Tuesday, December 17, 2019

We birthed a bishop

Bishop Laurie, with Kieran, Nura Elmagbari,
Ned Rosch, and Jasnam Daya Singh
My church, Spirit of Grace in Beaverton, Oregon, a community of Lutherans and Catholics worshipping together, proudly birthed the first woman bishop in Oregon. She was installed on Saturday by the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Elizabeth Eaton, in a wonderful interfaith service. Blessed by Corey Greaves, a Native American friend from Toppenish, Washington; one of our church's talented jazz pianists who happens to be Sikh, Jasnam Daya Singh; a Jewish friend, Ned Rosch; her Benedictine mentor from Indiana, Sister Mary Luke Jones; a Muslim friend, Nura Elmagbari; and one of our church's Catholic priests, Father Neil Moore, she was also flanked by clergy and a full phalanx of other ELCA bishops from around the country. Fortunately our 16-year-old son Kieran, Bishop Laurie's godson, recovered enough from mono to participate as her assistant. Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was packed with supporters dressed in red, many of them enthusiastic and loving supporters from Spirit of Grace. The worship service truly expressed Bishop Laurie's passion for inclusive, interfaith love and justice.
With Sister Mary Luke, Jasnam, Bp. Laurie,
 our former Catholic lay leader Kathy Truman,
 Fr. Neil Moore, and me (at right)

The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune both did wonderful stories on the installation.

When she was elected to be bishop in May (a shock for all of us, her included), we all felt deeply ambivalent...a huge mixture of deep pride and happiness for her and for the whole state, who can benefit from her kind of radical collaboration and leadership...and an enormous sense of loss and grief, for we have lost her as our pastor. We've gradually adjusted to the change over the past several months, but I think I will feel a renewed sense of deep sadness on Christmas Eve.

The day after she was elected, our friend Judy, who had planned to speak about mothers (on Mother's Day), changed her approach and chose to spoke instead about then-Pastor Laurie, reminding us that after 23 years at Spirit of Grace, it's time for us to share her with the rest of Oregon. She pointed out that we birthed a bishop, and now we can go out and birth another one.

Here's a glimpse of what kind of pastor she was and what she helped us create, in this great video made by my friend Shelly:

It's hard for me to express how much Bishop Laurie has meant to me over the past 23 years. Two and a half years ago I wrote this piece for Living Lutheran, and it explains some of how she has touched our lives:
I grew up in a typical Lutheran church, with male pastors, singing “Sons of God” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I remember asking my mom once if God was
With Oregon clergy before the service
a man, and she said God did not have a gender. But the language in the church sure made “Him” seem otherwise.
My world broke open at Pacific Lutheran University when I took feminist theology and realized that God was not actually a white man in the sky. My professor was the first woman pastor I’d met, but she was a Methodist. When I began considering seminary, my cousin told me women couldn’t be pastors.
Disillusioned with church after college, I didn’t attend until I got married at age 25. But I soon grew frustrated when our pastor didn’t use inclusive language and called me by my husband’s name. I left the Lutheran church and began attending a New Thought church with an inspirational woman pastor.
Then my world cracked open again. I gave birth to my first baby at 24 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 11 ounces, and terribly sick. We were not able to hold him for five weeks, and he was intubated for six weeks. Spending 117 days in the NICU, he endured many near-death crises, and the experience tried our faith and endurance. I met our new pastor, 
Laurie Larson Caesar, in the NICU.
My dad was on the call committee, and when he met Laurie, he said, “I think you’re the pastor that will get my daughter back to the Lutheran church.” She was a regular visitor to Christopher’s bedside in the NICU. Even though she had two new, demanding jobs (she’d also started working as a university chaplain) and she was new to Portland, a family in her new congregation was in crisis and she answered the call for help.
I returned to the church, buoyed by the support we received and the fact this new pastor was my age AND a woman. Our church, Spirit of Grace in Beaverton, Ore., is the world’s only Lutheran-Catholic congregation. Pastor Laurie leads us with theological imagination, moral courage, creative compassion, and intellectual energy. She’s guided the congregation through difficult questions, such as what to do when our priest retired and we couldn’t get a replacement. (We prayed, discussed, hired a Catholic lay leader, and built a team of Catholic priests to celebrate Mass.) She’s developed close working relationships with two Catholic lay leaders and five Roman Catholic priests over the years.
More than 10 years ago, Pastor Laurie led us through the process and vote to become Reconciling in Christ, before most other ELCA congregations did so. I was proud and thrilled to see her speak at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly (via video feed), sharing our congregation’s unique story and how inspired our Catholics are by the ELCA’s inclusivity. We’ve had multiple LGBTQIA speakers and just finished another sexuality and gender series led by two young women. We walk in Portland Pride and the AIDS Walk and are involved in ReconcilingWorks.
Bp. Laurie with her Presbyterian
pastor/therapist husband Drew
Pastor Laurie also practices a form of collaborative leadership that is unusual among clergy. I was president of our church council when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2012. Because of the strong leaders she had nurtured, we rallied around her and stood strong in her absence. After treatment and recovery, she returned more energized than ever.

