STOCKTON, Calif. (RNS) — A joyous celebration honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe was well underway at Misión Latina Luterana last December when the Rev. Megan Rohrer, then-bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, announced to the Latino congregation that its pastor, the Rev. Nelson Rabell-González, had been fired.
After a few moments of confused chaos, the parishioners walked out, carrying their statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe with them. “The Virgin goes toward the front!” a woman advised as they left the sanctuary.
Rohrer — who had made history months before by being elected the first transgender bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United States’ largest Lutheran denomination — stood by and watched the congregants leave. One parishioner asked the bishop, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“We’re a community under the same faith,” another woman said. “If they don’t respect this special day, what else can we expect?” the woman was heard saying in live video of the service.
Eight months later, the 100 or so members of Misión Latina Luterana — now renamed Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina — find themselves at the center of a racial reckoning in the ELCA, one of the nation’s least diverse denominations.
Rohrer’s insensitivity in choosing to remove Rabell-González on Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day — a high point of Mexican Christianity — followed by the ham-handed handling of the aftermath by denominational leaders, “exposed the depth of systemic racism that we wrestle with as a church and in society,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in an apology delivered Tuesday (Aug. 9) at the denomination’s triennial meeting in Columbus, Ohio.
Leaders of the denomination, which is 96% white, say they’re striving toward “becoming a multiethnic and multicultural church” as they grapple with the disruption.
What was truly demeaning, congregants told Religion News Service in a visit to the church last month, is that they were never taken into account. If church leaders truly felt their pastor posed a threat, why weren’t they properly informed about anything?
And though the congregation walked out after Rohrer’s announcement on Dec. 12, its members say they were the ones who were eventually abandoned. With Rabell-González’s firing, the congregation lost its funding and support from the denomination.
“They kicked us out of the church that day and they forgot about us,” Bertha Castro, of Iglesia Luterana Santa María Peregrina, told RNS in late July. “They left us with no one.”
Rohrer, who has since resigned as bishop, fired Rabell-González after receiving “continual communications of verbal harassment and retaliatory actions” by the pastor, which he has denied. “The severity of the situation required immediate action to safeguard the Latinx community,” according to the statement from the Sierra Pacific Synod.
Now, Bishop Claire Burkat, who has stepped in as interim bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, has promised the congregation an investigation into the circumstances of Rabell-González’s removal and an opportunity for the pastor to publicly address the complaints against him. The congregation will also participate in the investigation.