In Denver the Rev Nadia Bolz-Weber has started a Lutheran congregation called the House for All Sinners and Saints. It was intended to be a ministry to "academics and queers and comics and recovering alcoholics," in Bolz-Weber's words, as well as others who didn't fit in with your typical suburban mainline Protestant churches. But it didn't stay that way ...
Bolz-Weber, who goes by Pastor Nadia to her congregation, was interviewed recently by Terry Gross of National Public Radio's Fresh Air program, one of the best interviewers in the business. It aired today, and is now available on NPR's website.
Bolz-Weber's congregation includes LGBT people, people with addictions, compulsions and depression, and even nonbelievers. "Some churches might have a hard time welcoming junkies and drag queens; we're fine with that," she says.And regardless of who fills the seats, Bolz-Weber's message from the pulpit remains the same: "My job is to point to Christ and to preach the Gospel and to remind people that they're absolutely loved ... and all of their mess-ups are not more powerful than God's mercy and God's ability to sort of redeem us and to bring good out of bad."
Still, Bolz-Weber admits to feeling uneasy when "bankers in Dockers" started coming to her services: "It threw me into a crisis, because I felt like, 'Wait, you could go to any mainline Protestant church in this city and see a room full of people who look just like you. Why are you coming and messing up our weird?' "
Ultimately, Bolz-Weber says, mixing more traditional newcomers with her church's original parishioners has been good for her congregation. "I thought it was diluting the weird; now it's much weirder to have them all together," she explains.
She told Terry Gross:
Nobody ever meets me and guesses. The best thing is on airplanes. ... Eventually if you talk to [people], which I try not to do, but if it has to happen, then they'll say, "What do you do?" and I'll invite them to guess, and never once have they guessed. I did get "burlesque dancer" once, which pleased me to no end. If you're a middle-aged Lutheran pastor and someone guesses you're a burlesque dancer, that feels like a win for the day.
One of the values my community has always held is this idea of welcoming the stranger. ... So having this value — it was really challenged at that point when different people started coming in. ...
The Denver Post ... ran this big front-page story about me with this terrifying picture of me, and so the next Sunday, tons of people showed up. But the thing is, you know who takes the paper are, like, 60-year-olds in the suburbs. That's who showed up. So we're looking around going, "What's happened? Our weirdness is being diluted." I called a friend of mine who has a church with a similar demographic in St. Paul, Minn., and I was like, "Dude, have you ever had normal people mess up your church?" and he goes, "Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger if it's a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad." ...
That's what is challenging to me about Christianity is that exact thing — being forced to look at your own stuff and being pushed into a space of grace that's really, really uncomfortable.