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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is the tattooed, Lutheran pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a church where a chocolate fountain, a blessing of the bicycles, and serious liturgy come together. She’s a face of the Emerging Church — redefining what church is, with deep reverence for tradition:

"I think that me and my fellows are more comforted by mystery than we are by certainty and so there’s this mystery that you get to enter into in the liturgy and in the eucharist that we find very comforting to go back to again and again."

Take a listen. She will not only surprise you, but she will make you laugh out loud.

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Sex, Death, and Secrets: A Reporter’s Notebook

by Sasha Aslanian, guest contributor

First OrdinationOn January 1, 1990, Jeff Johnson, a gay man and pastor of First United Lutheran Church, and Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, lesbian pastors of St. Francis Lutheran Church are ordained in San Francisco. Both churches were suspended in 1990 and expelled by the ELCA in 1996. (photo courtesy of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

My old English prof used to say “The Victorians were obsessed with death. We’re obsessed with sex.” I made an unexpected discovery on a recent assignment: sex and death have something in common: secrets.

In August of 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as pastors. As a reporter for MPR News, my assignment was to follow up a year later on the impact of the vote. I stumbled into a news story: the church was in the process of reconciling with partnered gays and lesbians who had previously been unwelcome. In July of this year, the ELCA added seven people back to its roster in San Francisco. Then, this September, they did the same with three women in Minnesota.

1990 Ordination of Gay and Lesbian PastorsTwo of the Minnesota women, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, were the first lesbian couple to be ordained without the blessing of the ELCA in San Francisco in 1990. They invited me to their home for an interview.

For the next 70 minutes, their story spilled out, spanning a sweeping slice of a social revolution moving rapidly through in our times. They told of coming out, falling in love, losing jobs then gaining them, and feeling God work through them during the AIDS crisis and hospice chaplaincy. Their story transcends Lutheranism. It’s personal, yet tethered to movements on both coasts, inside churches, seminaries, universities, courthouses, and workplaces.

"When you’re a change agent," said Frost, "you act where you are. Some people do in the secular arena: political activists, social activists. Our arena was the church. I’m third-generation Lutheran clergy."

For me, the unexpected part of their story was how they connected their work in hospice with the battle for inclusion in the Church. Zillhart and Frost began their ministry in San Francisco just as AIDS was ravaging the city. As they plunged in to help the men, their partners, and their families prepare for death, the two women saw opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, respect, acceptance, and love.

The “tape” at the top of this post is my favorite, but I had to leave it out of the final radio version. My news piece needed to cover the ordination, expulsion, and eventual embrace — already a tall order — and I wasn’t sure my editor would let me wander into end-of-life stuff at all. Thankfully she did, and it gave the story more depth. I think it also showed what Frost and Zillhart have been striving to show all along: there’s more that unites people than divides them. We all have secrets. Death is a universal unburdening of secrets.

Sexual orientation can be just one of them.

Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart"There isn’t a family that doesn’t have a secret that they yearn to share and talk about the hurts and hopes we all have," said Zillhart. "Our difference is more obvious, more politically charged, people do a lot of fund-raising around how scary we seem — that feels electrifying — but the differences we have are all among us. The commonalities are so much deeper."

Frost adds with a note of amused exasperation, “I would love to get past being an issue in the church as a lesbian. I’ve been a professional Lutheran lesbian all my life. It’s time to be meeting one another in deeper ways than that affords.”

Frost and Zillhart show just where that depth can take us.

Unedited Interview with Frost and Zillhart (mp3, 71:00)
This interview is what I call “a spigot interview” — the story spilled forth with very little coaxing. Their narrative connects their individual lives to a larger canvas of social and religious history.


Sasha AslanianSasha Aslanian is a reporter for MPR News and creator of MPR News’ Youth Radio Series. From 2000 to 2008, she produced documentaries for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media. Aslanian has won awards named for famous news men: Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Heywood Broun and Eric Sevareid. She is a graduate of Grinnell College.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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A Church Divided, Together: The ELCA One Year after the Vote

by Andrew Haeg, Public Insight Network

In the audio above you hear Rev. Daniel Ostercamp from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Webster, South Dakota, who opposes the ELCA vote, followed by the voice of Joseph Haletky, a member of the congregation at First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Palo Alto, California, who has supported it.

