Nadia Bolz Weber: A pastor for America's outsiders

BBC News
Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber.
Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber.

Pastor Nadia Bolz Weber.



At the House for All Sinners and Saints in the US city of Denver, a foul-mouthed tattoo-loving Lutheran pastor who was once a Pagan, an alcoholic and a stand-up comedian, is reinventing church.

Nadia Bolz Weber walks through the glass doors and immediately commands attention. She is 6-foor-1, has short, salt-and-pepper hair slicked back from her face, wears dark pink lipstick, and her bare arms are well-toned from many hours spent lifting weights in the gym. There is no dog collar this morning.

But I get a clear view of her trademark tattoos. Elaborate, colourful images extend all the way up both arms. Closer inspection reveals characters and scenes from the Bible.

"I've got images from the entire liturgical year," she says, pointing to her left arm. "There's the Angel Gabriel, Elizabeth and Zacharias for Advent, the creche scene for Christmas, Jesus in the desert for Lent, Good Friday and the crucifixion, the angel and the women at the empty tomb for Easter and Mary and the Apostles with flames on their heads for Pentecost."

That is just one side. She turns to show me her right arm where she has a large tattoo of Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus, who is often described as a prostitute. Bolz Weber disagrees, suggesting texts in the Bible are being misinterpreted, and that as the first person to meet Jesus after the resurrection, "She is the apostle to the apostles. She was the first preacher in a sense." She describes Mary as her patroness. "She's fierce," she adds, meaning "cool."

And finally, she tells me that on her back there's a "huge piece that's the Annunciation-slash-cover-up of a really hideous tattoo that some junkie gave me when I was lying in his apartment in 1991." 

Nadia Bolz Weber could not be described as pious. She is frank about her wild past and her character flaws — she finds it hard to be nice to people, she insists — and she tells stories that are funny, self-deprecating, and riddled with expletives. (Hear her in action.)

Her autobiography, published in 2013, is full of what she calls "salty language" with chapter titles including I Didn't Call You for This Truth Bullshit, and one that makes liberal use of the F-word.

Her route to the priesthood was circuitous — via alcoholism and stand-up comedy — and she uses her story to engage fellow "outsiders" who might think they don't belong in church.

She was raised in Colorado Springs in the highly conservative Church of Christ. "I had a really harsh religious upbringing," she says, "fundamentalist, legalistic, sectarian."

She briefly attended one of the church's universities, Pepperdine, in Malibu, California — one of the world's most scenic campuses, perched on the cliffside above the Pacific Ocean. But she doesn't recall much of her four months there. "I was a drug-addled mess," she says.

She dropped out of college, moved to Denver, Colorado, and went on a bender for several years.

"I was just this kid who didn't fit my whole life. I was so angry," she says. "That anger protected, saved me in a way — until I added drugs and alcohol to it and then it almost killed me!"

She is very open about her days sleeping around, and getting drunk or high. "I was perfectly happy with the idea that I'd be dead by 30," she says.

But one day her close friend, PJ, killed himself. She knew him from the comedy circuit and his funeral was held in a comedy club in Denver, which she describes as "packed with academics, queers, recovering alcoholics."

By then she had left the Church of Christ, and had already taken up and abandoned Paganism. She still believed in God. And so, as the only one of PJ's friends who had any faith, she was asked to preside at his funeral.

"And I looked out and I thought: 'These are my people and they don't have a pastor — and maybe I'm actually called to be a pastor to my people,'" she says.

She went off to a Lutheran seminary and later started the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver — its mission to minister to "outsiders."

"I had to start a church I'd want to show up to, basically because I'd rarely gone to one I liked," she says. "I actually told my bishop at some point during the process, 'Look, you could put me in a parish in the suburbs of some small town, but you and I both know that would be ugly for everyone involved, so how about I just start one?' He goes: 'Yeah, that sounds like a better idea.'"

One third of her congregation is gay, lesbian or transgender. And they celebrate that fact. There is even a "Minister of Fabulousness," a drag queen called Stuart.

"Here's why if you don't have a drag queen in your congregation you should get one," Bolz Weber says.

"Because when we were talking about what's called stewardship, which is kind of the financial reality of our church and people giving and stuff, we were trying to figure out ways to encourage people to help fund the community they're part of, Stuart goes: 'Oh I know what we're going to do. We're going to get a T-Shirt and on the front it will say This Shit Ain't Free, and then on the back it's going to say So You Better Tithe, Bitches!' You see what I'm saying? It just makes church so much better."

They don't own the building, and they worship in the round with the altar at the centre. She says that's because the many younger people who attend have a "built-in suspicion of institutions and a suspicion of presumed authority". She clearly identifies with them.

They share roles and sing hymns unaccompanied, in the a capella tradition she brought from the Church of Christ.

She says that there used to be 40 of them on any given Sunday. Then, after she was featured in The Denver Post and preached to a mass outdoor congregation one Easter, the congregation doubled overnight. Suddenly she was drawing in 65-year-olds from the suburbs, prompting what she describes as an "identity crisis."

"It was awful. I just looked around, I was like, 'Man, these people could go to any mainline Protestant church in the city and see a bunch of people who look just like them. Why are they messing up our weird?!'" she says.

"So I called a friend of mine who has a similar church, and I was like: 'Hey, have you ever had normal people mess up your church?' expecting him to be like: 'Yeah, here's what you do.' And he goes, 'Yeah, well you guys are really great at welcoming the stranger if it's a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mum and dad.'"

Bolz Weber called a meeting to discuss the invasion of her "indie boutique of a church". But then, in one of many stories she tells at her own expense, she quotes a young congregant called Asher.

"Asher speaks up… and says, 'As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into your community, I'd just like to say that I'm really glad there are people here who look like my mom and dad because they love me in a way my parents can't right now.'"

Bolz Weber has no prejudices about sexual identity or orientation, and no patience with the debates about sexuality that have ensnared so many churches, including her own Lutheran denomination. She says it is because she doesn't read the Bible in a literal way - in fact, she calls such a reading idolatry.

She believes in sin — "I never weary of speaking of the ways in which we are broken and in need of grace," she says — she just doesn't understand it in sexual terms.

But while she is socially progressive, she adheres to the teachings of the orthodox Lutheran tradition.

"Theologically I'm not liberal," she says. "Because what I see in a lot of what would be categorised as liberal theology is what we call a high anthropology, which is a very high opinion of human beings and what we can accomplish, like 'All the good of God is inside of you!'

"And I'm like, 'Are you kidding? It's dark in there!' It's there, but there are other things there too."

Thanks partly to her autobiography, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, which became a bestseller, she has become a sought-after speaker across and beyond the United States — in traditional evangelical churches, among others.

"Isn't that hilarious? That they might not ever have invited a woman preacher before and then they invite one that's me?! It's like they went from zero to 60," she says.

One curious, though warm, encounter took place recently at Pepperdine, the university she once dropped out of.

"I don't think clergy should pretend to be people they're not," she tells the students. "Which is not to say I think all clergy should swear, because frankly most of them are not very good at it." The audience laughs.

She adds: "You'll be fine." They laugh again.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Bolz Weber keeps getting invited to appear on reality TV shows. She has also — and it must be a rare combination — been asked if she'd like to become a bishop.

She has no intention of accepting either offer.

This story is cross-posted by our partners at BBC Magazine.

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