Rohrer Removed, Rabell Reinstated. What’s Done and What’s Left Undone?
On June 28, 2023, the Rev. Claire Burkat, Interim Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, ELCA, sent a letter to the rostered leaders of the synod announcing that former bishop Megan Rohrer was removed from the roster of the ELCA.
Two days later, on June 30, the Candidacy Committee of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the ELCA voted to recommend that Rev. Nelson Rabell González be reinstated to the roster of Word and Sacrament ministry. Prior to this, the Sierra Pacific Synod Council voted to reinstate Rev. Rabell to the ELCA’s clergy roster, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
This moment of relief and celebration has been a long time coming! And it deserves time for reflection.
A long-awaited turning
Rohrer removed, Rabell reinstated.
These two converging events happened sixteen months after Rohrer and the synod council voted to reject Rev. Rabell’s request to go on leave from call in Feb. 2022, effectively removing him from the roster.
And it’s been eighteen months since Rohrer fired Rev. Rabell from his position as mission developer and pastor of Misión Latina Luterana. (Since then, the congregation reincorporated as an independent church in the state of California, Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina.)
On that same day, Dec. 12, 2021, Rohrer descended upon the congregation’s worship service on El Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe to announce Rev. Rabell’s removal, violating one of the most sacred days for Latiné Christians. That racist travesty will live in infamy in ELCA history and in the shattered hearts of Latiné Lutherans and their allies.
Two years of injustice
Also, it’s been just over two years since false accusations were made against Rev. Rabell at the May 2021 Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly. Rohrer snowballed those accusations into an avalanche of baseless claims and defamatory false innuendo against Rev. Rabell which surged across the ELCA and beyond.
All of this was to silence Rev. Rabell, an outspoken Afro-Latiné pastor and social justice activist who called out the racism of his community and former congregation, St. Paul Lutheran in Lodi, Calif. And it served to distract from Rohrer’s questionable past and the ELCA’s cover-up of injustice against Rev. Rabell. It also redirected attention away from the actions against Rohrer’s former congregation, Grace Lutheran, a church Rohrer closed after becoming bishop.
It has taken a herculean effort these past two years to help Rev. Rabell get to this point of finally being reinstated in the ELCA.
Thousands of people both within and outside of the ELCA have signed petitions, written emails, and made phone calls. They’ve posted and commented on social media, spoken in public forums, sent financial support, and worked behind the scenes to advocate for justice for Rev. Rabell.
All the while, Rohrer’s minions amplified Rohrer’s misdirection, misinformation, and outright lies against Rev. Rabell.
Only after Interim Bishop Claire Burkat appointed an investigation team to examine the evidence of this case and interview the parties involved has the truth finally start to come out in a formal way.
Although, let it be noted:
Rev. Rabell has been telling the truth all along.
And this author notes that every piece published on this blog has also told the truth.
The truth we have been asserting has been verified both by the ELCA’s Listening Panel Report in 2022 and by the recently released Investigative Panel Report in the Sierra Pacific Synod.
According to that Report which was released on March 30, 2023, the team found that “Nelson Rabell-Gonzales 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.”
Now, here we are with Rohrer removed from the roster of Word and Sacrament ministry through the same means by which Rohrer had removed Rev. Rabell – the denial of a request to go On Leave from Call (OLFC).
This is a perfect example of poetic justice. (For those with questions or concerns about this process, keep reading.)
And for those who have been working and praying for justice for Rev. Rabell, it’s important to pause in this moment and note what has been done.
Rohrer is no longer an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. Rohrer can never again do harm to another individual or congregation in a position of pastoral leadership within this denomination.
Rev. Rabell will be restored to his rightful position as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. Rev. Rabell can once again serve in a position of pastoral leadership within this denomination.
Yes, we can finally exhale. We can finally take a breath.
And then we must acknowledge what has been done and what has been left undone. Let’s start with a recap.
How we got here
Rohrer had requested to go OLFC after the 2022 Synod Assembly, June 2-4. By that point, it had become apparent from the Listening Panel Report released at the end of May that Rohrer had engaged in egregious behaviors against the people of Misión Latina Luterana, including threatening to call the police on a 10-year-old Latina girl and her father. And there were many other abuses of power going back to before Rohrer’s time as bishop, including a lawsuit involving accusations of financial malfeasance.
Yet the 58 percent who voted to remove Rohrer as bishop fell short of the supermajority needed. However, it did help to compel the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops to hold a meeting immediately after the assembly in which they voted to bring disciplinary charges against Rohrer.