In the following year, Spirit of Grace received a generous grant from the ELCA for transformational ministry. As part of the grant, Pastor Laurie created and led the first pastoral internship program for Catholic and Lutheran graduate students in religious and pastoral studies. Our first Lutheran intern enriched our congregation with rap, Spanish, and his wonderful Mexican wife and two daughters. He is now pastor in a bilingual congregation in San Diego, Calif. The next year our Catholic lay intern was pursuing her Master of Divinity degree and trying to discern her next steps in the Catholic church.
Pastor Laurie has been a phenomenal role model and inspiration for countless Catholic and Lutheran women and men of all ages. One of our young Catholics once said, “When I grow up, I want to be just like Father Laurie!” Being ministered to by a pregnant pastor was a first for our Catholic members, and the experience moved many of them to tears. Although we have more Catholic members than Lutheran, Pastor Laurie is minister to all of us.
Baptizing Kieran
She has revitalized worship with prophetic preaching (channeling Katie Luther or biblical women) and by bringing in jazz pianists and lively music, reconciliation and healing services, prayer vigils, and a liturgical season of “Creationtide.” She’s started book groups to discuss faith, racism and social justice and initiated a summer concert series and an annual Advent auction to raise money for special programs. The auction brings benefits all year long through year-round dinners, parties and classes full of fun and fellowship.
Consorting with clergy! (that's me behind Presiding Bishop Eaton)

Christopher's baptism
Through Pastor Laurie’s leadership, Spirit of Grace supports programs such as Bible study and centering prayer, community organizing through the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, and Holy Land ministries supporting peace in Palestine. She and our Catholic lay leader visited the Holy Land with the Oregon Synod in 2014, and we’ve helped other members visit as well.
Pastor Laurie has pushed the congregation out of its Lutheran and Catholic comfort zones to reach out to other faiths through small groups like Bras, Bibles, and Brew, meetings with local Muslim women, inviting a Muslim woman to speak on Mother’s Day, educational outreach through Lent and Advent soup suppers, partnerships with other congregations, and creativity workshops. She encourages children’s voices and education programs that offer a multigenerational connection. She also leads intellectual, spiritual education programs covering a variety of topics ranging from Pope Francis, Martin Luther, social justice, and peace-making to how to incorporate new styles of worship.
At our groundbreaking party, when Bp. Laurie raised money by letting people throw pies in her face!
Pastor Laurie has helped build a vibrant, vital congregation with prominent women leaders of all ages. We conducted a wildly successful capital campaign to make our building more hospitable and accessible to all, and in 2015 we scored high in all areas on the Oregon Synod’s Congregational Vitality Index survey: connecting members with God, with each other, and with the world. She’s launched colleague groups such as a clergy writers’ group, a prayer group, and a Beaverton area pastors’ group. In 2016, she initiated a Lenten pulpit swap series in which five pastors of various denominations took turns preaching at each other’s churches on the theme of “Got Questions?”
With her lovely daughter Sophie in Rome
After the November election, Pastor Laurie initiated several activities: conducting a prayer service, writing “Lament of a Liberal Christian: An Open Letter of Confession and Commitment,” co-forming a Facebook group called the Wild Hope Justice League (with 177 interfaith members), and developing a Lenten series on “Radical Love: Deep Listening in Disturbing Times.” Speakers included two undocumented immigrants and the president of the Portland NAACP (who later became Portland's first Black city commissioner). Pastor Laurie reaches out and expands our minds. She also takes inclusive language seriously, and that is a huge deal to me.
"Party Like a Magi"
I cannot begin to explain how meaningful it has been for me to have a vibrant, energetic woman in the pulpit. I have been doubly inspired to see Laurie mother her daughter, Sophie, and to see how she combines her personal perspective of life with her sense of humor, keen intelligence and vast knowledge of theology and the Bible. It is radical for me to be ministered by a woman who is not only my friend but also a mother and passionately committed to peace and justice.
My dad’s wish came true. Now I have three sons, all baptized by Pastor Laurie, and they have only known a woman pastor. I’m gratified the church is reforming for the next generation. The future is female!

With Pr. Melissa Reed and Bishop Laurie
 at one of the Oregon Synod meetings
 in Portland last month
Or, as Mike likes to say, all three of our children were baptized by a bishop! As bishop of the Oregon ELCA, she will oversee 111 congregations in the state with 30,000 Lutherans (and Catholics in one case!). Little did I know how prescient I was when I said the future is female. Although female clergy are still in a minority during this 50th anniversary of women's ordination in the ELCA, out of the 13 new bishops installed this year (65 total), 8 of them are women. Here are some additional memories of her ministry, which we shared at her goodbye party:

