Moving Beyond Rhetoric – An Extraordinary Vision of Church

Guest blog by Malina Keaton, member of ELM’s Ministry Engagement Team 

ELM’s Ministry Engagement program connects congregations allied with ELM’s mission. Team member Malina Keaton has recently been interviewing some of these congregations to find out what makes them so, well, extraordinary! We hope their stories will inspire you.  This week we turn to St Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square in Chicago.

Catherine Swanson was looking for a church home for her wife and children in Chicago, Illinois. After attending numerous services of congregations in the area without luck, they happened upon St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square and kept coming back. Growing up in a conservative church in Iowa, Catherine searched for local Reconciling in Christ congregations in hopes that she could find a place of welcome for her and her family. “We were entering this space that has been historically unsafe for us in our lives, but every time we entered the doors [at St. Luke’s] we were treated like everyone else. We didn’t feel like we shouldn’t be there.”

Catherine Swanson (middle) and family with Pastor Erik Christensen.
Catherine Swanson (middle) and family with Pastor Erik Christensen.

Her experience of welcoming has been twofold, an intersection of the intentional work of both a congregation and its pastor, the Rev. Erik Christensen. One way that some RIC congregations have lived out their welcome is by calling an LGBTQ pastor.  “We went to several churches that were listed as being open to LGBT people and some of them were just open to it. When you went there, you were obviously the only person that was gay in the whole congregation… If you called a gay pastor, the congregation has already had to come to terms with a gay person to the point where they’re okay with being led by someone who’s gay. It moves it beyond just rhetoric.

To Catherine, this openness is not limited to sexuality, and reflects a congregation’s willingness to grapple with other difficult faith discussions or topics that are typically pushed aside in other ministries – a message that can prove invaluable to those who have felt marginalized by church communities.

St Luke's community out in the neighborhood.
St Luke’s community out in the neighborhood.

The other experience of welcoming Catherine attributes to the leadership of Pastor Erik Christensen, a man who revitalized the congregation of St. Luke’s and enabled its average weekly attendance to grow from fifteen to sixty in his tenure. While many in his congregation say that he encourages them to work for justice in the world and that he has a global sense of service to others, he has impacted Catherine specifically in a profound way. “He’s given me a new vision of what church can be. I came from such a conservative background that he’s given me a feeling that anybody, any person in the community, is welcome regardless of your past or who you are or who you’ve been. You’re all welcome to be here.”

Pastor Erik’s welcoming nature is especially poignant since he himself faced discrimination at the church door. When Erik completed his Masters of Divinity, the ELCA was not ordaining openly gay candidates. Erik was ordained extraordinarily in 2006 and was only received onto the clergy roster of the ELCA in 2010 after the ELCA began ordaining and receiving LGBTQ clergy.

But as many LGBTQ seminarians and clergy have come to understand, this denominational policy change has not shifted the day-to-day rejection or hostility they face. That is why ELM and congregations like St. Luke’s are invaluable to those receiving messages that they do not belong in church.

When Catherine decided to pursue candidacy, leaders in the church cautioned her, expressing that she may never get a job due to the fact that she was a lesbian woman with an interracial family. It was during this time that Pastor Erik was vital to her perception of the church and her call, “I really felt like the church didn’t want me. Not because of who I am but just because I’m gay. Pastor Erik has just made it obvious that there is a space for me if that’s what I want to do… I can be a part of the church and I can be a leader in the church that lives authentically to who I am and that’s enough, and he’s given that message not just to me but to every person that walks in that door. It’s something I’ve grown so much from and feel like I want to share with other people.”

Congregations connected to ELM and Proclaim clergy in turn have a unique opportunity to not only uplift seminarians throughout the call process, but to inspire them to action in the church and surrounding communities by offering voices of welcome and acceptance – voices that continue to be needed in the church today.

enrich and transform coverTo find out more about how your congregation can be more extraordinary(!), see our resource for congregations and call committees – Enrich & Transform: Welcoming LGBTQ Candidates into the Call Process.



Whether- Who- And Why So Long?

by Amalia Vagts, Executive Director

Vagts Family
Vagts Family Vacation 2015

I’m back from some time away on vacation with my family – a wondrously renewing time. And having now had a few weeks to let the June 26 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges sink in, I want to share a couple reflections.

Something that has always struck a deep chord with me from the majority opinion in the Massachusetts marriage equality case was these words from Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall: “…the decision whether and who to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

And I’ve never forgotten this line from a joint statement released by Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy the day that the Supreme Court in my adopted home state of Iowa ruled unanimously in favor of marriage equality, ““When all is said and done, we believe the only lasting question about today’s events will be why it took us so long.”

These questions – whether or not to marry; who to marry; and why change takes so long are at the heart of what I think about as I both celebrate the joyous news of June 26th and look down the long road of justice ahead – on so many, many issues. On this particular issue of marriage, it’s my hope that society and our church will someday fully honor the weight of the momentous decision of whether and who to marry. And when we finally get there, I imagine there will only be the lasting question of what took so long.

