Sierra Pacific Synod Council Must Apologize, Restore Rev. Nelson Rabell-González

Sierra Pacific Synod Council Must Apologize, Restore Rev. Nelson Rabell-González April 10, 2023

On March 19, 2023, the Sierra Pacific Synod Council announced that the Investigative Panel submitted its recommendations regarding the case of Rev. Nelson Rabell-González. Convened by Interim Bishop Claire Burkat in September 2022, the four-member team spent six months in a meticulous process of interviews, reviews of evidence, and discernment about the ways in which Rev. Nelson and his congregation were treated by the synod staff and council, as well as leaders in the ELCA.

Rev. Nelson Rabell-González
Rev. Nelson Rabell-González

The panel met with the Sierra Pacific Synod Council on March 18th to present their nine recommendations.  Then on March 31st, the synod made public the full set of recommendations. These recommendations are not just to the Synod Council, but also to the ELCA Council of Bishops, the ELCA Presiding Bishop, and the ELCA Churchwide Council.  In the document, there are explanations for the recommendations followed by a response from each entity.

The enormity of these recommendations cannot be overstated. 

And there is a great deal to unpack in this document.  But in this piece, I will focus only on three of the recommendations that directly name Rev. Nelson.  There is urgency to this because the Sierra Pacific Synod Council is slated to meet on April 15th to vote on a series of actions regarding Rev. Nelson.

(In a future piece, I’ll address the recommendations to the other entities – and their wholly inadequate responses – as well.)

I want to be very clear.  It is imperative that the Sierra Pacific Synod Council act on the recommendations for the good of the Synod and for the entire ELCA. 

However, the council’s response in the document indicates that they have not grasped the extent and depth of the harm they have done.  Nor do they appear willing to confess and atone for the sins of racism they have committed against Rev. Nelson, his family, and his congregation.

Thus, it is time to once again raise our voices to call for accountability, restoration, and reparations.

Let’s dig in.

Recommendation 1

The first recommendation calls for the Sierra Pacific Synod Council to “Issue a full and unreserved apology to Nelson Rabell-González, his spouse and family for the synod council’s role in the racist and destructive actions of Sierra Pacific Synod.”

In their explanation, they add, “We find that Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez was fired from his synodical call by Synod Council and thereafter subjected to racially-charged innuendo and attacks on his character by synod staff. He was removed from the Roster of Word and Sacrament without due process and suffered mental pain and humiliation as a result.”

Due process is something that Rev. Nelson has called for from the very moment he learned that there were accusations against him.

(Read: ELCA Fires Whistleblower, Rev. Nelson Rabell-González)

The ELCA has a Constitution that determines how accusations against rostered leaders are to be dealt with.  However, neither the Sierra Pacific Synod Council nor the ELCA followed these policies, as I explain in this piece: 6 Reasons Why Rev. Nelson Rabell-González was Denied Due Process.

But take note of these important words in the recommendation and explanation: “racist” and “racially-charged.”

This is an argument Nelson and his supporters have been making since the beginning – that his removal from his congregation (then called Misión Latina Luterana) was driven by inherent racism.  Rev. Nelson is an Afro Caribbean who was born and raised in Puerto Rico.  He serves a Spanish-speaking congregation made up of both documented and undocumented immigrants. And he has advocated vociferously for Black Lives Matter, migrant farmworker rights, and LGBTQIA+ issues, to name just a few.

Pastoral staff, leadership, and members of his previous congregation, St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi, Calif., forced him from his position as their associate pastor because of their discomfort with his justice work.  And they tried to get him to sign a non-disclosure agreement to silence him about the racism he experienced in the congregation.

(Rev. Nelson refused to sign the NDA, which you can read about in this piece: The NDA, the Church, and the Attempt to Silence Rev. Nelson Rabell-González.)

But the racist attacks did not end there. 

