Southern ‘by grace’

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Northeast Mississippi isn’t a place you’d expect to find a lot of Lutherans, and there’s good reason for that.
The early adherents to the faith, mostly from Germany and Scandinavia, settled in the frozen landscapes of the American North, in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, places where, today, people milk large herds of cows, and skate on frozen ponds and go ice fishing.
Perhaps the scarcity of Lutherans south of the old Mason-Dixon Line also accounts for why many Southerners have a stereotypical image of them.
Radio personality Garrison Keillor, a Lutheran himself, loves to poke fun at members of the denomination for “their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense…and their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese.”
Unfortunately, Lutherans in the Bible Belt, like members of other groups of whom there are too few to give a proper accounting of themselves, suffer the unfair burden of popular prejudice.
But those who think they’ve got Lutherans figured out might have been surprised by what they saw on a recent Sunday at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Tupelo.
The Rev. Roy Rogers – that’s the Rev. Roy Will Rogers, no kidding – who will take over as pastor next month, proved himself quite the iconoclast. On his first Sunday in the pulpit of his new church, Rogers delivered his sermon in the familiar singsong cadence, and filled with the mountain imagery favored by another famous black pastor from Atlanta.
“Kingdom building requires that we go out from the mountain top and serve,” said Rogers in a voice an octave below a shout.
“I love a high old time,” he said. “And, I can jump as many pews as anybody.”
Perhaps a little back story is in order. First of all, Rogers grew up in a black Baptist church in his native Jackson, a fact that, by his own admission, largely accounts for his spirited preaching.
Second, the 64-year-old is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or the ELCA, the more theologically and socially liberal Lutheran denomination. The ELCA came together in 1988 as a confederation of regional “synods,” a Greek word meaning “gathering,” or “council,” which had existed in America since the 18th Century.
Today, there are nearly 5 million ELCA members nationwide, and Mississippi has 11 congregations with about 4,500 members. Other than Christ the King, the closest ELCA church is Beth-Eden/St. John’s Lutheran Parish in Louisville. The state’s largest congregation, with about 2,000 members, is Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs.
The Evangelical Lutherans are, however, a busy and determined minority, and the church has worked extensively with the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi in a project called “Camp Coast Care” to provide relief after Hurricane Katrina.
The other well-known Lutheran group, with a larger presence in Mississippi, is the Missouri Synod, or LCMS, which has its headquarters in St. Louis.
The founders of the LCMS arrived in New Orleans from Germany in 1847 and traveled up the Mississippi River. Led by the Rev. Martin Stephan, they were seeking a place to make a new start, away from the anti-religious climate that accompanied the spread of Rationalism in Europe. Today there are nearly 3 million members of the LCMS nationwide.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on McCullough Boulevard is a Missouri Synod parish, one of 38 statewide, and for the past 22 years it has been led by the Rev. R.L. Kreitenstein. The three largest LCMS congregations of more than 200 members in Mississippi are Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Clinton, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Southaven, and St. John Lutheran Church in Hattiesburg.
The LCMS and the ELCA were never one church that split into two. Rather, they were two concurrent and related groups that grew in different directions.
The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, with about 400,000 members in the U.S., is another example of an independent but related Lutheran body.
Members of both the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Missouri Synod believe strongly in Martin Luther’s famous admonitions “sola scriptura” or “scripture only,” and “sola fide” or “faith only,” but they’ve taken divergent paths when it comes to living out those admonitions.
While members of the ELCA read the Bible with a contemporary, Western mind-set, and go out of their way to build relationships with other churches, the Missouri Synod Lutherans take a much more conservative approach.
Rogers’ variegated denominational background – he also earned his doctorate from a Presbyterian seminary – is a good microcosm of the ELCA’s ecumenical character. In recent years the church has established full communion with the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ.
This means that ELCA ministers, who may be either male or female, can, under certain circumstances, stand in as pastors at any of the aforementioned churches. The same works in reverse and the ELCA is close to reaching a similar agreement with the United Methodist Church.
“We place a big emphasis on trying to build bridges and overcome divisions in the body of Christ,” said the Rev. Bob Wolfert, who for more than a year has served as the interim pastor at Christ the King.
The Rev. Michael Lippard, who is the husband of Wolfert’s predecessor, the Rev. Susan Springer, filled in at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo while that community was between pastors in 2007.
On the other hand, the Missouri Synod does not ordain female ministers, and because of its strong emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and wine, it practices a closed or “close” communion, one in which, as Kreitenstein put it, “A person must be fully aware of what they’re receiving and why they desire to receive it. It is not an automatic thing.”
In recent months, while the ELCA has moved further to the left in its policies concerning homosexuals, going so far as to allow local congregations to vote on whether they’ll accept openly gay, non-celibate clergy, the LCMS has reaffirmed its traditional teaching that homosexuality is a sin.
The difference between the two Lutheran churches extends also to the faith’s founding documents.
The ELCA believes that the confessional texts of Lutheranism, collectively known as the Book of Concord, are important and should be part of a faithful member’s worship life. The Missouri Synod has gone a step further, underscoring its belief that the Bible, interpreted rather literally, as well as all confessions, are absolutely authoritative and demand full assent on behalf of believers.
Like many on both sides of the division, Wolfert feels sad, but he understands this discord is the result of good people, who take their faith seriously, being unable to reach an agreement.
“We certainly pray for unity as well as for charity and understanding among all Lutheran bodies,” said Wolfert.
During the third week in February, Rogers and his wife, Jan, a Philadelphia native who has the lovely, high cheekbones of the Choctaw Indians, spent some time in Tupelo, securing a new apartment and making some local contacts.
The folks at Holy Trinity also will welcome a new pastor soon, as Kreitenstein will retire in mid-April, but their search is taking a little longer than expected, and the former military chaplain intends to stay on as long as necessary.
On Sunday Rogers had promised his new congregation that he was going to “give up the pig” for Lent, and he figured that, while he was in town, he’d also get a haircut on Mardi Gras, just for good measure.
As Toy McKinney rounded out the edges of his newest client’s coiffure, the pastor, who is leaving his teaching position at Morehouse College, held court among those waiting for shaves and cuts.
“The word of God challenges us to be fishers of men,” said Rogers, almost in syncopation with the snip-snip of McKinney’s scissors.
“The place where we do that is in a broken world, where people disagree on things. But, fear is not of God, and we have to be brave enough to imagine a world where’s there’s unity in the body of Christ.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.