Or: A Lesson in How to Respond to an Insufficient Apology
Full disclosure: I am an ordained clergyperson in the ELCA. I write as a white, cisgender female with a commitment to justice on behalf of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Nelson Rabell González and his congregation, Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina. They have given me permission to share their story, but my words and opinions are my own.
At the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly on Aug. 9, 2022, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton stood at the podium and read an apology on behalf of the denomination to representatives from Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina. The four members of the beleaguered and maligned congregation in Stockton, Calif., stood with stoic dignity as Bishop Eaton delivered a thousand words that managed to avoid any personal responsibility for her role in the mistreatment of their church and pastor, Rev. Nelson Rabell González.
Apology delayed and justice denied
The apology came eight months after then-bishop Megan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod took over the congregation’s celebration of the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, 2021, and announced that they (Rohrer uses they/them pronouns) had removed Rev. Rabell as pastor of the congregation (at the time known as Misión Latina Luterana).
That removal was the result of a campaign of unsubstantiated accusations, rumors, and deliberate disinformation about Rev. Nelson churned out by a former intern and members of his former congregation, St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi, Calif., as well as Rohrer’s supporters. Two months later in February 2022, Rohrer denied Rev. Nelson’s request to go On Leave From Call, effectively removing him from the roster of ordained ministry without any due process.
Having received no pastoral support from either the Synod or the Churchwide Office, the congregation reincorporated as an independent Lutheran congregation under the name Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina (St. Mary the Pilgrim Lutheran Church) with Rev. Nelson as their pastor. They were abandoned and betrayed – twice – by the denomination that had promised to support them.
The harm done to Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina
Since that time, the congregation has endured a barrage of racially-motivated pain and harm. For example, Rohrer made false claims that the community had threatened violence on a Zoom call. Also, in a public letter, an assistant to the bishop characterized the congregation’s protest and exit from the sanctuary on Dec. 12 as a “riot” (which it obviously was not, as can be seen in this video at minute mark 32:50). Voices on social media have suggested that the church members are either naïve or stupid for continuing to have Rev. Nelson as their pastor. And they have characterized the congregation as brainwashed sheep manipulated by an abusive pastor.
I thought about all of this as I watched the livestream of Bishop Eaton welcoming Señora Bertha Castro, Señor Antonio Castro, Señora Jovita Torres, and Señor Rodolfo Valenzuela to the stage. At the Assembly where more than 800 pastors and lay leaders gathered in Columbus, Ohio, this group showed the ELCA what dignity, grace, and commitment to justice and accountability look like.
But first, we need to begin with some backstory.
Where was the invitation?
Bishop Eaton began her speech by acknowledging the congregation’s “commitment to be a community of Latiné Lutherans who embody the word made visible in Jesus, who confronted injustice with understanding, who met derision with forgiveness, who overcame hate with love.” [You can watch the video of Bishop Eaton’s speech here, starting at 2:38.]
This is most certainly true. But what most people are not aware of is that originally there were no plans for anyone from Santa María to be present for this “public apology” when it first appeared on the schedule. Sra. Castro shared with me that no invitation was extended to the congregation until less than two weeks before the assembly. They first learned that there was to be an apology when the schedule was released on July 13. But no one from the Bishop’s office bothered to contact either Rev. Nelson or anyone from the congregation until July 27.
Did the Bishop intend to give the apology to the congregation in absentia?
Who did she expect to receive the apology? Only after several people contacted the Bishop’s office on behalf of the congregation and asked these questions was a hastily written email sent to Sra. Castro.
Apparently, Bishop Eaton simply expected that members of the congregation would simply interrupt their lives, jobs, and families to come at her bidding. This is yet one more example of Bishop Eaton’s cultural, socioeconomic, and racial insensitivity, not to mention an insult to the community. The implicit message from the white leadership of the denomination to an embattled Latiné congregation was clear:
You did not matter enough for us to consult with you in advance of announcing this apology. And you did not matter enough for us to reach out to you and issue a formal invitation weeks in advance so that you could plan to attend. You’ll come when we call. If we call.
This a subtext that most people were not aware of as they applauded the awkward hugs offered by the oppressor to the oppressed after the speeches.
How NOT to give an apology
Yet even the apology itself was problematic in several ways. For example, Bishop Eaton spoke of “accountability,” yet she failed to specifically state what she herself did that enabled and contributed to this fiasco. Let’s take a moment to review Bishop Eaton’s role in the harm done to the congregation of Santa María Peregrina.
Recall what Bishop Eaton knew and when she knew it. Rev. Nelson notified Bishop Eaton in November 2021 about the untenable situation he was facing with Rohrer. (Read the whole timeline here.) That Bishop Eaton refused to help is bad enough. But Rohrer has insisted that they acted under the direction of the Presiding Bishop in carrying out the events of December 12. If this is true, then this needs to be investigated as well.
