Reflections from President Erwin
August 27, 2021
Week of Pentecost
Dear ULS Community:
When I wrote to you last a fortnight ago, I was cautiously optimistic that the fall semester would move forward, if not totally “normally,” at least in a way that would more clearly seem to be leading us out of the pandemic precautions. The intervening two weeks have dashed that hope. What seemed last spring to be an over-cautious decision—to keep the August intensives online and not start in-person classes until September—now seems over-optimistic.
At some point later today, I will issue some revised ULS pandemic guidelines to the community. These are the outcome of ongoing meetings of our Emergency Planning and Operations (EPO) task force, involving several of the Seminary’s principal leaders. The EPO watches the pandemic data and CDC and state health information closely. I won’t try to describe the recommendations closely here—this is just a letter from me to you and not an “official” pronouncement, but I urge to you to read them carefully when you do receive them.
Two things about them, though, are worth saying here: first, that we are re-intensifying the push for vaccination, and expecting it of those who wish physically to be on campus; and second, that we are still working under the assumption that at ULS we can share responsibility for each other’s health and well-being, and not need (as indeed we are not able) to “police” the cooperation of each member of the ULS community with our sensible and quite moderate guidelines. This is not a test of our freedom; it is a test of our love of neighbor.
And—especially for those in our wider circle who are not part of the campus community—let me say that I remain committed to in-person gathering as soon and as often as we can safely make it happen. Our commitment to in-person classes, meetings, and worship this semester remains, even if in the immediate weeks ahead we do not push it too aggressively, and in some cases return to virtual and online events. In that regard, I very much hope we will end this semester in a better place than that in which we have started it. But for now, we will be cautious.
Personally, I’d like just to comment quickly that the global backdrop at the moment—the very sad story of the painful Allied military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the ongoing weather disasters, floods, and fires around the world we can attribute to climate change—has also filled me with a profound sadness that puts the pandemic in wider perspective. I am still grateful, though, for the blessings of living in a developed country—however imperfect—with access to good medical care and reasonably effective government. And I am still optimistic about the year ahead being ultimately better than the year just past—I really am.
Some things I am looking forward to particularly: the virtual UTI Lecture (September 21) and virtual ULS Fall Convocation (September 22, and normally held on the Philadelphia campus) both of which are great learning events and opportunities to gather the whole ULS extended community. This year I am giving the Convocation talks, and I will be talking about “belonging”—what it means (theologically speaking) “to belong”—to God, to each other, and to the Creation of which we are all a part. I hope I can tease out some new angles and bring to bear both Lutheran and Native American perspectives on the topic. I’m working hard on that and thinking about it constantly.
I am also looking forward to giving a kind of inaugural lecture at my installation festivities beginning Friday, October 15. That’s a chance for me to take stock of where I think we are in the nation and the church in terms of theological education: What is it today? What do we need for the future? How can ULS best provide it? The whole inauguration weekend should be fun, and I hope to see a lot of you at the events—let’s keep our fingers crossed that we can carry it all out as we have planned!
Then the following month I have another public presentation to which our ULS community will be invited in an extended way: I am giving the keynote lecture of the Vine Deloria Jr. Theological Symposium at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago on November 16. I hope to give it in person in Chicago, but even if I do, we’ll make a livestream available for ULS folks to attend. This is the principal Native American-themed theological event at an ELCA seminary each year, and I am honored to have been asked to be its keynoter this year.
It will be a busy semester, even if not completely “normal,” but no matter what, I am not changing my resolve to meet as many of you in person now as I can. We will try to think of reasonably safe ways to do that as soon as we can, on both physical campuses and virtually. I have an ambitious set of Sunday visits to congregations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and DC set for this fall, and hope to meet many of our friends and donors through and around those visits. I love to preach, and have missed being in congregations every week. Rob and I continue to visit Philadelphia- and Gettysburg-area congregations on the weeks I’m not booked somewhere else, so don’t be surprised if we show up in your pews some Sunday! Rob has been amused that we are almost always recognized by someone, even with our masks on.
One other upcoming thing I am looking forward to (in spite of some pandemic jitters) is a trip West during the week of Labor Day, the second week of classes. First, we’ll stop off in Missoula, Montana, to visit my mother for a few days. This will be my first visit to her since the holiday season before the pandemic began, so almost two years, and we’re all very happy to be able to be together again, if only for a few days.
Then we’ll go on to Los Angeles for the installation of my successor as bishop of the Southwest California Synod, the Rev. Brenda Bos, on September 12. Brenda and her wife Janis and Rob and I are old friends and share a passion for the LA Dodgers, so we’ll be going to a baseball game, too. But I think being able to hand over the pectoral cross to a newly-called bishop will be very meaningful to me, and it will draw a line under my time there and release me from any anxieties about the flock I left behind to come to ULS. I am proud of my old synod for making Lutheran history a second time (in a row!) by electing the ELCA’s first married lesbian bishop.
For me, the start of every semester brings with it a wave of hope and anticipation, and this one—even as clouded as it is by all the things we can’t control—is no exception. We have done so well, for so long, that I just can’t help thinking that we’re going to make it through, now, with our spirits intact. I want our new students to understand that though they are entering a school which has been through a lot, at ULS we are still growing and learning and becoming more of what we are called by God to be: an institution that welcomes diversity, shares a vision of a more just future, and strives to teach, preach, and embody the gospel in all that it does. May God help us in this effort.
What a semester it should be! I have in a very strong degree the same longing for normalcy going forward that I know all of you share, and my long-cultivated effort to become a more patient person will be sorely tested by the on-again, off-again anxieties and restrictions the pandemic brings upon us—but I resolve to keep my hand steady on the rudder and my course set by our bright star, Jesus the Christ. I invite you to join me in the boat—there is room for all!—and hold course together toward health and life and a brighter future.
You’ll start hearing from me weekly now, though I may skip week after next since I’ll be away. Have a good first week of class! Pray for those in need around the world. Stay safe and cool.
God bless you all, and I’ll see you soon!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary