In 1966, when the Rev. Guy Erwin was 8 and his little sister was 2, his parents sold the house in Oklahoma, moved the family to Germany, and found jobs working alongside other English speakers. They stayed for almost three years in Heidelberg, and Erwin took early lessons not only about religion and history, but also about risk and reward.
“I’ve always greeted new things with the attitude that, Well, here’s a new thing! rather than, Am I going to fail at this? or Is this going to hurt me?” said the CLU professor.
On his path to becoming a church historian and, two years ago, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Erwin has remained open to new things. He went to Harvard University for college and to Yale for his doctoral program. In the 1980s he returned to Germany as a Fulbright scholar.
At one point, he was offered a position as a Lutheran pastor in an East German town then behind the Iron Curtain. He declined, but not without appreciation for the rare offer.
Erwin came out as gay as an adult, eventually committing himself to a life partner whom he met at Yale Divinity School. That’s why formal ordination as a Lutheran pastor was not an option for most of his career, although he took on a series of ministerial roles in addition to teaching.
Now, only four years after the ELCA changed its policy on ordination for gays in committed relationships, Erwin’s new thing is his election on May 31 to lead the Southwest California Synod for six years as bishop. It’s a position of symbolic importance and considerable authority in one of the nation’s most diverse regions. The event made news as a first for gays as well as Native Americans in the ELCA, because Erwin is part Osage Indian.
Not brought up in the Lutheran church, Erwin chose it during his college years. He stuck with it over time in spite of the barrier it put up to his following his vocation.
“I could hear in the sermons of the Lutheran pastor in Cambridge (Mass.) resonances from Luther, without him even saying so. I could tell that this church had in its DNA something remaining of what it was founded on, and that was appealing to me,” he said.
“My own personal goal is to get into the congregations and to teach, and help people understand that every Christian is a theologian,” Erwin continued. “If you think about how your faith affects your life, you’re doing theology already. So let’s put some structure on this and do it in a thoughtful way.”