Reflections from President R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin
September 17, 2021

Week of Pentecost 16

Dear ULS Community:

Dear ULS Community:

It’s already the third week of the semester! Of course, my being away most of last week makes it seem even faster for me, but I can tell that everyone has hit the ground running and we are well underway.

First, let me tell you a little about my trip out west: we spent a few vacation days with my mother in Missoula, Montana. She lives alone and fairly independently, but my sister and her husband live just down the road a mile or so, so she’s not alone—but my sister and brother-in-law were in Italy for a few weeks this summer, so I’m glad I could check in on Mom while they were gone. She’s well and pretty healthy, but she doesn’t drive any more—a nerve disorder she developed in the last few years causes her eyes fairly often to shut involuntarily and not be able to open again for a second or two. At home, that’s only inconvenient and she can live with it; behind the wheel, it’s potentially fatal. And the only treatment for this syndrome (Botox—we teased her about that!) has grown ineffective over time.

So it was great to see Mom and her cats, and help her with errands, make meals together (she loves to cook and we all love to eat), and talk and do a jigsaw puzzle. I found it very relaxing and pleasant. And even Rob (who has a tense relationship with cats, though a great one with Mom) enjoyed our time together. Montana is a beautiful place, and Missoula a quirky and interesting town.

Then we moved on to Los Angeles, to the installation of my successor—the Rev. Brenda Bos—as bishop of the Southwest California Synod. It was a wonderful worship service, although about as much went wrong with the technology as one could possibly imagine. The livestreaming that was supposed to connect the service to an overflow tent outside and to a number of satellite viewing stations in congregations across the synod failed fairly quickly, and even prevented us from viewing important pre-recorded parts of the service. That was a greater disappointment to the organizers and Bishop Brenda, but for those of us in the room it was still joyful and festive, and we sang and clapped and danced with great exuberance, nonetheless. The setting was the oldest surviving Lutheran congregation in Los Angeles, Angelica Lutheran Church, once the southwestern flagship church of the (Swedish) Augustana Synod and now a Spanish-speaking congregation serving mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants and their families.

I used to say when I was bishop there, that California in general (and Los Angeles in particular) is where America’s future is being lived out now—and at least in terms of ethnic diversity, that is still true. Even within our famously white ELCA, what we had in the SW CA Synod was unique: out of about 100 congregations, nine are predominantly African American; nine others worship in Spanish, and yet nine more use Asian languages, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog, in worship. Though these congregations tend to be small, they are strong—and they add a wonderful dimension to our life together, representing for us a hoped-for future of even greater diversity. Even now, I can’t restrain my pride in my church out there in SoCal, and pray that it truly is a precursor of change in the whole ELCA!

I won’t bore you with much more on this, but I do want to say how meaningful it was for me to be back together with the ELCA Region 2 bishops, to welcome our presiding bishop once more to LA, and to ceremonially put the bishop’s pectoral cross over the head of the new bishop with my own hands, as it had been put on my neck by my predecessor in 2013. Again we are “making all things new” in our church: this time by electing the first married lesbian bishop in the ELCA; again we are living into a longed-for future church while not forgetting our heritage and the legacy left by those who went before us.

Emotionally, it allowed me to say farewell to a call I had loved, and it freed me—anew and in every way—to devote myself entirely to the new call I have now enjoyed for a year at ULS. I knew the synod would be all right without me, but now their having a permanent shepherd in place makes me feel like my work there is well and truly done. That it is Brenda Bos who is the new bishop is just icing on the cake—she was my principal assistant and was always one whose talents I have regarded as perfect for this work call to the bishop’s office. The graceful way Bishop Brenda managed all the setbacks of the installation service just gave us all another example of that pastoral skill.

So back to ULS—flying home to Pennsylvania was fraught with delays, and flying in general is challenging in the COVID era, but we made it, and I have been able to spend this week in my office on the Philadelphia campus. It is such a joy to be able to attend our Wednesday and Thursday worship services in person in our chapels, and now I have done so on both campuses. It’s so nice to be able to walk down the hall and ask a colleague a question, and not have to send yet another e-mail. It’s funny to see people for the first time in person, when I have been meeting with them for a year already through Zoom—they are almost always slightly different than I imagined.

The ongoing pandemic situation is still frustrating, but to be honest, we’ve about reached the limit of what we can do about it. We continue to comply with state and local requirements; we have made masking mandatory indoors in ULS buildings; we expect vaccination of anyone physically present in our buildings, and we have tailored our upcoming events to keep safety a high priority. There are some new requirements put in place recently by the City of Philadelphia that we will need to intensify on that campus, but I don’t know how long they will remain in effect. All that gets formally communicated to the community through e-mail as soon as things are known.

The main challenge we have is to keep our good humor in the face of discouragement, to bear disappointment with grace, and to work together to do what we can as best we can. We want to restore things to “normal” on our campuses and in distance learning as far as possible, but we are still wrestling with how best to manage events on campus that involve people who are not current students, faculty, or staff. Some we have moved online; others are going forward with mask and distancing protocols. At this time, we have not made significant changes in the planning for the presidential inauguration coming up in mid-October (except that masking will be required for all events unless eating or drinking) but it is clear that people are also self-selecting, and I don’t expect attendee numbers to be greater than we can safely accommodate.

We’ll keep working with students, in particular, to find ways that we can safely promote community and add joy to the student experience. But the times are still hard for many of us, and we will continue to need patience. To those of you outside the immediate ULS community: please keep us in your prayers—to those inside: please be good to one another; slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Take care! God bless you all.

Yours faithfully,

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

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