In any case, it was only after months of outcry from across the ELCA that Bishop Eaton decided to convene a Listening Panel in March to investigate what happened in the Sierra Pacific Synod. The team conducted their interviews and submitted their report to her in April. But she initially refused to make it public, choosing instead to activate what I call the ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program. Again, only after cries of outrage at her intention to bury the report did she finally release it on May 28 – just days before the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly.
Consistently refusing to do the right thing
The Listening Panel Report is a shocking document recounting the many instances of Rohrer’s egregious behavior, including threatening a Latina child with a ‘racist verbal assault’ at the church. But instead of immediately initiating a disciplinary process against Rohrer after receiving the report, Bishop Eaton merely requested that Rohrer resign. As it turns out, this was yet one more failure in leadership that would lead to yet more abuse. Because, naturally, Rohrer refused to step down. So in June, Rohrer presided at the annual Synod Assembly – with Bishop Eaton in attendance.
At the Assembly, there was a call for a vote of no confidence in Rohrer’s leadership. During the time for comments on the motion, Bishop Eaton refused to intervene when several people stood at the microphone to speak not about Rohrer’s behavior, but about Rev. Nelson. They repeated false accusations, maligned his character, made racist comments about his ethnicity, and assassinated his reputation. This had nothing to do with Rohrer’s behavior or the motion under consideration.
But no one, including Eaton herself, stopped the repeated violations of the Eighth Commandment.
Nevertheless 58% did vote for Rohrer to step down, though this was short of the two-thirds majority required. Only after the Assembly concluded did Bishop Eaton begin a disciplinary process against Rohrer who resigned shortly thereafter. Since then, we have learned that Rohrer falsified accusations against Rev. Nelson by putting people on “the list” of accusers — people who had never lodged a complaint or even knew they were on the list. Señora Castro herself discovered she was on that list (which you can read about here).
By the time of the Churchwide Synod Assembly in August, more and more people began to realize that Bishop Eaton’s actions and inactions directly contributed to the harm against Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina and Rev. Nelson. One cannot help but speculate that the apology, scheduled for the first day of the assembly, was as much a choice of political expediency as it was a genuine desire for repentance.
How to respond to a deficient apology
What Bishop Eaton’s apology lacked in specificity, the delegation’s response made up for with clarity and particularity. The response, read first in Spanish by Sra. Torres and then in English by Sra. Castro, gave us a master class in how to respond to a deficient apology. [You can watch a video of their speech here. The Spanish version starts at 29:13, English at 36:08.]
1 – Stay centered in Christian love – and accountability
First, they centered their response in love for the church with a simultaneous call to prevent “further harm to vulnerable communities of our church, particularly to fellow siblings of color.” Then they named the parties who had wronged them and pledged to continue praying for them.
Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina will also continue to pray for Former Bishop Megan Rohrer. As followers of Jesus, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we pray for Former Bishop Megan Rohrer, former Vice President Gail Kiyomura, and the Sierra Pacific Synod Council. At the same time, we hope and pray that they will see in their hearts the pain and harm that they have caused to our community. In Christian love, we wait for them to be held accountable for their actions, and to hear about concrete actions of reparation for our community and our pastor.
There is great power in saying these names publicly out loud because these are the people who did the harm. Further, the congregation clearly stated that they await accountability for those actions. This kind of specificity was one of the many things missing from Bishop Eaton’s apology.
2 – Name the harm done
Continuing to name those who have done them harm, the congregation offered forgiveness to Bishop Eaton and her advisors. Then they specified the harmful actions for which the congregation offered forgiveness.
We forgive you for not heeding the recommendations of your listening team, for being slow to act, and not making sure we were provided with pastoral care during this difficult time. We will also continue to pray for you, hoping that —every single day — God grant you the courage, strength, and wisdom to lead this church body to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy.
What Eaton refused to say, the congregation articulated with clarity saying, essentially, this is what you did that requires forgiveness. With tearful and heartfelt sincerity, the delegation shared unmerited, Christlike grace.
But notice – forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. It is precisely because grace is freely given that we are compelled to live into the gift given to us.
3 – Call for next steps modeled on the embodiment of Jesus
Thus, the congregation’s response reiterated their commitment to be “a community of Latiné Lutherans who embody the word made visible in Jesus, who confronted injustice with understanding, who met derision with forgiveness, who overcame hate with love.” But they didn’t end there. They called for those who have done wrong to meet those same standards.
We look forward to seeing how the ELCA and the Sierra Pacific Synod will embody your words moving forward.
Ribbons instead of reparations
Unfortunately, instead of doing something concrete to embody the words of her apology and make reparations to the community, Bishop Eaton offered . . . ribbons. After the apology, she invited the Assembly to write their laments and prayers for Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina on ribbons and tie them to a cross.
Really? That’s all they get? Ribbons?
