March 19, 2021
Week of Lent 4

Dear ULS Community:

It has been a week of contrasts: joy and sorrow; optimism and discouragement. But we press on, looking for the good and trying to alleviate the bad. As if by some inner spiritual solidarity, the gospel lessons in the lectionary mirror our ambivalence and the turmoil in our hearts and in our society, as Jesus teaches that death and life are connected, and that he must suffer, but to the end that we might know God’s love more intensely and live more fully. On top of this, the wearisome and endless effort added to our lives by the pandemic is getting more and more challenging even as new hope comes gradually into sight.

I started the week on a high, with the news of the confirmation of US Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico (and the Laguna Pueblo nation) as the new US Secretary of the Interior. She is an acquaintance of mine, and a truly modest but very strong and able leader. I saw her last year at the National Congress of American Indians meeting in Washington, and we and others strategized about how the ELCA could help advocate on issues close to Native hearts, especially the Violence Against Women Act up for reauthorization by Congress. Having a Native person head the Interior Department is a major step forward for the United States, as that department covers both the use of public land and the administration of the relationship of the United States with the Native nations within its boundaries.

But then I was disappointed by the news from the Vatican of a statement by the curial department responsible for doctrine that poured cold water on the efforts of many in Roman Catholic communities (including a large number of bishops) trying to create a greater, fuller welcome within RC life for LGBT Catholics. It was hard to hear, but it was far worse for those within the tradition than for those of us who stand outside of it. I am grateful for my own church’s insistence that we cannot, as humans, add or detract from the blessing God intends for God’s beloved children. What we (or any church) does in its own blessings simply extends and expresses in human terms a prior, deeper blessing from God. We simply say the words—God does the blessing. And even if we decide to withhold the words, God’s blessing lives, and can be felt apart from our speaking. Those of us who have been denied church blessings on ourselves or our relationships know this already. But it is sad when human religious institutions can’t recognize or acknowledge the power of God’s love out of fear of losing status or power.

But it was the news of the shootings in Atlanta that brought me down the hardest. Once again, a young, mentally troubled, (putatively Christian) white male with a gun decided that his internal issues should be addressed by violence against other people—and, predictably, the victims were women and members of a minority community—this time Asian Americans. We’re still learning about the details, but it immediately brought back bitter memories of the Mother Emanuel shooting in Charleston, as does the way the assailant was handled by the police. Again, I wonder about the role of white evangelical Christianity in shaping this young man’s thoughts and actions, and those of others. As long as killers are cast as “just like us” and victims seen as exotic, sexualized, and “different,” we are caught up in racist stereotyping and systemic racism. None of this is new, nor is anti-Asian prejudice a product only of the pandemic. It reminds us that these strains have always been present in American life, and run deep.

I join with my church, the ELCA, and people of many faiths in condemning the racist assumptions that can lead people to dehumanize their neighbors, and especially now the anti-Asian feelings stirred up during the pandemic. ULS has deep and painful memories and awareness of past and present racism, sexism, and homophobia within its own community and environment, and we are sensitive to the need to call out and address things that harm one another and are destructive to our sense of community and common purpose.

We have had some new practice at this at ULS this week. In the course of the otherwise very successful virtual “Preaching With Power” event this week, two of the preachers made references or allusions in their sermons that were heard and felt as hurtful to members of the LGBTQUI2S+ community in our midst and generally. I am proud of the response by that community, which was to inquire what was said and meant, to discuss the pain it caused, and to ask how we might continue to improve communication in ways that can help ULS grow more perfectly into its own welcome, inclusion, and equity principles. We’re not done, but we’re doing what we need to do.

Preaching With Power gives ULS a window into a remarkable culture of church, and lets us hear many fine practitioners of the art of preaching within the Black Church traditions. ULS and the Urban Theological Institute invite them in, and collectively we open our hearts to them—and we do this not only for ourselves as a ULS community but for the wider circle of African American congregations in our area and (now, with a virtual format) for the wider community. But I think we have not been fully successful in acquainting our guest preachers with our own ethos and principles, and I believe that—for their sake and ours, and most of all for the Gospel’s sake—we should do that more effectively going forward.

We all know that within American Christianity, the acceptance of the LGBTQUIA2S+ community within the church is not as complete or consistent as that we practice and affirm at ULS—to my dismay, it is not even so within American Lutheranism—and it is clear that we need at ULS to communicate our own commitments, even when not everyone else agrees. This was my first experience of Preaching With Power, and I found most of it uplifting and inspiring, and I look forward to having a greater role in the selection and preparation of its preachers in the future. We can’t expect uniformity of views or culture, but we can create a greater comfort and safety for all, and enjoy this remarkable opportunity more fully as a community.

Within our seminary community, as in the nation as a whole and even in the world around us, we are caught up in a sense of crisis about the destructiveness of fear and anger, the roots of racism, sexism, homophobia and every prejudice, which again and again breaks forth around us in violent words and actions. We would like our churches, and especially our seminary, to be places of refuge and safety for those who feel especially endangered in this crisis. But we find again and again that we are not much separated from the storm around us. It is natural that the winds blow through our open windows, and as tempting as it is to close the windows, it is more important for us to learn together how to manage the impact among us of those winds, taking care for those most vulnerable, practicing patience, and cultivating true listening. This is never-ending but important work.

Something new: next week we will have “visitors on campus,” albeit by Zoom: the Association of Theological Schools committee charged with talking with us about ULS’s reaccreditation. Though such reviews are routine and regular, ULS does not have much prior history of them in its new, consolidated, form. Much of the review will be exactly the same as any earlier one undergone successfully by both predecessor seminaries, but the visitors will be interested to hear from us how we are doing now, just over three years into the new reality. As anyone who has been paying attention will know, the process has not been altogether smooth and contained moments of disruption even those wise in the complexities of such consolidations would not have predicted.

But ULS is still here, we are braving the pandemic, and we are moving forward in faith and hope. We have an excellent faculty and a loyal and hardworking staff, our enrollment has kept pace with or exceeded that of our peers, our donors remain generous, and our financial situation is stable. Our board is calm and optimistic, and our lines of communication are possibly more open than they have ever been. I think we have much to be proud of, but we who stand in the weeds of daily reality may have to look heavenward a bit to see the sunny skies above. That’s what ATS has come to see—not just the bumps in the road, but the hope in a better future that unites us at ULS. This is not—in the midst of a pandemic—the easiest time for optimism, but I think if we are realistic and charitable we have quite a lot to be grateful for at ULS, and quite a lot to look forward to. I know I look forward to it.

Last week I told you I though we owed it to one another to be patient and to try not to take offence when pain is speaking to pain, and loss to loss. I didn’t realize how important that would be just in the week right ahead. Knowing that all is not well with all of us, and that grief and pain are unevenly distributed among us and not always visible to us, should help us be kind to one another. We really have no alternative, if we truly wish to be a more cohesive community, to trying to hear one another deeply, and understand that healing and unity grow slowly and not at the same rate for all. But we will stay together, and we will get there one day.

May God bless you and keep you safe.

In Christ,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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