For more than a year, members of the synod staff — including the bishop — and pastors active on social media and in public forums relentlessly attacked Rev. Nelson with baseless accusations that resulted in character assassination and, I would argue, libel and slander.  (Read: Accusations and Racist False Flags: Rev. Nelson’s Saga is not Unique.)

Even his accuser spoke publicly at the 2022 synod assembly and said that Rev. Nelson is not “100% Puerto Rican.”  In other words, she implied that his African heritage makes him less than a full Puerto Rican.  That is an unqualified racist statement.  And here’s the thing: this person was on the Sierra Pacific Synod Council when they voted to remove him from his call and then from the roster of the ELCA.

Though this person is no longer on the Council, there remain some members who did participate in that vote and have publicly disparaged, lied about, vilified, and attacked Rev. Nelson.

This may partially explain why the Sierra Pacific Synod Council appears unwilling to recognize the racism of their actions.

Here is the Council’s response to the recommendation: “The Synod Council will make full and unreserved apologies to those harmed by its failures in leadership in regards to the lack of due process given to Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzales.”

Do you notice what’s missing? 

The fact that they deliberately omitted the part about their “racist and destructive actions” is at once telling, disturbing, and unconscionable.  The investigatory panel looked at this question for six months and this was their finding. So the Council’s response is nothing more than a milquetoast version of “I’m sorry if you were offended.”  It has all the contrition of that infamous corporate abstract passive-verb admission, “Mistakes were made.”

Let’s name this for what it is.  Due process was not followed precisely because of the racism inherent in the Sierra Pacific Synod Council and staff.  Unless that is specifically named and addressed, their apology will be inadequate and insulting.

Rev. Nelson Rabell with First Communion students, Easter 2023
Rev. Nelson Rabell with First Communion students, Easter 2023

Recommendation 6

The sixth recommendation of the Investigative Team calls for the Sierra Pacific Synod Council to “Move to reconsider your vote of December 11th, 2021, vacating the call of Nelson Rabell-González as a Mission Developer to Mission Latina Luterana.”  They go on to explain their reason for this recommendation:

We find that Sierra Pacific Synod Council was induced to vote to remove Pr. Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez from his call as a Mission Developer to Mission Latina Luterana by material misrepresentations. They were not afforded the opportunity to make an informed decision. They were not told that Churchwide officers and synod staff recommended not taking the proposed actions, particularly not on the proposed date. They were not informed about the customary course of action in such situations or afforded the opportunity to explore alternatives. We find that such misrepresentations likely affected the outcome of the vote on December 11, 2021.

Let’s pause on this term, “material misrepresentations.”

Material misrepresentation is a legal term that has to do with intentionally omitting or concealing facts, making incorrect statements, or fraudulently communicating something in such a way as to cause harm to another.

In other words, a certain party deceived and misled the Sierra Pacific Synod Council with the full intention of causing harm to Rev. Nelson and his congregation.  Someone deliberately duped them.  But this is because the council members themselves did not do due diligence or engage in the process in good faith.  Again, this was a result of the racist and destructive actions of the Sierra Pacific Synod. 

Recommendation 7

Immediately following the previous recommendation is the call to “Move to empower Bp. Burkat to take all steps necessary to quickly and effectively return Nelson Rabell-González to the roster, in accordance with newly adopted discipline guidelines, and with Churchwide consultation and consideration owing to the egregious lack of due process throughout his removal process.”  In their explanation they add, “We find that Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez was removed from the roster of Word and Sacrament without due process.”

The Sierra Pacific Synod Council’s response to Recommendations 6 and 7 is that they will:

Discuss a motion at its May 2023 synod council meeting to reconsider motion SC(ES)21.12.79 of December 11, 2021, that the Sierra Pacific Synod Council vacate the synod call of the Rev. Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez.

And:

Empower Bishop Claire Burkat, with Churchwide consultation, to take all steps necessary to quickly and effectively return Nelson Rabell-González to the roster of Word and Sacrament, in accordance with discipline guidelines proposed to be adopted at the synod council meeting on April 15, 2023.

