Transgender Lutheran Bishop Resigns over Racism Allegations

by Deepa Bharath

Associated Press

Wednesday June 8, 2022

Bishop Megan Rohrer speaks to the press before their installation ceremony at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Bishop Megan Rohrer speaks to the press before their installation ceremony at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.  (Source:AP Photo/John Hefti, File)

An openly transgender cleric from San Francisco, who made history last year with an appointment as a bishop by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has resigned amid allegations of racism after firing the pastor of a predominantly Latino congregation.

The Rev. Megan Rohrer, who uses the pronoun "they," led one of the church's 65 synods, overseeing nearly 200 congregations in Northern California and northern Nevada. They were elected in May 2021 to serve a six-year term as bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod.

In a letter to the synod Saturday, Rohrer said they were resigning because of "the constant misinformation, bullying and harassment" they experienced after the synod voted to remove the pastor of Mision Latina Luterana on Dec. 12, the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a significant holiday for congregants of the Stockton, California, church.

Rohrer fired the Rev. Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez after an investigation by the church into verbal harassment and retaliation allegations against the pastor, all of which he has denied. The synod council voted on Dec. 11 to vacate Rabell-Gonzalez's call as a mission developer and to terminate his employment after they said he refused to fulfill certain mandatory requirements.

Rohrer was not available to speak with The Associated Press on Tuesday, saying they were "trying to rest and be with my family."

A spokeswoman for the ELCA declined further comment Tuesday.

After Rabell-Gonzalez's removal upset members of the Mision Latina Luterana, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, the denomination's presiding bishop, appointed a three-person "listening panel" in March to review Rohrer's actions.

That report released June 1 made several recommendations to the ELCA, including publicly apologizing to the Latino church community for the hurt caused, planning anti-racism training for churchwide staff and leaders, paying a "healing visit" to the community and creating a task force to review the church's policies and procedures.

Church leaders initiated the process to discipline Rohrer on Sunday following their resignation on Saturday. Eaton posted on Twitter that the Conference of Bishops met Sunday, a meeting she said Rohrer "chose not to attend."

"I shared that I am initiating the discipline process immediately including suspension of Bishop Rohrer, based on additional information that has come to light."

She added that the process will take time and that she will continue "to provide updates as appropriate."

On Twitter, Rohrer questioned the church's move to continue with the disciplinary process following their resignation "without providing any specifics about what I allegedly did."

"That appears to be in conflict with their own procedures," Roher said.

Members of the listening panel reported that the Mision Latina Luterana congregation had no idea their pastor was fired on Dec. 12. The congregation comprising mostly Mexican immigrants had planned an elaborate program that day with mariachi singers, traditional dancers and performances by children, all led by their pastor.

A video, which one of the congregants recorded live, shows distraught congregants voicing their concerns. One woman said in Spanish: "Pastor Nelson has worked a lot for this day to happen. He has done a lot for our community. He has fought for our rights."

Others said the move to fire him was "unfair" and "racist." The report mentions other congregants asked if the complaints against Rabell-Gonzalez were sexual in nature and were further upset when they did not get a response from Rohrer or other leaders.

The report also said Rohrer threatened a child and her father with calling the police if they did not leave the sacristy — a threat that is viewed as racist by the immigrant community. Rohrer wore a bulletproof vest during the service, the report said, because they had "concerns about their safety and well-being."

Eaton announced in a May 27 report to the church that she had requested Rohrer's resignation from the synod.

"There are issues of broken trust at all levels, from individual members and communities to the broader church, which will need work to repair," she said in that report.

She said she intends to act on and explore several of the listening team's recommendations particularly the need for anti-racism and cultural sensitivity training.

The church's Latino Ministries Association had strong words for Eaton in a May 28 statement criticizing her for not bringing disciplinary charges against the bishop for "racist actions" against the congregation.

The association's leaders called Eaton's statement "weak and compassionless" and framed racist actions as "unwise decisions" and "unfortunate events." They also said her message ignored the suffering of an entire community and gave "a white aggressor the opportunity to decide their own fate — a decision deeply rooted in white supremacy and systemic racism."

In a previous statement, the synod council said it decided to terminate Rabell-Gonzalez's employment after "continual communications of verbal harassment and retaliatory actions from more than a dozen victims from 2019 to the present." But church officials have not specifically stated what the pastor's transgressions were.

Rabell-Gonzalez was one of the candidates in the election for bishop. After Rohrer's appointment, church officials identified mandatory steps for Rabell-Gonzalez to take, which officials said he refused to comply with, on Dec. 9. The council's action to vacate his call came two days later.

The decision to vacate the pastor's call also cut off funding for the congregation, the report said, leaving the community without a pastor or a church building.

Rabell-Gonzalez, who spoke to the AP from his native Puerto Rico on Tuesday, said he is continuing to lead the congregation under a new name, Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina, at the First Congregational Church in Stockton.

Rabell-Gonzalez said he never declined to follow the synod's recommendations, and simply wants the opportunity to make his case.

"I have been taken off the roster without due process, without any disciplinary hearing and without being accused of anything," he said.

Rohrer will now have the opportunity to mount a defense as part of a disciplinary process — an opportunity Rabell-Gonzalez says he has been denied. He also said he did not refuse the synod's mandate to see a therapist. When Rohrer became bishop, Rabell-Gonzalez said he expected to get an ally.

"I got an oppressor instead," he said.

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