‘I Don’t Know Which Way To Turn’: ELCA Grapples With Racism, Resignation of Trans Bishop | Sojourners

‘I Don’t Know Which Way To Turn’: ELCA Grapples With Racism, Resignation of Trans Bishop

Megan Rohrer during their installation ceremony as the fifth bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Sept. 11, 2021. Rohrer resigned as bishop less than a year later. Photo courtesy Sierra Pacific Synod, ELCA. Photo credit to Gareth Gooch and Bill Wilson. 

Rev. Megan Rohrer, who made history last year as the first openly transgender bishop of any mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S., resigned on June 4, 2022, amid accusations of racism for their actions in dismissing a Latino pastor in 2021.

Rohrer’s resignation as bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Sierra Pacific Synod, followed months of conflicts that destroyed reputations and livelihoods, permanently severed relationships, and left a church worshipping in a rainy parking lot. Sources within the ELCA told Sojourners that Rohrer’s resignation prompted sadness and denial, anger and celebration.

And for the ELCA and its over 3 million members nationwide, Rohrer’s resignation may not be the end of this saga. Sources within the ELCA told Sojourners they still have deep questions and concerns moving forward. Questions like: How do the optics of justice vary in the eye of the beholder? How can people with commitments to equity and inclusiveness fail to deliver on those commitments?

Events leading up to resignation

According to a report released by the ELCA, the lengthy series of events that led to Rohrer’s resignation began in spring 2019 when Rev. Nelson Rabell-Gonzáles was accused of “harassment and bullying” in relation to his service at the church in Lodi, Calif. Rabell-Gonzáles, an Afro-Caribbean minister, denied the accusations, but resigned from his position in spring of 2021. The report did not offer details about these accusations or who made them.

When Rohrer, who uses the pronouns they/them, became bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod in September 2021, they took the allegations seriously, according to Rohrer. In consultation with the synod council — elected lay members and clergy who function as the synod’s board of directors and weigh in on matters of protocol, new business, or discipline — they decided to vacate Rabell-González’s call and remove him from his position serving as Mission Developer of Misión Latina Luterana in Stockton, Calif. Rohrer made this announcement on Dec, 12, 2021 — the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a significant day for many Mexican American congregants. In February 2022, the Synod’s council voted to remove Rabell-Gonzáles as a pastor on the ELCA roster.

Because mission congregations are funded by the ELCA Churchwide Office and the individual synod in which the mission is located, Rabell-Gonzáles’s removal simultaneously cut the congregation’s funding. The report also indicated there were no plans to replace him or further support Misión Latina Luterana. With the loss of synod support, Misión Latina Luterana reorganized as Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, an independent Lutheran congregation.

Many in the congregation and the Latiné Community in the ELCA, said the timing was culturally insensitive and racist. In a December 2021 post on her personal website, Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, who is Assistant to the Bishop for Authentic Diversity, Inclusive Community and Service of the Sierra Pacific Synod and was expected to be present on Dec. 12 as part of her call, wrote that she was “opposed to the decision to do this on such a significant day for the Latinx community.” She informed Rohrer and other staff that “taking these actions on this particular day resembled actions taken by colonizers” and asked if it could be moved to a different day.

“The voices of the ancestors that were harmed by white supremacy and institutional racism are crying out. Will we listen? Or are we just going to continue to allow this to happen?” Salazar-Davidson wrote.

Listening team report

In March 2022, the denomination opened an investigation into Rohrer’s actions, and it issued a 25-page report based on numerous testimonials in April. The report was compiled by a Listening Team composed of Rev. Margaret Payne, retired bishop of the New England Synod; Rev. Constanze Hagmaier, bishop of the South Dakota Synod; and Roberto Lara, president of the Latino Ministries Association of the ELCA. Following the report, the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton asked for Rohrer’s resignation and Eaton initiated a disciplinary process against Rohrer in early June.

Rev. Nicole Garcia, Faith Work Director at the National LGBTQ Taskforce and first queer transgender Latina ordained as an ELCA pastor, said the events in question have caused her and many others much personal heartache.