On August 21st, 2009, the Evangelical Church in America voted to allow gay pastors in committed relationships to serve as clergy. To understand the impact of the vote on the church, we’ve been reaching out over the past several months to Lutherans who are part of the Public Insight Network, and many others. More than 2,000 have shared their story or insights. We’re using what they have shared to produce an online project that will unfold over the coming weeks.

Many of the stories we’ve received come from many Lutherans who rejoiced over the vote, and whose congregations have experienced a new, stronger sense of inclusiveness and welcome. And we’ve heard from those who were saddened and distraught over the vote. In many cases, their congregations have chosen to un-affiliate from the ELCA, weaken ties to the national church, or to express their displeasure by withholding money. We start by tuning into the very different experiences of two congregations — one in South Dakota, one in northern California.

st-johns-lutheranSt. John’s Lutheran Church in Webster, South Dakota sits on Main Street next door to other fixtures of small town life, the city hall and the library, and a block down from the post office. The church just celebrated its 125th anniversary. Five or more generations of families have worshiped here. It’s a congregation of 800 in a town of 2,000.

When the vote took place last August, the pastor, Daniel Ostercamp, was saddened and disappointed. He and much of his parish were strongly against the push to make gay pastors full clergy. But the traditions of the church ran too deep to be uprooted so quickly. “It’s very much a sense of history, a sense of connection,” he says. “To walk away from a church because you lost a vote is a very hard thing.”

Daniel Ostercamp, Pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Webster, South DakotaHe says the church is a powerful bricks-and-mortar expression of a community and their beliefs. “As much as Americans want to talk about being a people that travel that move — a mobile society,” Ostercamp says, “a sense of place is still important. When you’ve been baptized in a congregation, your kids have been baptized here, and you were married here. That’s where you’ve said your prayers, that’s where you’ve sung your hymns,” he says. “You’ve been in a sanctuary. And if there’s a controversy that’s forcing you to make a choice, that’s very gut-wrenching.”

St. John’s has not chosen to leave the ELCA. They’ve opted instead to symbolically proclaim independence from the authority of the national ELCA through gestures such as withholding money they would normally give and sending it instead to the Lutheran church in South Dakota, or to local missions.

He says he believes that “congregations are going to be more responsible for who they are, and that the synod and the national are going to have fewer and fewer resources and less and less influence, for better or for worse.”

The experience at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California is a world apart from St. John’s in Webster. It’s in the middle of the largely progressive Sierra Pacific Synod. Years ago, First Evangelical had voted to be a Reconciling in Christ congregation — meaning it was open and welcoming to gay and lesbian members, and pastors.

First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California on Easter SundayThis, in marketing terms, gave them a kind of “first-mover” status in town, and as Haletky says, the church drew new congregants who were looking for a church that was inclusive and focused on social justice.

Last year’s vote was enthusiastically supported in this church, and as Haletky says, has given the congregation confidence to reclaim the words “evangelical” and “confessional” from conservative Christians who they say have co-opted them.

Yet their joy is tinged with some sadness. Seven of the 206 churches in the First Evangelical’s Sierra Pacific Synod have left the ELCA. That’s a small percentage, and fewer than in other parts of the country, but it’s evidence of a major fissure that’s opened underneath the ELCA — one that has to be mended if the church hopes to stay together. “We weren’t going to succumb to some sort of triumphalism, that we had won somehow,” Haletky says, “because there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done healing the church.”

Joseph Haletky, congregant at First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Palo Alto, CAThe vote brought to Haletky’s mind a “beloved” pastor who had served the church back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Well into his 40’s, the pastor revealed to a few congregants that he was, in fact, a gay man. Haletky says all the “little old Swedish ladies tried to marry him off to their nieces,” while he kept his secret for fear of being defrocked and shunned.

Now pastors who were similarly closeted can come out and participate fully in the life of the church. This makes Haletky happy. He says that for First Evangelical, the vote “has been a plus all the way around.”

Check in here for periodic stories of the impact the ELCA vote on the lives of individuals and communities. And, tell us your stories about how this issue is affecting your community.

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