Let’s be very clear. Ribbons are not reparations. Ribbons are not restitution. Such an activity might work for a Confirmation class or youth group beginning to grapple with addressing their racism. But for the sins committed by Bishop Eaton, former Bishop Rohrer, the Sierra Pacific Synod, and those who have maligned and slandered Rev. Nelson Rabell González, this activity was embarrassingly insufficient.
Actions must follow – immediately
Fortunately, The Rev. Claire Burkat, Interim Bishop of Sierra Pacific Synod, has specifically delineated what she intends to do in terms of accountability for Iglesia Santa María and Rev. Nelson. In the “Report to the Latino Ministries Association Community Regarding the Sierra Pacific Synod Case” co-written by Bishop Burkat, Latiné representatives of the ELCA Churchwide Office and representatives of the Latino Ministries Association’s Executive Council, she named several intended actions. These include a full investigation of the circumstances regarding the removal of Rev. Nelson from the roster, reinstating him and his congregation upon completion of the investigation, and renewing financial support.
As Rev. Nelson and the people of Santa María Peregrina have made clear, full transparency, accountability, restoration, restitution, and reparations are necessary for reconciliation to begin. And this is not something that should drag on for another year. Bishop Burkat must be given all the resources she needs for cleaning up the mess in the Sierra Pacific Synod. And she needs to be empowered to assemble a team of people from outside the synod whom she trusts to carry out this process thoroughly and without delay.
Where was Pastor Nelson?
Noticeably absent on that stage was Rev. Nelson himself. Though he had been invited (after much hesitation on the part of the Presiding Bishop), he felt it best for the focus to be on the congregation rather than the unresolved issues regarding the accusations against him. But his congregation reminded the Assembly of the need for prayers and justice for their pastor.
We ask all of you to keep Pastor Nelson Rabell-González in your prayers. We believe in his integrity and honesty. Our Pastor deserves a just and fair investigation process to bring closure to him and his family. We hope that this will finally be possible under the leadership of Sierra Pacific Synod Interim Bishop Claire Burkat.
Despite Rev. Nelson’s absence, the influence that his saga has had on the ELCA could be seen in numerous ways at the Churchwide Assembly. I’ll say more about that in my next piece.
Healing came – but not from the apology
For now, I want to emphasize what a healing experience the Churchwide Assembly was for the delegates from Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina. But it wasn’t because of the apology. It was because of the people gathered in that Assembly who embraced them with love and support.
Ever since their pastor was forced out of St. Paul’s 18 months ago, they have known only heartache, betrayal, spiritual neglect and abuse, and blatant racism against themselves and their pastor through the various expressions of the ELCA as well as individuals within the denomination. This had been their only experience with the Lutheran church outside of the tiny niche of Christian community they had carved out for themselves with the guidance of Santa María, their protector and fellow pilgrim.
But those who gathered for the Churchwide Assembly showed them another side of the church that they desperately needed to see. “Everyone that we met was thankful and appreciated our presence at the Assembly,” Sra. Castro told me. “Bishop Eaton didn’t miss an opportunity to thank us for being there. We are very happy to have been received with so much love. We really didn’t expect that.”
What have we learned?
While they were surprised by the positive feedback from so many people after their response to the apology, they want to emphasize that there is still much work to do. “Those who tried to destroy us and our faith as a congregation, what have they learned? An apology comes with promises,” Sra. Castro reminded me.
“On December 12, 2021, they destroyed our temple. But the love of God and our faith has made us stronger,” she told me. They have asked for a proper church building (they are now nesting in a UCC congregation). And for a proper investigation for Rev. Nelson.
“My hope is that we will have both before Dec.12, 2022,” she said.
Surely, a resolution to this painful journey before the next Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe is both a reasonable and attainable request.
Unmerited, undeserved grace
What we witnessed from Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina at the 2022 Churchwide Assembly was a grace, dignity, and honor that we as a denomination neither earned nor deserve. May we live into what they pray for us to be: a church dedicated to justice, accountability, transparency, reparations, reconciliation, and the prophetic gospel of Jesus Christ.
Part One: The Removal of Rev. Rabell-González: A Case Study in ELCA Corruption and Racism (Dec. 13, 2021)
Part Two: ELCA Fires Whistleblower, Rev. Nelson Rabell-González (Dec. 17, 2021)
Part Twelve: Remove Bishop Megan Rohrer? Follow the Pattern, Follow the Money (March 31, 2022)
For a complete compilation of all documents, blogs, commentaries, and posts from all parties about the situation in the Sierra Pacific Synod, visit this website created by Shruti Kulkarni: https://whathappenedinthesps.weebly.com/. This website has compiled all items relating to the controversy for accountability, clarification, and ease of access.
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and ordained in the ELCA. Dr. Schade does not speak for LTS or the ELCA; her opinions are her own. She is the author of Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019) and Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the co-editor of Rooted and Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). Her latest book, co-written with Jerry Sumney is Apocalypse When?: A Guide to Interpreting and Preaching Apocalyptic Texts (Wipf & Stock, 2020).