All of this is right and necessary.  But without the foundational acknowledgement of the racism that drove every action taken against Rev. Nelson, we will have missed the primary lesson from this entire fiasco. 

And the lesson is that the Sierra Pacific Synod Council, as well as the ELCA as an entire denomination, needs to do to difficult, painful work of confronting and dismantling its racism in all three expressions of the church – churchwide, synods, and congregations. Unfortunately, the way things are looking, the Sierra Pacific Synod Council is trying to avoid the difficult issues they need to address.

Note that this is not the first investigative panel to identify the systemic racism within the Sierra Pacific Synod and the racist actions of members of its staff and council. 

A completely separate group of people appointed by Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton to be a “Listening Panel” last year also found that racism was a key issue in the removal of Rev. Nelson from his congregation. Racism is mentioned more than twenty times in their report.  Here is just the first paragraph:

The actions surrounding December 12, 2021 — the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe — that were traumatic for the community of Misión Latina Luterana (the Community) in the Sierra Pacific Synod, were due not only to the mistakes, insensitivity, and errors in judgment of a few individuals, but at a deeper level, the actions were the result of a system of white power and institutional racism that exists throughout all expressions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).  [Emphasis added.]

So, if all the Sierra Pacific Synod Council plans to do is offer a bland and half-hearted apology devoid of contrition for their egregiously racist actions while begrudgingly allowing him to return to the roster of the ELCA, this process will have been a sham.  And the systemic racism that created the conditions for this perfect storm against Rev. Nelson will remain.

What can we do?

We are calling on everyone both within and beyond the ELCA who cares about the church addressing systemic racism to contact the Vice President of the Sierra Pacific Synod Council and share your concerns.  Before April 15th when they vote on issuing an apology and empowering Bishop Burkat to return Rev. Nelson Rabell-González to the roster, send an email to: synodvicepresident@spselca.org with the following requests.

  1. Follow the exact recommendation of the Investigative Panel to “Issue a full and unreserved apology to Nelson Rabell-González, his spouse and family for the synod council’s role in the racist and destructive actions of Sierra Pacific Synod.”
  2. Follow the exact recommendation of the Investigative Panel to “Move to reconsider your vote of December 11th, 2021, vacating the call of Nelson Rabell-González as a Mission Developer to Mission Latina Luterana.”
  3. Follow the exact recommendation of the Investigative Panel to “Move to empower Bp. Burkat to take all steps necessary to quickly and effectively return Nelson Rabell-González to the roster, in accordance with newly adopted discipline guidelines, and with Churchwide consultation and consideration owing to the egregious lack of due process throughout his removal process.”
  4. Follow the recommendation of the ELCA Listening Panel 2022 report to “protect the Community [now Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina] and provide a home for its ministry. The provision of care and concern will also be a step in the right direction to repair relationships with the Latiné community in the ELCA. It will demonstrate an authentic commitment from the Sierra Pacific Synod to dismantle racism within its territory” (p. 17).
  5. Follow through on this apology with sacrificial restitution and reparations to Rev. Nelson, his family, and his congregation.

In the meantime, pray for Rev. Nelson, his family, and his congregation that they may begin to find healing and peace.  Pray that they will see justice “roll down like waters, righteousness like ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Read also:

Pastor Nelson’s Spouse Speaks: The Year of Pain

The Day an ELCA Synod ‘Disappeared’ Pastor Nelson Rabell-González

Sierra Pacific Synod Attacks Rev. Nelson – and Indicts Itself

Full disclosure, Rev. Nelson and I have been friends and colleagues for more than twenty years. We are both ordained ministers in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and I have been writing about his saga since December 13, 2021. My goal is to help tell his story so that justice can finally come to him, his family, and his congregation.


Rev. Nelson Rabell and Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina, Dec. 11, 2022
Rev. Nelson Rabell and Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina, Dec. 11, 2022

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade is ordained in the ELCA. She does not speak for 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).

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