On the one-year anniversary of the wrongful removal of Rev. Nelson Rabell from the ELCA’s roster of ordained ministry, there is still no justice.
One year ago today, on Feb. 7, 2022, Rev. Nelson Rabell González was unjustly and wrongly removed from the roster of ordained Word and Sacrament ministry by former ELCA Sierra Pacific Synod Bishop Megan Rohrer. A respected Latino pastor for more than two decades, Rev. Rabell had started a thriving Spanish-speaking mission congregation at St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi, Calif. in 2018. But he became the target of unsubstantiated allegations and racist attacks in 2020 and 2021. The church pressured him to sign an NDA when he left the congregation in March 2021, which he refused to do.
After that, he was appointed as a mission developer for another Hispanic ministry. But in May 2021, he was slandered and accused of harassment when he was a candidate for bishop. Then on Dec. 12, 2021, the day celebrating the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Rohrer removed him from his position as pastor and took over the worship service with synod staff. It was a chilling act of racist colonialism that has shaken the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and drawn national attention. Two months later, Rohrer kicked him off the roster without due process in February 2022.
Yet Rev. Nelson still managed to maintain his ministry with the congregation when they reformed as an independent Lutheran congregation, Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina. Eventually, due to the efforts of advocates and allies, the ELCA began taking steps to investigate Rohrer’s attack on Rev. Nelson’s congregation.
The wheels of justice began to turn
By June 2022, after a blistering report by the panel followed by a traumatic synod assembly, Rohrer resigned. Then in July, interim Bishop Claire Burkat issued a public statement acknowledging the injustice that had been done to Rev. Rabell, his family, and his congregation. Later that summer at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton apologized for the denomination’s wrongdoings and promised to right the wrongs.
Seven months later, there is still no resolution to this ecclesial crisis.
Full disclosure, Rev. Nelson has been a friend and colleague of mine for more than twenty years. We are both ordained ministers in the ELCA, and I am writing this piece to help tell his story so that justice can finally come to him and his congregation.
According to the Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina council minutes shared with me by Rev. Nelson, a delegation from the ELCA met with the congregational leaders on August 11, 2022. That delegation included Bishop Claire Burkat, Vice President of the Sierra Pacific Synod Simon Wong, and Rev. Javier Goitia from the Christian Community and Leadership unit of the ELCA. In that meeting, Bishop Burkat told the council that Bishop Eaton planned to visit them personally in October. Also, according to the minutes, “Bishop Burkat spoke of having 5 people ready [for the investigation] by Labor Day weekend. The bishop said that the process would take no more than 6 weeks.”
In other words, the investigation was to have been concluded by the time Bishop Eaton visited the church in mid-October. But that timeline came and went with no resolution.
On Oct. 13, 2022, both Bishop Eaton and Bishop Burkat visited Rev. Nelson and members of his congregation.
They heard from several women who had been harassed by someone at Rev. Nelson’s previous congregation, St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi, Calif. Since 2020, Rev. Nelson had reported this harassment to numerous people in leadership positions at St. Paul, in the synod, and at the churchwide level.
Yet all that time, no one listened to him or to the women. Instead, he became the target as the whistleblower.
Bishop Burkat did convene an investigative panel in the fall of 2022. In a piece I wrote in November, I said, “Our hope is that by the one-year anniversary of that fateful day in December, the investigation will be concluded, and the truth known by all. Rev. Nelson and his congregation are planning a worship service for El Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe on Dec. 11 that will serve as a celebration of justice, healing, restoration, and reparations. In the meantime, we pray for the Investigation Team appointed by Bishop Burkat that they may learn the facts, discern the truth, and share that truth with full transparency.”
But the Dec. 11th worship service has come and gone, and there is still no resolution.
During that weekend, many people in leadership in the ELCA assured Rev. Nelson that the end of this journey was coming quickly. By the end of January, they told him. Be patient.
Now the end of January has come and gone, and we are at the first anniversary of his removal from the roster. And there is still no resolution.
