Posted by: smstrouse | February 22, 2014

The Pain & Power of Being Exiled

UnknownExile can take many forms. None of them is pleasant. However, out of exile can come both individual and group empowerment, as well as a powerful witness.

Consider the story of Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex). On February 19, 1974, a large majority of the student body at Concordia Seminary and most of the faculty marched off campus into an unknown future. They did so in response to a crackdown on the president and faculty from the denomination (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) over the teaching of historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. This past week was the 40th anniversary of the walkout and a celebration of the people who risked academic, financial, family relationships in response to injustice. It was also a celebration of their contribution to the church of today. There is a strand of feisty faithfulness that came out of that experience of exile. seminex-300x205

And it wasn’t limited to the seminary either. As I listened to the stories of these heroes in the faith, I was reminded of one of my own heroes – also a product of the Missouri Lutheran schism. As the ripples from the seminary reached across the country, Pastor Robert Wendelin began to feel the effects in his own congregation in Buffalo, NY. Eventually, the congregation split, with Pastor W. and about a hundred members walking out into their own exile. Eventually, after about three years of wilderness wandering, they joined together with another church, North Park Lutheran, which had also decided to leave the Missouri fold. Ultimately the congregations that left became part of the newly forming Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I always loved this story. I first heard it when I was serving in my first call in a Buffalo suburb. I saw Bob Wendelin as a prophetic role model, willing to risk it all for the sake of truth. When he retired, I immediately expressed my desire to follow in his footsteps and was called as pastor to North Park in 1993. The strength of faith and character forged in exile was evident in those wonderful people – even in families that had been torn apart by the schism.

I was reminded of all this again when I was called to First United, San Francisco in 2004. First United had been sent into exile in 1996, after being put on trial and expelled for calling Jeff Johnson, an openly gay pastor, in defiance of denominational policy at that time (the ELCA finally caught up with us 20 years later and changed the policy). My first response to being asked to interview was to question what would happen to my status on the ELCA clergy roster and, of course, my pension. I learned that I would be put “on leave from call,” which meant I’d have three years to accept an “approved” call or lose my clergy credentials. My pension would also be frozen during the “on leave” period.

In spite of being advised by my bishop not to accept the call, I did it anyway. Everything pointed to this being a genuine call. Warnings against accepting it seemed to me to be a continuation of the punishment of this courageous congregation. In the spirit of my hero and mentor, I took the risk. Today, I am still an ELCA pastor. And First United rejoined the denomination in a powerful service of reconciliation and healing. We are a witness to the possibility of life after exile.

I don’t claim to have experienced the same kind of exile as those Seminex founders or parish pastors like Bob Wendelin and Jeff Johnson. I have, however, known the pain of other kinds of banishment. My own seminary memories are scarred by wounds that, even though never fully healed, have shaped who I am and how I minister to others in whatever exile they may be going through. And most of us go through something at one time or another: rejection, exclusion, marginalization. For any number of reasons. Some because of a prophetic stand; some for no good reason at all.

The thing is: exile doesn’t have to mean the end. In fact, it can be the beginning of new life, new faith, new power and new witness. Our contemporary heroes in the faith stand as a cloud of witnesses to this fact and give us courage for the next time we find ourselves “on the outs.” They join the prophets of old and Jesus himself in declaring it to be so.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
Isaiah 43: 19

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Responses

  1. […] From a blog post of Rev. Susan M. Strouse, “Proud Member of the Religious Left,” titled “The Pain & Power of Being Exiled”: […]

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