The next day, Rohrer submitted a resignation pre-dated to the day before the vote of the Conference of Bishops. Rohrer then requested On Leave from Call status on June 7.
Now, one year later, Bishop Burkat has denied Rohrer’s request for On Leave from Call status.
As Bp. Burkat states in the letter, “The effect of this action is to remove Dr. Rohrer from the ELCA roster of Ministers of Word and Sacrament as required by the constitutional and bylaw provisions that govern the roster of Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”
Yet Bp. Burkat stressed that she “did not act hastily, but instead waited a year while I gathered evidence and information, listened to hundreds of people, lay and rostered, and carefully considered the culmination of six months of work by the Investigation Team, all of which informed my decision.”
Wait, is it fair that Bp. Burkat used the same means of removing Rohrer that Rohrer used to remove Rev. Rabell?
Some are concerned that the very issue of circumventing due process for Rev. Rabell may be an issue once again with Rohrer’s dismissal.
But it’s important to note that these are two different circumstances with important distinctions.
Rev. Rabell was removed from his position. In contrast, Rohrer chose to resign.
Rev. Rabell consistently asked for a disciplinary process. Rohrer did not.
Rev. Rabell asked for a proceeding to allow him to tell his side of the story. Rohrer did the opposite. When the Conference of Bishops recommended a disciplinary process, Rohrer resigned, and pre-dated that resignation to a date before the vote of the bishops.
In short, Rohrer hasn’t gotten a hearing because Rohrer avoided it. Rohrer could have had a disciplinary process to present evidence and clear their name but chose not to.
Here’s the bottom line
Removing Megan Rohrer from the roster was the right decision. It was a decision made after two investigations (Bishop Eaton’s Listening Panel and Bishop Burkat’s Investigation Team).
- Both investigations pointed to Rohrer’s behavior incompatible with the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament.
- Eaton asked for Rohrer’s resignation back in May of 2022 based on the findings of the Listening Panel.
- The Synod Investigative Panel determined that Rohrer defamed Rev. Rabell’s name and character with false accusations.
- Rohrer’s resignation from the Office of Bishop did not allow Presiding Bishop Eaton to pursue discipline for the actions committed while serving as bishop.
- Burkat had the sole constitutional responsibility to deny it or approve Rohrer’s OLFC request.
- Burkat arrived at the decision to deny Rohrer’s request for OLFC after a painstaking, careful, diligent, and detailed evaluation of the evidence.
And remember that Rohrer’s decision to deny Rev. Nelson’s request for OLFC took less than a month and was retaliatory with no basis in fact. In contrast, Bp. Burkat’s decision took a year and was based on evidence.
What’s left undone
This is not to say that the process of removing Rohrer has been without flaws. There were missed opportunities for justice. And there are still unresolved issues.
- First, there were no allegations or charges brought against Rohrer as a pastor, only as bishop.
Thus, there was no synodical disciplinary process against Rohrer. Bishop Burkat could have initiated a disciplinary process given the evidence from the issues that led to the lawsuit against Rohrer by members of Grace Lutheran Church. Unfortunately, that opportunity for justice is now lost.
- Second, no one has held ELCA Presiding Bishop Eaton responsible for her part in this injustice.
While Bp. Eaton apologized to Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina at last year’s Churchwide Assembly, there has been no accountability for her role in what happened to them or to Rev. Rabell.
As I pointed out in this piece, Bp. Eaton refused to initiate a disciplinary process against Rohrer after receiving the recommendation to do so by the Listening Panel. Eaton also gave a platform to Rohrer to continue in an abuse of power by allowing Rohrer to preside over the 2022 synod assembly. At that assembly, Eaton said nothing while Rohrer and Rohrer’s minions attacked Rev. Rabell in absentia, assassinating his character and violating the 8th Commandment.
But the real problem is that Eaton knew about Rohrer’s actions against both Rev. Nelson and Grace Lutheran in November of 2021 – because Rev. Rabell reported it to her. And Bp. Eaton refused to act. (Read the whole timeline here.)
And there are other unresolved issues which I’ll address in follow-up articles.
Despite all the harm that was done to Grace Lutheran, to Rev. Rabell and his family, and to Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, there are many responsible parties who are not being held accountable.
Here’s the thing. The only way to really heal is to name the harm that was done. There needs to be a formal, transparent, and honest process of truth-telling and reconciliation. How can we teach future generations to avoid this kind of injustice in the future if there is no opportunity to see the full extent to which racism, white supremacy, and the Corporate Captivity of the ELCA harms the church?
