seen why it is important for black Christians to advocate for social justice. After all, scripture clearly encourages helping the oppressed and those in distress. The Israelites themselves were freed from the oppression of the Egyptians – a picture which Lonnie Branch identified with.
This book was also helpful in seeing how a pastor from a different denomination and race perceives the practical application of the doctrine of church fellowship. He sees an emphasis on doctrine as hindering the gospel and ministry. He sees that time spent discussing doctrinal differences results in less time which could be spent fighting social injustice.
The emphasis of social justice and Christian unity, though understandable from Lonnie’s background, led to a neglect of other teachings of Scripture in his ministry. The sacrifice of doctrine for the sake of Christian unity is not something that God’s Word allows – there is a balance that needs to be found as pastors seek to be faithful in carrying out all of God’s teachings.
In light of 2020’s great social and racial unrest, this book is beneficial for pastors as well as lay-members, to help them understand some of the difficulties black people have faced historically. It is also beneficial in understanding a black pastor’s view of ministry and helpful to empathize with those views. As pastors in the WELS, we do not adhere to these views of lax fellowship practices or condone them, but this book helps the reader understand another person’s life and ministry experience, from a different race and denomination, which helps the reader become a more well-rounded person.
The author of this review chose this book with a desire to grow in understanding and appreciation for black culture and the difficulties black people in America have endured. This book helped in that way, as well as provided an increased understanding of other denominations’ views on ministry. However, because of the lack of flow in the writing this book was not particularly exceptional. Therefore, this author does not label this as a “must read”. It is encouraged, however, to read a book that deals with this same subject matter. The positive benefits mentioned above could most likely be attained (and perhaps to a greater degree) by reading other biographies or histories of black people in the United States which are perhaps more well written.