Lastly, our Presiding Bishop’s letter left many in the LGBTQ community wanting. Many of you have already read the powerful and important response from our partners in ministry, ReconcilingWorks. As I close, I want to again share it and express my thankfulness for their witness. Click here to read the full letter from Executive Director Aubrey Thonvold.

I hope this summer brings you together with your chosen family for some time of renewal! AJV Signature NEW0001




wedding Amalia Vagts, Executive Director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, made sure not only of whether and who she was marrying, but also that the pastor’s face was clean at her wedding on the steps of the Winneshiek County Courthouse in 2009. (And yes, that IS Rev. Erik Christensen, Pastor of St. Luke’s Logan Square!)



¿No seguimos el mismo camino juntos?

Guest Blog by Justin Ferko, 2015 Joel R. Workin Scholar

I would like to share with you two experiences of God where flowing life and the miracle of God’s grace in Christian community healed my self doubt and embraced me on the camino, the way. I hope these stories will invite you to entrust your experiences of God to others and to listen with an open heart to their stories.

¿Estás casado? Are you married? asked Javier (name changed) two minutes into our conversation in Spanish about our interest in ministry to Latino communities. “No.” I lied. I was afraid that my yes and revelation that I was married to my husband and partner of fifteen years would cut off any further communication based on my own assumptions about Latino culture and tradition. I had already decided that being gay would just not work in this context. I recovered explaining how I actually was married but not in this state because my marriage granted in Maryland was not recognized here.  Here is my wounded vulnerable self. “¿Me aceptas? Do you accept me?” I thought looking into Javier’s eyes.

Photo by Justin Ferko.
Photo by Justin Ferko.

“Es difícil ser gay en la iglesia. It’s difficult to be gay in the church,” I added summarizing the  cacophony of real voices I had heard ringing in my ears. They were shouting: “How will you as a gay man minister to 90% of the population who isn’t gay? This congregation does not want any LGBTQ students for contextual education. You will face limitations and long waits for first call. Bound conscience. We don’t need to be Reconciling in Christ, because aren’t we already there?” Javier understood difícil, difficult, in a deep way from his own experience of poverty, immigration, and hard work for the life he and his wife wanted for their family. In the moment, I was blinded  to my own white male middle class privilege by self-absorption and lament. Javier responded with compassion. His steady voice broke through the cacophony, “Somos todos hermanos en Cristo. We all brothers and sisters in Christ. ¿No seguimos el mismo camino juntos? Aren’t we all following the same path together?” He smiled.

Our walking together came with the invitation to minister with Javier in giving his sermon at the final worship. Javier invited me to translate his sermon using the birthing imagery from the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 to explain his understanding of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as an umbilical cord. This eternal current of life in the Trinity is similar to the blood, oxygen, and nutrients that flow through the umbilical cord that connects developing babies to their mothers and us to God. As we worked together, Javier shared his experience of God that is both his immigration and conversion story. Joined by our baptism into Christ, paragraph by paragraph we preached his sermon to our group in the languages of both of our hearts.

A week later, I began my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Ohio State. I am the only Spanish-speaking chaplain on our team. On my first on call weekend shift, I went to fulfill a patient request for a chaplain. On my way down the hall, I heard the unsure Spanish of a nurse aide speaking to a patient. He was assisting this elderly woman small in stature walk down the hallway with her rolling IV post. She took painful step after step. After my visit, I checked in on her. I washed my hands with the foamy soap at the door, knocked, and entered. She was lying in bed resting after her walk. “Buenos días, Señora Soto (name changed). Good morning, Mrs. Soto. Me llamo Justin. My name is Justin. Soy capellán. I am a chaplain. ¿Cómo se siente hoy? How are you feeling today?”” Her eyes lit up. She looked to the ceiling and said “Ah, Diosito. Gracias. Oh, God. Thank you. Me alegro que me visita, padre. I am happy that you are visiting me, father. He estado aquí por un mes sin la Santa Comunión. I have been here for a month without Holy Communion. Me siento muy sola. I feel very lonely. Mi familia está en Centroamérica. My family is in Central America.” I gently corrected her saying that I am not a Catholic priest but a Lutheran seminarian. She smiled drawing me in to her dancing eyes. “Creo que somos todos hermanos en Cristo. I believe we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Caminamos juntos. We walk together.”

Señora Soto shared her camino, her road, with me that is the story of El Señor de los Milagros, The Lord of Miracles. She told me this story: In 1550, an indigenous woman asked her priest for a crucifix for her home that she could use for her daily devotion. He told her it would cost seven gold coins and would need to be ordered from Spain. The faithful woman worked hard for a long time and saved this small fortune. The day she was going to the priest with the money, her neighbor was thrown in jail because he could not pay his debts which amounted to seven gold coins. The man’s family would starve without the income he earned from his work. The faithful woman responded with compassion to her neighbor’s suffering and gave the creditors the seven gold coins to pay his debt. Time passed and the faithful woman started over saving for her crucifix. She was down washing clothes at the river after a heavy rain had made it swell. To her surprise, the swift current brought a small crucifix downstream to the faithful woman. She brought it home, put it inside a wooden box frame for an altar. That night, she awoke to the creaking and splintering of wood. The crucifix had expanded in size and burst through the frame. Nearly five centuries later, people in Central America and throughout Spanish-speaking countries attribute healing to El Señor de los Milagros. This story is remembered and people testify to the healing in their lives on the fourteenth of every month with a special Mass at the basilica.

