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ELCA Presiding Bishop Releases Report Examining Removal of Latino Pastor by Bishop Rohrer

megan rohrer
Bishop Megan Rohrer speaks to the press before their installation ceremony at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Sept. 11, 2021. Rohrer is the first openly transgender person elected as bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. (AP Photo/John Hefti)

(RNS) — Bishop Megan Rohrer chose to remove a Latino pastor last December on the Feast of Our Lady Guadalupe even after being made aware that doing so, on one of the most culturally significant and sacred days for Latino Christians, would be “potentially devastating,” according to a report released Wednesday (June 1) that examined the circumstances of that day.

The decision by Rohrer, who presides over the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was criticized by the Asociación de Ministerios Latinos de la ELCA as showing a “lack of empathy and understanding toward their Latinx siblings.” Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, head of the ELCA, appointed a listening team to review the Dec. 12 disruption and to produce the report.

The council of the Sierra Pacific Synod, which covers central and northern California as well as northern Nevada, voted on Dec. 11 to vacate the Rev. Nelson Rabell-González’s call as mission developer and to terminate his employment.

As the report details, the Misión Latina Luterana congregation in Stockton, California, had no idea about Rabell-González’s removal until members noticed he wasn’t the one leading the Dec. 12 worship service and celebration. Instead, the Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson — whose opposition to the pastor’s removal that day is detailed in an attachment of the report — was directed by Rohrer to lead the service. Congregants began questioning out loud about his whereabouts.

Rohrer, who was at the service, didn’t offer further explanations after congregants were informed of his removal, according to the report. Parishioners described Rohrer’s facial expression as a “smirk” that made them feel “small, attacked and humiliated,” but the report also noted that “such an expression on the face of an autistic person is often a response to the stress of a situation.” Rohrer, who uses they/them pronouns, is the first transgender bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and identifies as neurodivergent.

RELATED: ELCA presiding bishop requests resignation of first transgender bishop

Video of the service shows parishioners walking out of the sanctuary as they carried a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had been placed at the center of their celebration. “The community must be taken into account!” one woman yelled in Spanish. Rohrer stood and watched as parishioners left the church.

Rohrer also reportedly threatened a child and her father with calling the police if they didn’t leave the sacristy. The bishop wore a bulletproof vest during the service because, according to the report, “they had concerns about their safety and well-being.”

The report was conducted by a three-person team, with one member suggested by Rohrer, a second member nominated by Latino Lutheran leaders and a third appointed by Eaton. The team’s main goal was to interview people directly involved and affected by Rohrer’s actions surrounding the Dec. 12 incident.

The listening team, in the report, recommended Eaton bring disciplinary charges against Rohrer, “with the full knowledge that such action could result in removal from the Office of Bishop and the removal from the ministry of Word and Sacrament of this church.”

Eaton, however, announced in a May 27 report to the church that she had requested Rohrer’s resignation from the denomination’s Sierra Pacific Synod. “Unwise decisions” are not automatic grounds for discipline in the denomination, according to the presiding bishop’s statement. The listening team criticized Eaton for never once mentioning racism in her report.

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA, speaks during a racial justice prayer vigil at Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller