I was raised in a deeply faithful family of Lutherans. In my parent’s generation there were five ordained Lutheran pastors — three on my mom’s side (her younger sister Karen, younger brother Kemp and her twin sister’s husband, Byron) and two on my dad’s side (my dad David and and his older brother Richard). My maternal grandmother Ruth was also the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Franz Oscar Whilhelm Gustafson. My maternal grandfather, Carl Segerhammar, was ordained in 1932 having graduated from Augustana Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois. His father Aaron Segerhammar also graduated from Augustana and was ordained in 1900. Carl was elected president of the California Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Church (the Swedish strain of Lutherans) in 1950 and when Lutheran churches in the United states started consolidating he was elected president of the Pacific Southwest Synod of the Lutheran Church in America in 1963, and continued as the bishop of the synod until his retirement in 1975. He continued to serve as an associate pastor for 20 more years. From the time I was born, I recall having a strong and deep affection for Seger, and he was deeply influential in my life. I literally cut my teeth on the cross he wore around his neck, and his sermon at my wedding to Anna was one of the most powerful sermons he ever preached.
For most of my life, well into adulthood, I attended churches where either my father or my uncle Kemp was my pastor. In my mid 40s my wife Anna and our two sons moved to the Quad Cities, and for the first time we joined a church where the pastor was not a relative. (To keep our record clean, I’ve considered adopting into our family as an honorary uncle, Peter Marty, the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran church in Davenport.) All of this is to say, I am not a stranger to religious practice.
But I am no longer drawn to that practice on a weekly basis. I have struggled to maintain a strong connection with the church since moving back to the Bay Area in 2009. We had been active in our church in the Quad Cities, but we did not find a church here in Oakland where we felt connected. I don’t think it was because the churches here are not worth connecting with, but there was something troubling about the way many people in the broader church (I’m using “church” in a global Christian sense, encompassing all Christian churches, all Christian denominations) were responding to the newly elected president, Barack Obama. There was a strong current of racism, of homophobia, and of anti-Muslim sentiment sounding in the “evangelical Christian” voices in the nation. I resisted identifying as a Christian, especially as the main-stream media seemed to define Christianity by its most extreme fundamentalist adherents.
Christian fundamentalism has no relation with the kind of Christianity in which I was raised. The pastors and families who nurtured my faith as a child were social justice practitioners, not biblical literalists. We believe in loving all, and that all people on the earth are children of a loving God. We were not proselytizing Christians, who felt called to convert others to the faith. We were called to live and be guided by our own faith: to serve others; to care for the planet; to walk humbly; and to seek and do justice. As my grandfather Segerhammar used to say, “We are not called to be God’s debaters, we are called to be God’s witnesses.”
When I hear men like Franklin Graham, or Jerry Falwell, Jr., and other far right extremist fundamentalists talk about women being subservient to men, that being gay is a sin, or supporting a president who wishes to ban Muslim people from entering our country, I am disgusted. When I hear of priests who sexually abuse young people in their parishes, or when I read about the Phelps family from Kansas protesting at veterans’ funerals and holding up signs that say “God hates fags,” I am disgusted. None of these things are evangelical or Christian. But they claim that title, unchallenged by the main stream media.
At work the other day we were discussing an upcoming trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (A generous donor is providing funds to send all of us for a three day visit.) Our discussion centered on a book that some of us are reading, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (the founder of The Equal Justice Initiative.) One of my colleagues said something like, “Organized religion is a scam. It’s just a business, all about getting money.”
I grimaced when I heard that comment. Not that I disagreed with her entirely. Consider Joel Osteen, the pastor of a mega church in Texas who closed the church’s doors to the community when they were assaulted by epic rains and flooding. He’s a multimillionaire with a mega mansion home, and his church is a giant structure that could have housed hundreds of neighbors who had been flooded out of their homes. But Osteen was too selfish to offer his building as a sanctuary for those in need. If Osteen is your image of Christianity, I can understand why you would share my colleague’s opinion. But there is just no nuance in that view.
I realize that by choosing the path I have taken, to allow myself to become a lapsed Lutheran, I am doing nothing to offer a counter narrative to the perception my co-worker shared. And yet I find myself ever more distant from the faith practice in which I was raised and where my humanity was nurtured. We attend church occasionally. There’s a Lutheran congregation in San Francisco, St. Mark’s, that is vibrant, and reminiscent of churches we attended where my uncle Kemp was pastor. Our son Nate and his wife Katherine were married there, and we head that way for Christmas and Easter. On the occasional Sunday morning I sometimes think about getting in the car and heading to St. Mark’s. But I struggle with the competing impulses: to seek solace and refuge in a community of believers; or to shun that experience because I don’t want to accept the label that puts me in the company of fundamentalist extremists.
I get a newsletter from St. Mark’s in my email inbox every week, and it keeps this internal struggle ever present. We’ll see…