I was sitting in the second tier of seats, several rows back, near an EXIT door in a smallish auditorium room. It was the last day of Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing held at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Myself and two writing friends were attending a Q&A session with Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber, the tatted-out, spiky-hair, super-lean beastly looking ELCA pastor from Denver, CO, who has made waves with…well…her tatted, spiky-hair, super-lean beastly self. That, and being the founding pastor of The Church of all Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO; and her strong and strongly expressed views on pretty much every controversial subject the Church faces today. Nadia is also a writer and author of several books, two of which have made the New York Times Bestseller list: Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, and Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.
Nadia has an intense stage presence—an intense presence in general, as I experienced the next day chatting with her by chance in the airport. In the Q&A, she was witty, animated, funny, sarcastic, serious and not afraid to use strong language. She became most animated when talking about Scripture and her congregation, especially those members who live at the very end threads of society’s fringes.
Most of the session was a conversation between Nadia and the moderator, Dr. Karen Saupe, Professor of English at Calvin. She asked Nadia writing and non-writing related questions, giving the audience (especially those of us less familiar with Nadia’s story) a more personal, intimate knowing of this woman who has raised heaping amounts—in seemingly equal proportions—of deep love and fiery opposition within Christendom.
With about fifteen minutes left in the session, Dr. Saupe opened up questioning to the audience. As soon as she did, hands from all over the auditorium shot up. She scanned the audience and chose a young college-age looking girl. After Nadia answered this young woman’s question, Dr. Saupe chose another youngish-looking person—also a woman. Then another, and another. All youngish-looking, all women.
Meanwhile, an older gentleman—older, as in, old enough to be a father to the people who had been previously called on; probably in his mid 50’s—near the front and off to the right (from where I sat), raised his hand with every question opportunity; each time with a bit more fervor—more punch and height. Several times it seemed Dr. Saupe looked in his direction—even right at him—then turned away, calling on another youngish-looking person.
Then she announced, “Okay. This will be the last question.”
At this, the man shot out of his seat with his hand waving as high as he could manage without jumping up and down like a five year old.
“Oh, hey. I think this man really wants to ask a question,” said Nadia, whose chair was turned toward his direction. “He’s standing up out of his seat.”
Dr. Saupe had her body shifted away from the man so there was no possible way she could notice him. But now there was no hope for it. She would have to call on the crazed, gray haired guy with his hand waving wildly to the sky.
“Pastor Nadia,” he began, not even waiting for Dr. Saupe to acknowledge him, “my adult son has left the church. He visited [your church] once and said he liked it, but hasn’t gone back. My question is: How do we get millennials back into the church?”
There was a pause and a silence that hadn’t accompanied the space between other questions and answers.
Nadia tilted her head just a little, and began:
“Yeah. I get this question a lot, and I am truly listening everywhere I go whenever this topic comes up. And I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t…I had to leave the church for ten years before I found my way to Jesus. I’m sorry. I don’t know what the answer is.”
She was quiet for a second, then pushed herself to the edge of her seat and sat up very straight. She poised her hand in the air.
“Go in peace,” she said as she made the sign of the cross in the man’s direction. “You have not done anything wrong. Be free from guilt or shame or responsibility. There is nothing else you could have done. Please, know this. Go in peace.”
At this point, we all stood and sang together, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
And I sang, and I cried, under the sign of the cross.
(Note: The conversation between Pastor Nadia and the gentleman is told to the best of my recollection–it is true in its essence and blessing.)
Copyright 2016, Shari Dragovich