Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on Tuesday issued a public apology to members of a majority congregation of Latino immigrants for the pain and trauma they endured after the first bishop openly transgender from the predominantly white denomination unexpectedly fired their pastor.
Speaking at the 2022 Church Assembly being held in Columbus, Ohio, Eaton apologized to members of Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina in Stockton, Calif., describing the events that unfolded as “a violent attack on your dignity”.
The chain of events that led to the apology began on Dec. 12 when Reverend Megan Rohrer, the denomination’s first transgender bishop who oversaw one of the church’s 65 synods, announced to the congregation that their pastor , the Reverend Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez, had been removed following allegations of verbal harassment and retaliation. Rohrer has overseen nearly 200 congregations in Northern California and Northern Nevada.
Rohrer’s shocking announcement upended the congregation’s much-awaited celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The community had planned an elaborate program that day with mariachi singers, traditional dancers and children’s performances, all led by their pastor. After the pastor was fired, the congregation lost financial support from the denomination and were forced to leave their building and pray in the parking lot.
Rohrer resigned in June and the next day became the target of a church disciplinary process.
During Tuesday’s public apology, Eaton spoke of how particularly egregious it was to time the announcement of their pastor’s termination to coincide with the holiday that has heightened significance within the Latino community. Eaton said she was working with church leaders to make amends with the congregation and look into Rabell-Gonzalez’s case.
What happened “revealed the depth of the systemic racism that we struggle with as a church and in society,” Eaton said.
“This is not the end, but a crucial step in an ongoing journey to be a more faithful church responding to the scourge of racism,” Eaton said. “I pray that the power of God will allow these words of apology and gratitude as a step towards concrete repentance.”
Eaton is also committed to listening carefully to the voices of traditionally marginalized people. She delivered her remarks in English and they were translated in real time into Spanish.
Jovita Torres Pérez, a church member from California, gave a moving speech in Spanish, saying it was not easy for her and other church members “to be here.”
“The last nine months have been difficult and painful for our community,” she said, adding that their pastor and the community have been victims of various racist actions from the church as a whole.
Pérez accepted Eaton’s apology on behalf of his church and said the congregation believes in forgiveness, reconciliation and reparations. She said she sees the apology as the first step in the process of dismantling systemic racism and white supremacy within the denomination.
Pérez said the faithful always support their pastor.
“We believe in his integrity and honesty,” she said.
Another devotee choked up translating Pérez’s words into English. Eaton hugged Pérez and the other worshipers and the listening crowd rose to applause.
Eaton invited those present to write on ribbons their lamentations and prayers for the congregation, the church and the world, and tie them on a wired cross that will be displayed during the assembly.
Rohrer, who uses the pronouns “they,” said they were traveling to Israel. Rohrer responded via direct message to The Associated Press on Tuesday, expressing support for “all efforts to provide care, healing and reconciliation to all affected from 2019 until today.”
“At her assembly, our beloved ELCA has the opportunity to prayerfully take legislative action that will support diversity and inclusion for more of God’s beautiful creation,” Rohrer said. “I pray that they do, in an intersectional way.”
Rohrer said they were in Israel “learning more about peacemaking efforts and supporting LGBTQ people in Israel and Palestine.”
“I will also discern God’s call for the next chapter of my life,” Rohrer said.
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