She told Sojourners via e-mail, “I live at the center of the intersection of the communities involved in this tragic event. I know each person involved.

“I grieve for my Latinx community who was subjected to incredible disrespect. I grieve at the resignation of the first transgender bishop in the ELCA,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t know which way to turn or how to properly express my grief.”

The only solace Garcia said she can take is that the systemic racism within the ELCA has been exposed. She said the “racist attitudes that still permeate the church” can now begin to be addressed.

The Listening Team concluded that the events in question exposed a series of issues within the ELCA, including social media misuse, negative impacts on the ELCA’s Latiné community and communities of color, and “collateral harm” to the LGBTQ community. The team said the incident also raised questions about how the denomination’s policy and procedures align with its desire to be diverse and welcoming. 

The report also outlined the events leading up to and on Dec. 12, but noted they received “[c]ontradictory information or discrepancies” about many details. The team noted disagreements about Rohrer’s behavior when announcing the revocation, and whether the need for removal of Rev. Rabell-González, in relation to the allegations against him was “urgent” or simply “important to avoid future harassment.”

The team recommended a series of steps to right some of these wrongs, which included apologies and statements of accountability, anti-racism training for ELCA churchwide staff and clergy, enforced diversity requirements, and reparations for the former Misión Latina Luterana community and synodical staff like Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, who were adversely impacted by events. There are still no details or concrete plans to enact these recommendations at the churchwide or synodical level.

Of primary concern are allegations against Rabell-Gonzáles and the fate of the former Misión Latina Luterana congregation. Rabell-Gonzáles told Sojourners he has still not received a fair investigation into whether he misappropriated funds or abused, harassed, and/or bullied others while he served at St. Paul Lutheran Church. He said he and his congregation want an open, fair investigation.

“Don’t believe me, believe the community,” said Rabell-Gonzáles, “come here and see the evidence, look at my phone, see what happened at St. Paul in Lodi, at Misión Latina Lutera, and now our new church.”

Bertha Castro, one of Rabell-Gonzáles’ longtime congregants who has been with him since Lodi, said the entire community wants the investigation to happen. “Pastor Nelson can defend himself,” she said, “he deserves a full investigation.”

The problems, Castro said, stem back to St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi, where she believes Rabell-Gonzáles’ anti-racist activism and advocacy for criminal justice reform through his nonprofit organization A New Lodi garnered a dislike for him and his “loud Latinos,” she said. Castro said it is no coincidence that the allegations against Rabell-Gonzáles came quickly after the publication of an article in The Los Angeles Times detailing his anti-racist work — and the backlash he was facing — in California’s San Joaquin Valley, an area with a history of racism toward its farm workers of color.

What an investigation will find, said Castro, is not abuse by her pastor, but racism and harassment leveled at the Latiné community by fellow believers at St. Paul and in the Synod at large. “That’s the real problem,” Castro said, “this is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the water line, that’s the real problem — the racism and harassment that me and my community experienced … The lack of credibility we were given, the fact that we weren’t believed.”

Fighting back tears, Castro said, “the synod’s hate, their dislike for Pastor Nelson and our church is so big they don’t care what they do to us.”

The question remains whether the congregation’s status with the ELCA will be reinstated and their funding restored. On how the congregation feels after all that has happened, Castro said, “ ay, no diré la tristeza en la tierra” — I will not speak of the sadness in the land.

Nonetheless, members told Sojourners they would be open to the process of restoration. “I said to Pastor Nelson: They’ve kicked us out twice before. And we want to go back? Loco … but that’s who we are,” Castro said.

Investigation into Rohrer

In addition to the criticism Rohrer has faced regarding their dismissal of Rabell-González, Schade and others on ELCA social media platforms have also questioned Rohrer’s service as a San Francisco Police chaplain in 2017, amid national reckonings around police violence against people of color. Rohrer’s critics have also noted that Rohrer was accused of corruption and financial malfeasance in relation to their service at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco, where Rohrer served from 2014 to 2021. The civil lawsuit was settled and the church closed earlier this year. 