  • Both of us serving on the steering team with her. 
  • When I was president for so many years, discovering that I am the Gail to her Oprah…the organizer behind her visionary ideas.
  • The baptism of Kieran when, at the sacred moment of being welcomed into God’s family, with the dramatic timing that only Kieran has, he blew out his diaper with great satisfaction. How earthily sacramental to hold a pooping child against a white alb, and to continue to do so with a smile on one’s face.
  • Not just baptizing all three of our babies, but also giving them first communion and confirming two of them.
    At Chris' and Quinn's confirmation
  • Being part of the first wedding ceremony she officiated—my sister and her husband’s, and knowing that the very last one she officiated was her first same-sex wedding, of Matt and Justin.
    At my sister's wedding, Bp. Laurie's first, in 1997
  • Having all those Catholics seeing her pregnant in the pulpit and giving her a baby shower, and then attending Sophie’s baptism as her community sponsors and having her and Drew also be Kieran’s godparents.
    Baby shower
  • Embracing her warmly that Christmas Eve service seven years ago, her first time back to church after finishing radiation, and 2 weeks after my ear and brain surgery.
  • Partying often: when we surprised her at her ordination anniversary with “This Is Your Life, Laurie," anniversary parties, the labyrinth blessing, welcoming her back after cancer, Advent auctions, and many sabbatical parties! We are a church that knows how to throw a great party!
    Party Like Gatsby a year ago
  • Experiencing vibrant, creative worship and the memorable, theatrical homilies she gave, including the appearance in character of Pope Joan, Katie Luther, St. Hildegard, and Lulu with the A+ attitudes.
    Hildegard
  • Going from a church council with one Lutheran and one Catholic president to a steering team, and a community that often doesn’t even know who comes from which denomination.
  • Becoming one of the first ELCA churches in Oregon to become Reconciling in Christ.
  • Raising an amazing amount of money for the capital campaign and opening new doors of welcome and inclusion.
  • Having a rabbi, Muslim woman in hijab, our Sikh friend Jasnam, and people from many other faiths speak from our pulpit. 
    Visiting Jasnam's Sikh gurdwara last year
  • Hearing from so many incredible forums and speakers—David Oliver Relin (Jewish co-writer of Three Cups of Tea), Mitri Raheb, Jo Ann Hardesty, undocumented people, Rachel and Erin leading forums on sexuality and gender, etc.
  • Working with her on the renaming process, which was Spirit-led and resulted in our three core pillars—authentic, inclusive, and spirit-led, and unanimous approval of our suggested name.
  • Her grant karma! Receiving a huge grant from ELCA Churchwide that took us to our next level as a vital, vibrant community, and Bp. Laurie receiving an amazing sabbatical grant.
  • Envisioning the Catholic lay leader model and working with three fine Catholic lay leaders: Mary Follen, Linda Mellon, and Kathy Truman.
  • Working collaboratively with the best priests in the Catholic church…all of whom admire her and are not surprised she was voted as bishop.
    The bishop's last wedding as a pastor
  • Convincing us we are a fruitful place for training leaders, and getting our first Lutheran intern and perhaps the first Catholic lay intern ever! Now they are both ordained with churches of their own…and we are probably the only church in Oregon that has had a summer seminarian!
    The bishop with Logan, our "summer 
    seminarian," a position they dreamed up together
  • Convincing us we needed to up our music game and finding the incredible Jonathan Swanson and Jasnam Daya Singh...whose talents brought in so many more of us who wanted to be part of making vibrant music.
  • Your support of those on the margins, whether they are in Palestine, the Yakama Nation, or right here in Oregon.
  • Pushing us out of our comfort zones, over and over, from embarrassing go-round questions to getting us to think seriously about our white/American/Christian/cisgender/straight privileges.
  • Her incredible, unwavering support of inclusive language and the multitude of words she uses for God that are not “father."
  • Her phenomenal thank you card ministry.
  • Her loving embrace of all our children and the way she includes them in meaningful ways, especially during rituals.
  • The way she calls us by name when she gives us communion.
  • Crafting and making music together!
Jamming on the ark at Holden Village
And as much as I feel some sadness, I am so proud to know this incredible woman and be a part of her growth and blossoming over the past 23 years. I can't wait to see how she leads our progressive denomination in these difficult times. Already in her position, she's spoken out for immigrant justice and has traveled around the state to have enlightening and authentic conversations with Lutherans and other faiths. And by hiring two creative community organizing experts, Pastor Melissa Reed and former Dominican priest Juan Carlos La Puenta Tapia, she's sure to fulfill the meaning of the word "synod," which is "walking together"...beyond the church doors and outside of the ELCA congregations into new opportunities to work for justice.

And fortunately, our poor little left-behind Spirit of Grace, which definitely misses our beloved Pastor Laurie, is carrying on without her because she nurtured an outstanding group of lay leaders. We are actively studying anti-racism, how to be even more inclusive to LGBTQIA, how to advocate for peace in the Holy Land, and how to be a sanctuary church, among other justice-seeking issues. And we have a talented interim minister who is also a member of the community, and he is leading us through the process of calling a new pastor...and birthing our next bishop.

Bishop Laurie playing banjo with our band, Consorting with Papists, at her farewell party