Last week the Huffington Post ran a series of photos from the New York Pride parade. One particular photo, taken by George Pejoves, brought a smile to many faces. It captured the joy of Rev. Mark Erson and his partner, Scott Jordan, as they shared a kiss while bearing signs that read, “I do!”
On August 1, 2011, St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street will welcome the Rev. Mark Erson as its new pastor. This congregation has been in the center of the West Village since 1855. They are housed in one of the Village’s most historic buildings–built for an Episcopalian congregation in 1821. While Pastor Mark has been on the road to ordained ministry for many years, he was only recently ordained. This will be his second congregation, and his first as a publicly-identified gay man. Pastor Mark is on the ELCA clergy roster and is a member of Proclaim, the professional community for publicly-identified LGBTQ Lutheran rostered leaders.
Pastor Mark and his long-term partner Scott Jordan have plans to marry on November 26, 2011. They have intentionally planned the wedding for Thanksgiving weekend so that family may be with them and to give thanks for what has been–35 years of friendship and partnership–and what will be in their new journey together.
Pastor Mark and I first met over breakfast on the Upper West Side earlier this year. I wanted others to learn more about Pastor Mark, his journey to ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church, and his upcoming new call, so we recently caught up over email and phone.
Let’s start with a bit about your journey and call to ministry.
Growing up in the church, I had a strong sense of call to ordained ministry from an early age. As I grew in self-understanding and came to see myself as a Christian who is gay, I figured the church did not want me. Thankfully, through the gift of faith, I knew that I had a place in God’s family and so I never strayed from the church (I worked as a lay professional at one point, but otherwise, always as an active member of some congregation.) Finally, after moving back to New York City in 2000, rejoining Saint Peter’s and with the Holy Spirit and Pastor Amandus Derr not letting up, I realized I could not keep this call at arm’s length any longer. I was also moving in hopeful anticipation of the ELCA changing it understanding of “people like me.” I was ordained in 2009.
Tell me more about Pastor Derr’s role. How did he help encourage you?
He takes very seriously, more than any pastor I’ve known, the role of cultivating new leaders for the church. When he sees someone, not just me…when he sees people who show gifts for ministry, he doesn’t let up. He’s vocal about it and gives them opportunities to serve, so they can discern. You can see it. Second career people, young people …he serves as a mentor to interns. I’ve been inspired to do this myself. There is a role for all of us, especially those who are LGBTQ and have been told you’re not wanted, fully. ELM was great helping those when the church said no. Now the church says yes. And it’s important for me to be a voice encouraging other LGBTQ leaders.
You have a background in the arts…what impact will this have on your role as a Lutheran pastor?
After 4 years of working as a lay professional in the Philadelphia suburbs, I had the opportunity to move to New York & pursue theater as a career. And that was kind of the alternative of going to seminary. I chose the theater path. From that point I had the opportunity to work professionally as an actor, director, and playwright. I got my masters in theater. And then I spent a good amount of time as a full-time teacher and a teaching artist. There was a lot of mixing of theater and education together. I fully intend to keep my feet in that area. I’m interested in some project bringing scripture from page to stage and seeking new ways to tell some of these wonderful stories. I have done some writing of my own on scripts that deal with theological issues. I also love taking script as is and presenting it on stage.
On August 1, you’ll start at St. John’s Christopher Street. Tell me about this congregation and your plans for ministry there–of course the neighborhood will be familiar to many LGBTQ people!
It is a congregation that has a history of not being connected to the immediate neighborhood. Some of the programming that has been implemented within the last two years has effectively sought to reach out to the music community/tradition of Greenwich Village (there is now a weekly Jazz Mass on Sunday evenings and a Coffee House on Thursday evenings.) I look forward to using my background (pre-ordination life) in the arts to connect with what is already happening and to hopefully grow this area of ministry. But the congregation also wants to more effectively and intentionally reach out to the LGBTQ neighborhood that surrounds the church. There are also some very rich possibilities for doing some LGBTQ youth/young adult outreach to folks who come down to the village on the weekends to “hang out” in a place where they can find acceptance and freedom. (There is actually some tension in the neighborhood with this group, so perhaps playing the bridge will be a role that I find myself in.)
There are a number of bars along Christopher Street, so I am planning to employ the model of “bar ministry” that has been used in other settings with other communities. LGBTQ folks have been told that they are not welcome for so long, and some churches are still sending that message. We can’t expect folks to come in just because we have opened our doors wider in the last three years. We definitely have to go outside and proclaim. I also want to work with the merchants of the village, esp. if there is this tension between the youth and them. While in seminary I read some of the writings of those who were creating a new urban ministry style back in the 60’s. (in London and in New York City) I will definitely be borrowing from them. And I also want to expand the work with the artists of the village. Not just musicians, but writers, poets, visual artists and theatre artists. The church was such a patron of the arts centuries ago. It is time to reclaim that heritage, especially in light of the decrease of arts support in education and from the government, and in the face of such commercialization that the emerging/unknown artist has nowhere to go.
Tell me how it feels to be doing ministry as publicly-identified gay man. What does this mean for you? What do you feel God is calling you to do through your ministry?
There is a great burden being lifted. While my time at Redeemer has been great, there was always a piece missing. I was called to preach truth, and yet I had to hide a part of myself, I also had to hide the fact that I am in a wonderful, loving relationship that not only makes me a better pastor, but it makes me a better person as well. The fact that this is happening at the same time that New York is joining the states in which we have marriage equality just puts me over the edge. The Pride march on Sunday was one of the happiest days of my life. It was great that the march took us right down to St. John’s, what a huge symbol that was, walking, publicly, hand in hand with the man who I have known for 35 years and now have been committed to for five, processing to the place that we will now be working to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to EVERYONE. Our picture even made it in the Huffington Post. I love the fact that Scott can worship at St. John’s with me, that we can identify ourselves as a family. At Redeemer I have stuck to the “I” pronoun most of the time. “I am going on vacation.” But now, we get to be “We” all the time. Thanks be to God.
I love the picture that ran in the Huffington Post! Tell me about your Pride experience.
You know during the New York Pride parade, we got a fair amount of attention–because of my pastor’s collar–and lots of people were snapping our photo when we kissed. But as we were coming to the end of the parade, I saw this young man looking at us, and I looked at his face, and he was just weeping. His face was just unbelievable. I think he looked at us and in us saw a profound reality of what this all meant. And that image will stay with me forever. It is important for me to be public for that young man, and for so many others who have been shut out of the church and their families. As Lutherans, we believe that faith is a gift, and my whole life has been about that. There are so many reasons I should have stayed away from the church, and pursued life as an out gay man instead. But I did stay in the church. I see now that God did not let go of me, because I had gifts to bring the church. And now I am able to able to share this gift with others.