Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

June 4, 2021
Week of Pentecost 2 ​

Dear ULS Community:

Gosh, it’s been two weeks already! The time has just flown by since Commencement—and here I was thinking things would slow down. Maybe that will happen in June. At least Rob and I have a little “staycation” coming up later in the month. Just this week we also made plans to spend the Independence Day weekend in Washington, DC, where kind friends have given us tickets to one of the nights the Nationals play the Dodgers. So there is some fun to look forward to after this unusually cold and gloomy Memorial Day.

There’s normally a bit of lull after Commencement, and but since we didn’t do things the normal way again this year, we also didn’t have as much of a lull. There’s always something to work on. My “cabinet” (the senior staff of the Seminary) and I meet every Wednesday morning to catch each other up on short-and long-term work at ULS, and for weeks we’ve been building up a “to do” list of projects “for summer” or at least “after Commencement.” Looking at that list again last week, finally after Commencement, was a little daunting. But we’re taking it one thing at a time: small but important facilities improvements; doing some reassessment of space use; making plans for a resumption of in-person teaching and work in the fall; thinking about our communications plan; doing some structural reorganization to the ways we work—there are lots of projects to do, and we’ll make public announcement of the significant ones as we go along.

This week, though, it’s wider issues that have filled my thinking. The centenary of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 that received such wide attention in the media last weekend is—in my view—finally getting the attention it deserves. I can’t really call myself a “Tulsan,” never actually having lived in the city proper, but my Erwin relatives were early settlers there when the city was young, and I grew up in Tulsa’s orbit—it was the “big city” we went to when I was a child, to see a first-run movie or do Christmas shopping. And in all my growing up, we were never taught a thing about the remarkable, murderous days in May 1921 when the most prosperous African American community in the US was destroyed in a single weekend. By the time I was an adult, it was being talked about a bit, but it’s only been in the last few years that the world has taken an interest and the truth has come to light.

Now it’s hard for me to think of Tulsa without putting that atrocity first. That’s painful, but it’s just. We have to keep these things in mind, not to wallow in pain, but to stay vigilant that we are not drawn back into those paths. I mourn the loss, and I deeply appreciate the reverent attention that is being given to the victims’ memory now, and hope that continues as the search for graves goes on and the city comes to a new reckoning with its past. Of course it’s not uniquely about Tulsa, either—that’s just the most violent outbreak of a situation common to many American communities—but I have no problem with Tulsa becoming the symbol of a racism spun out of control if it helps us understand our nation’s troubled racial legacy better.

Then, one day later, it was June! June is “Pride Month” for the LGBTQIA+ community. Though many of us have mixed feelings about the commercialization of Pride events, which like so much else in America so easily turn into marketing opportunities, it is nice to have a time in which we see so many public signs of an affirmation and acceptance that is still far from universal in the United States. I suppose it is worth having all the rainbow flags on advertisements to have that growing level of acceptance in public.

In my previous life as bishop in Los Angeles, our church’s single biggest moment of public attention every year was our participation in the West Hollywood pride parade each June. We would hold a street Eucharist in the staging area for anyone who wanted to come (and we usually drew a crowd!) and then we would march together as “SoCal Lutherans” in the parade (and hope not to be placed behind an LGBT biker club). I took part in it almost every year as bishop, as my straight predecessors had for years before. Over 100,000 people would see us there, inviting the community to closer engagement. We would pass out thousands of cards inviting people to the ELCA congregations which had identified themselves as intentionally inclusive. Every year people would come to us who had “escaped” rejection in an unaccepting family or community and find a new church home in one of our congregations, and it was very satisfying to be able to offer that welcome in a visible way. I look forward to being able to join in such celebrations in Philadelphia and Gettysburg as I get familiar with the area.

Today and tomorrow, my old synod—the Southwest California Synod—will hold a virtual synod assembly by Zoom. I plan to attend (I remain on that synod’s clergy roster) and I look forward to voting in the election of my successor as synod bishop. Some of the known candidates are members of my former staff, and I wish them well; others will arise as well as the balloting proceeds. A few people have reached out to me to get my perspective on what being a synod bishop involves—and I have to tell them that though the joys are great, the burdens are even greater.

It is immensely rewarding to be able as a bishop to represent the church to the world and even to its own people, but it does make one privy to some of the worst in human behavior within the church, and there are many things I experienced I still can’t talk about. That’s a burden, and my husband noticed more clearly than I did how much lighter I seemed after I had exchanged that responsibility for the new one at ULS. Of course leading a seminary is challenging too, but it’s a very different kind of organization and much more focused in its purpose and more organized in its structures of authority. But I’ll admit to deeply mixed feelings about the synod assembly itself—the first one in eight years I have not led—as I see all the familiar faces of a people I love and miss very much.

This week marked the beginning of the Asian Theological Summer Institute, a gathering of Asian and Asian-American theology professors and graduate students who normally would meet in person on our Philadelphia campus for an intensive time together. This year again they are meeting virtually and spreading their gatherings across the summer in one-day Zoom meetings. I was honored to be able to welcome them to our “virtual campus,” and I am excited to have them with us in the flesh again in a future year. Dr. Paul Rajashekar is much to be congratulated for beginning and sustaining this influential program, a “jewel” in ULS’s crown.

You’ll hear more in the days to come through the official communications channels about our ULS summer activities for alumni and friends, including this year a couple of virtual “movie nights” I’m hosting in late July, to watch and discuss some films meaningful to me. That and other continuing education and lifelong learning events will roll out in due course. I am also beginning to make physical visits to congregations, so pay attention: I may end up in your neck o’ the woods before you know it. We may start posting those “upcoming engagements” on my page of the ULS website.

Tomorrow I have the honor of participating in the installation of the new bishop of the NE Pennsylvania Synod, the Rev. Christopher deForest. I am thrilled about that, and to welcome this new colleague to the bench of bishops. This weekend we’ll have new bishops-elect in the Allegheny Synod and the Upstate New York Synod too—two additional colleagues in our ELCA Regions 7 & 8.

We have so much to look forward to this summer! I wish you all good health and some recreation time with those you love. I’ll be back with you in two weeks. God bless you!

Yours faithfully,

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

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