At the same time, despite efforts to reform many of the ecclesial and institutional policies that enabled the abuse of power and acts of injustice to be carried out in the first place, it appears that there is hesitancy and even resistance to making those reforms. I’ll address those concerns in the next piece.
In the meantime, I will share with you a message that Rev. Rabell wanted me to communicate to all of those who fought for justice.
A word of gratitude from Rev. Rabell to his supporters
Grace and peace be upon you all. My family and I want to thank the Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Rev. Lamont Wells (African Descent Lutheran Association), and Jennifer de Leon and Roberto Lara (former Presidents of the Latino Lutheran Association), as well as Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries. We thank Rev. Rafael Malpica, Caribbean Synod; Bishop Idalia Negrón, Florida-Bahamas Synod; Bishop Pedro Suarez; Bishop Leila Ortiz, Metro DC Synod; and Bishop Felix Malpica, La Crosse Area Synod. Also, we thank Sierra Pacific Synod Interim Bishop Claire Burkat and Maryland Delaware Synod Bishop Bill Gohl.
Thank you to the ELCA’s listening panel (Retired Bishop Margaret Payne, Roberto Lara, and South Dakota Bishop Constance Hagmaier). And the Sierra Pacific Synod Investigative Team (Rev. María Paiva, Regina Banks, Rev. Abel Arroyo, and Rev. Elisabeth Ekdale).
Others we thank are Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson, Rev. Dr. Javier Goitía, Evelyn Soto, Letty Villalón, Rev. Gregory Villalón, Craig Lundgren, Rev. Bill Knezovich, Rev. Dan Solberg, Rev. Crystal Larsen Stewart, Rev. Ned O’Donnell, Rev. Maristela Frieberg, Rev. Ruben Duran, Rev. José Escalera, Rev. Giselle Coutinho, Rev. Wayne Zschech, Rev. Pamela Griffith Pond, Rev. Sue Jones, Rev. Damaris Porsch-Ortega, Rev. Mike Dubsky, Father Ryan Paetzold, Rev. Gary Woodruff, Shruti Kulkarni, Rev. Jesse Brown, Rev. Erich Kussman, Francisco Herrera, Rev. Heidi Neumark, Rev. Haydee Colon Hernandez, Deacon Tom Hampson, Rev. Andrés Albertsen, Rev. Sylvia Mueller, Rev. Lyn Crase, Rev. Trudy Franzen, Rev. Karen Johnson, Rev. Edwin Cruz Melecio, Rev Frank Sayford, Rev. Johnathan Hopkins, Rev. June Wilkins, Father Angel Marrero, Rev. Angela Denker, Rev. Ramon Collazo, Rev. Matt Staniz, Rev. Dr. Anna Mercedes, Rev. Dr. Kayko Driedger Hesslein, Rev. Nathan Pipho, Glenda Moreno, José Cruz, Rev. Dr. Charles Leonard, Lucille Hall, Rev. Angela Shannon, Rev. Angela Khabeb, Rev. CeCee Mills, and LaVinnia Pierson.
We also thank the Steering Committee of the Clergy Emergency League, Rev. Curtis Smith, Executive Director of Faith in the Valley, Constance Berg, Rev. June Wilkins, Rev. Lauren Applegate, Magali Sanchez Hall, Erica Fernandez Zamorra, and the Purepecha community.
And there are so many other siblings in Christ that prayed for us and worked so hard to make sure that the truth could set us free. We are forever grateful.
Sincerely, the Rabell-Ramos Family.
Rev. Nelson H. Rabell-González, M. Div., STM, and BSME Pastor at Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina
I will also add my thanks to everyone who shared these posts and offered supportive comments over these past two years.
There are also those who were skeptical about the veracity of Rev. Rabell’s story at first, but have since come around and recognized the injustice that was done.
But for those of you who amplified Rohrer’s misinformation and attacks on Rev. Rabell, or who knew the truth but refused to speak up, now is the time for you to come forward and come clean.
The ritual of confession and forgiveness is an important part of our religious tradition. If you maligned Rev. Rabell publicly, apologize publicly.
This goes for the Sierra Pacific Synod as well. While they have sent him a private letter of apology, they owe him a public one. The upcoming Synod Assembly is the time to do this.
If you would like to send an email to the SP Synod Council President Simon Wong requesting for them to publicly apologize to Rev. Nelson Rabell, his family, and his congregation at the synod assembly, you can reach him at this email address: email@example.com.
In the meantime, please continue to pray for Rev. Rabell, his family, and the people of Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina that God may bring them healing, restoration, and reparations for the harm, trauma, and injustice they have suffered.
Thanks be to God, the turning has begun.
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).