At her request, I added her name to the list for Catholic communion. I cried for Mrs. Soto. I mourned her loneliness and isolation because of the language barrier, her illness, and her distance from family. I felt her pain at not being able to receive this physical and spiritual gift of nourishment and connection in the sacrament of communion that means so much to both of us. I prayed for her.

On Monday, we read the words of the Mass that I found posted on the basilica’s website. She confirmed that the Catholic ministers did bring her communion on Sunday. The day I met Señora Soto was the thirteenth. She received communion on the fourteenth of June, the Día de El Señor de los Milagros, Day of the Lord of Miracles. “¿Cree en milagros, Señora Soto? Do you believe in miracles, Mrs. Soto?” “Sí,” she affirmed with a beatific smile. So do I.

What are the cacophony of voices that try to smother your joy and belonging in Christian community? Where is the life giving connection of experience of God’s grace in your life?

“Somos todos hermanos en Cristo. We all brothers and sisters in Christ. ¿No seguimos el mismo camino juntos? Aren’t we all following the same path together?

Justin Ferko is entering his second year at Trinity Lutheran Seminary where he is part of the development of Trinity’s Spanish for Ministry program and is the 2015-2016 Proclaim representative. Honored to have received the Joel R. Workin Scholarship for 2015, Justin plans to further discern his call to minister with communities whose voices need to be heard, particularly immigrant communities and people experiencing homelessness. Justin plans to attend a January Term course offered by the Seminary of the Southwest to learn about Hispanic culture and models of intercultural ministry that serve and empower immigrant and historic Latino communities along the U.S. – Mexico border.


Celebrating Another Joyful First

The following is the press release issued in joyful anticipation of the ordination of Proclaim member and ELM board member, Asher O’Callaghan.

asher with proclaim banner (2)
Photo credit: Emily Ann Garcia

Asher O’Callaghan will be ordained Thursday, July 2, 2015 in Denver, Colorado to serve the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA).

O’Callaghan is the first openly transgender person to be ordained through the regular process of the ELCA. Other openly transgender pastors were ordained prior to 2009 and outside the regular process of the ELCA. The ELCA voted in 2009 to ordain partnered gay and lesbian persons opening the door to widen the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) people in ministry (see O’Callaghan has been called by Zion Lutheran Church in Idaho Springs, Colorado to serve as their pastor.

O’Callaghan is a member of Proclaim, an active community of nearly 200 Lutheran pastors, rostered lay leaders and seminarians who publicly identify as LGBTQ. Proclaim is a program of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a social ministry organization that supports publicly-identified LGBTQ pastors, seminarians, and their ministries.  O’Callaghan currently serves on the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries Board of Directors.

From Amalia Vagts, executive director of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries: “What a joyful day for Zion Lutheran, for the Rocky Mountain Synod, and for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America! Asher is exactly the kind of person that our church needs. His gifts for ministry and his witness as a transgender person continue to proclaim a message that God welcomes, loves, and calls all people.” Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries is a social ministry advocating for LGBTQ pastors and their congregations.

From Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastor of House for All Sinners & Saints: “Asher O’Callaghan has a fierce and practiced belief in grace.  He is an amazing theologian, an empathic caregiver and a true believer in the Gospel.  For these reasons and many others, I celebrate his ordination with great joy.  The Lutheran Church is about to receive a gifted, passionate pastor.”

From Asher O’Callaghan: “I’m thrilled to be getting ordained to be a pastor and leader within the church I love. The ELCA, Zion Lutheran, and House For All Sinners and Saints have helped to show me that we truly are living in a new day. The Church is changing: There’s no need to choose between living life as your fullest self and belonging to a community of faith. For transgender people, this means that there are congregations who will affirm, respect, and celebrate our faith and our gender identities.”

Zion Lutheran Church in Idaho Springs, Colorado is a small but mighty congregation with a strong sense of community. They’re going through a period of revitalization and have a good mix of ages, single people, and families. Zion Lutheran has been a Reconciling in Christ congregation for several years, which means they intentionally welcome LGBTQ people. Idaho Springs is a small, mountain town located about one hour from Denver.

The ordination service is scheduled for 7pm on Thursday July 2nd at House For All Sinners and Saints (which worships at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, located at 2201 Dexter Street, Denver, CO, 80207). Bishop Jim Gonia of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA will preside and Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber will preach.

Asher uses the pronouns him/he/his.