Members of Sierra Pacific Synod staff, including Salazar-Davidson, claim Rohrer’s racist abuse was not limited to their treatment of Rabell-Gonzáles and Misión Latina Luterana. Salazar-Davidson said before the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly on June 4, “this is about a pattern of abusing congregations and leaders from Grace to Misión Latina Luterana, to me.

“It’s alarming that this person would be my pastor or a pastor to any clergy in this synod,” she told the assembly.

Rohrer chose not to respond to these and other charges, but told Sojourners in a direct message that, “it’s disheartening that you can work your whole life in a profession and get elected to one of the most important leadership positions and in less than a day they can pack all your boxes and make you start over.”

For now, Rohrer said they are without income and have been seeking funds online to support their ongoing ministry projects. While doing so, Rohrer said they are continuing to receive abuse and opprobrium online. They said, “publicly vilifying victims and leaders who seek to end misconduct is not the same as disproving misconduct allegations,” suggesting that Rabell-Gonzáles is guilty of the allegations against him, and that their vacating of his call was correct.

“Faith leaders will need to decide if it is more faithful to argue or to listen and seek growth in response to this new dynamic,” they said, “I have chosen to listen and grow.”

Impact across ELCA

For Rev. Leah Jacobs Schade of Lexington, Ky., a friend of Rabell-Gonzáles and Patheos blogger, the incidents are an indication of white supremacist attitudes in the Synod.

“A lot of people in the [ELCA] just want this problem to go away,” she said. Schade has been blogging her commentary on the unfolding drama since the day after his removal. If she had not, she said, the entire tension may have been swept under the rug.

Schade said she’s seen supporters of both Rohrer and Rabell-Gonzáles share hateful messages. Schade said that it is good that everything is coming out into the open.

“Unless these stories are heard and acknowledged, there’s no way we can move toward healing,” she said. “Anti-trans rhetoric, racist rhetoric, and other forms of hate are present in our church. It’s so difficult to see and hear, but we need to so that we can confront it.”

Now that Rohrer has resigned, the path to justice and healing can begin, Schade said.

While Schade has seen talks of schism, calls for Bishop Eaton’s resignation, congregations withholding money from synods, and some even considering leaving the denomination, she said she and others are “not here to burn down the ELCA.

“There needs to be transparency, accountability, reconciliation, restoration, and reparations,” she said. “It will be hard, painful, and exhausting, but this is what we are called to do across the denomination.”

Rev. Keith Anderson, pastor of Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Penn., first learned of the situation online. Though Anderson was not directly involved in the accusations or circumstances surrounding Rohrer or Rabell-Gonzáles and is member of a different synod, he said the events have had an impact far beyond the Sierra Pacific Synod.

“[My congregation has] long had misgivings about structure and operations of our denomination,” Anderson said, “but now when people are joining our church, they are asking questions about inclusion and whether we are an anti-racist and affirming church.

“After all this, what can I say?” he said.

In the end, he said this must be seen as a real opportunity for reckoning and growth in the ELCA.

That work may begin immediately, but it is likely to be a major topic at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly from Aug. 8–12, in Columbus, Ohio. There, members across the denomination will likely propose memorials and motions related to the turmoil. Congregations and clergy are expecting Eaton to practically address lingering questions, take clear steps to enact the Listening Team’s recommendations, and respond to deep concerns reverberating across the denomination.

Rev. Lenny Duncan, a former ELCA pastor and author of “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” does not believe anything that comes out of the assembly will be enough.

As an American institution, the ELCA has been “ripe with racism” from the very start, they said.

Speaking on behalf of other Black, Brown, Indigenous, and queer bodies, Duncan said, “The ELCA has ground up so many of us, so many beautiful, vibrant careers ripped to shreds.”

Any reckoning that may come in the wake of Rohrer’s resignation and the potential reinstatement of Rabell-Gonzáles and Misión Latina Luterana might be too little, too late, Duncan said. Comparing the ELCA to the United States, they said, “the social construct of the republic is failing. It only makes sense the ELCA would follow suit. It is more metaphor than denomination now.”