Certainly, those in control of the process have their reasons, but there are no excuses for this delay. Rev. Nelson has provided all the evidence that proves his innocence. There is a plethora of documentation in the form of written and oral testimony from numerous individuals. But the fact remains that the promises made for a swift and just resolution have not been kept.
To be fair, the ELCA and the synod jointly gave a grant to the church which has helped them in their ministry and enabled them to support Rev. Nelson. Both Rev. Nelson and the church are appreciative of this. But there is still no report from the investigation team. There is no plan for restoring Rev. Nelson to the roster from which he was wrongfully removed. And there is no plan for restoring Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina as a full-fledged congregation in the ELCA.
And what of Rohrer?
Despite numerous reports and videos indicating the ruthless nature of Rohrer’s attacks, their racist actions toward the congregation, and outright lies about Rev. Rabell, no entity within the ELCA has begun disciplinary proceedings against Rohrer, as far as we know. Rohrer is currently employed by a church in a different denomination outside of the ELCA. Will Rohrer ever be held accountable for actions against Rev. Nelson and his congregation? For what Rohrer did to their former congregation, Grace Lutheran? [Read: Remove Bishop Megan Rohrer? Follow the Pattern, Follow the Money.] For what Rohrer did to the Sierra Pacific Synod?
Justice delayed is justice denied.
What are we to think about the silence and lack of follow-through from those in power in the ELCA? [Read: The Corporate Captivity of the ELCA.]
How should we respond when it appears that they want all of this to just blow over and be forgotten?
What are we to make of the continuous breaking of the 8th Commandment not to bear false witness by those who purport to be the upholders of God’s teachings? Failure to hold accountable those who break this commandment sends a clear message that the denomination only seeks to protect its own power. [Read: The ELCA’s Whiteness Protection Program: Bishop Eaton and Bishop Rohrer.]
Especially as yet another pastor of color in the ELCA, Rev. Angela Khabeb, was recently denied severance after refusing to sign an NDA intended to silence her, how much longer must we wait?
How long, O Lord?
Again, we must do what we have done from the beginning of this tragic saga. We will raise our collective voices and ask: How long, O Lord? How long, O Bishop? How long, O ELCA?
If you would like to come alongside Rev. Nelson, his family, and his congregation in their struggle for justice, here are ways you can help.
ELCA Churchwide Office (1-800-638-3522; Bishop.Eaton@elca.org)
Sierra Pacific Synod Office (email@example.com)
Simon Wong – Synod Vice President (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Bishop Tracie Bartholomew, Chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops (email@example.com)
And ask for the following:
- Complete the investigation of the situation with Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as well as the actions of former bishop Megan Rohrer and the Sierra Pacific Synod and release the report to the public.
- Reinstate Rev. Nelson Rabell-González as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA without any hurdles or barriers.
- Reinstate Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina as a full-fledged congregation in the ELCA.
Pray for justice
As we await justice, here are prayers for your personal devotions and for congregations to offer during worship:
Prayer for those who have done harm
We pray for those who have lied, that they may be held accountable. For those who bore false witness, that they may make amends. For those who have kept silent out of fear, that they may know courage. And for those who perpetrated or enabled harm, that they may repent.
Spirit in your mercy (hear our prayer).
Prayer for Rev. Nelson, his family, and congregation
We pray for our brother, Rev. Nelson Rabell Gonzalez, his wife, Fabiola, and their children, Hiram and Sofia. Continue to surround them with supportive family, friends, and colleagues who will accompany them in their time of recovery. Bring justice, restoration, and reparations to them and their congregation. Bless them with renewed energy for ministry, strengthen their bonds as a family, and shine your light of love into their lives.
Holy Jesus in your mercy (hear our prayer).
The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is ordained in the ELCA. She does not speak 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 newest book is Introduction to Preaching: Scripture, Theology, and Sermon Preparation, co-authored with Jerry L. Sumney and Emily Askew (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).