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Transgender Lutheran bishop resigns over racism allegations

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

Rev. Megan Rohrer, who uses the pronoun “they,” presided over one of the church’s 65 synods and oversaw nearly 200 congregations in northern California and northern Nevada. You were elected bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod in May 2021 to a six-year term.

In a letter to the synod on Saturday, Rohrer said they would resign because of “the constant misinformation, bullying and harassment” after the synod decided on December 12, the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to appoint the pastor of the Latina Luterana mission remove, a significant holiday for parishioners of the Church in Stockton, California.

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Rohrer fired Rev. Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez following a church investigation into verbal harassment and retaliatory allegations against the pastor, all of which he has denied. The Synod Council on December 11 voted to remove Rabell-Gonzalez’s appointment as mission developer and terminate his employment after he refused to fulfill certain mandatory requirements.

Rohrer was unavailable to speak to The Associated Press Tuesday and said they were “trying to rest and be with my family.”

A spokeswoman for the ELCA declined further comment on Tuesday.

After the removal of Rabell-Gonzalez angered members of the Latina Luterana Mission, Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, the denomination’s presiding bishop, appointed a three-person “listening panel” in March to review Rohrer’s actions.

This report was published on June 1st made several recommendations to the ELCA, including publicly apologizing to the Latino church congregation for the harm caused, scheduling anti-racism training for churchwide staff and leaders, a “healing visit” to the congregation, and establishing a task force to review church policies and Procedure.

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Church leaders began the process to discipline Rohrer on Sunday after resigning on Saturday. Eaton posted on Twitter that the bishops’ conference met on Sunday, a meeting she said Rohrer chose not to attend.

“I advised that, based on additional information that has come to light, I am immediately beginning disciplinary proceedings, including the suspension of Bishop Rohrer.”

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

On Twitter, Rohrer questioned the church’s move to continue disciplinary proceedings after her resignation, “without providing details of what I allegedly did.”

“That appears to be at odds with their own procedures,” Roher said.

Listener panel members reported that the Mision Latina Luterana congregation had no idea their pastor was fired on December 12. The congregation, made up mostly of Mexican immigrants, had planned an elaborate program that day that included mariachi singers, traditional dancers, and children’s performances, all led by their pastor.

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

Others said the move to fire him was “unfair” and “racist”. The report mentions that other community members were asked if the complaints against Rabell-Gonzalez were sexual in nature and that they were further upset when they received no response from Rohrer or other leaders.

The report also said Rohrer threatened a child and her father that he would call the police if they did not leave the sacristy – a threat considered racist by the migrant community. Rohrer wore a bulletproof vest during the service because they had “concerns for their safety and well-being,” the report said.

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

“There are issues of broken trust at every level, from individual members and communities to the broader church, that need work to be repaired,” she said in the report.

She said she intends to respond to and investigate several recommendations made by the listening team, 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 filing a disciplinary action against the bishop for “racist acts” against the congregation.

The association’s leaders called Eaton’s testimony “weak and ruthless” and called racist actions “imprudent decisions” and “unfortunate events”. They also said their message ignores the suffering of an entire community and gives “a white attacker the opportunity to choose his own fate – a choice deeply rooted in white supremacy and systemic racism.”

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In an earlier statement, the Synod Council said it decided to terminate Rabell-Gonzalez’s employment following “continuous reports of verbal harassment and retaliation 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 bishopric election. Following Rohrer’s appointment, church officials identified mandatory steps Rabell-Gonzalez was required to take Dec. 9, and officials said he refused to comply with them. The council’s lawsuit to vacate his appeal came two days later.

The decision to vacate the pastor’s calling also cut off the church’s funding, the report said, leaving the church without a pastor or church building.

Rabell-Gonzalez, speaking to AP Tuesday from his native Puerto Rico, said he continues to lead the congregation under the new name of Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina at the First Congregational Church in Stockton.

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Rabell-Gonzalez said he has never declined to follow the synod’s recommendations and simply wanted the opportunity to make his case.

“I was dropped from the squad with no due process, no disciplinary hearing and no charge of anything,” he said.

Rohrer now has an opportunity to defend himself as part of a disciplinary hearing — an opportunity Rabell-Gonzalez says he was denied. He also said he did not object to the synod’s mandate to see a therapist. When Rohrer became bishop, Rabell-Gonzalez said he expected to get an ally.

“I have an oppressor instead,” he said.

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The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/07/transgender-lutheran-bishop-resigns-over-racism-allegations/ Transgender Lutheran bishop resigns over racism allegations

Sarah Y. Kim

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