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BY LAEL HINES | “I had a strange life,” Pastor Mark Erson said with a compelling honesty.
“I grew up in the Church because my father was a pastor,” he explained. “I always thought I wanted to be a pastor until I came to realize I was gay. I thought, ‘Well, O.K., I can’t do that.’ So I didn’t pursue it right out of college. Instead I pursued other things, including theater arts and teaching. It took me a while before I finally ended up in seminary.”
He spoke last week in his comfortable, well-lit office next to St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher St., where his childhood vision of becoming a pastor has been fulfilled.
Erson was ordained in 2009, becoming the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran on Aug. 1, 2011. Welcoming a visitor into his office was Erson’s husband of two years and high school sweetheart, Scott Jordan.
Erson’s placement at St. John’s Lutheran was undoubtedly intentional.
“The bishop recommended me to this position in hopes that, being an openly gay pastor, I would make new attempts to reach out to the community here in the Village, not only the gay community but to the vibrant arts community,” Erson explained. “I have an arts background, therefore, I feel really connected to this neighborhood. And I love being here, both for the L.G.B.T.Q. [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning] community, but also for the artistic tradition of the Village.”
As pastor, Erson is a relatable figure for L.G.B.T.Q. Christians in the community. Many L.G.B.T.Q. Christians may find themselves in a faith crisis rooted in their sexual orientation. Erson passionately described his initiative to steer them away from this doubt.
“There are a lot of churches now that continue to preach condemnation of our community, and I want to be an alternate voice,” he stated. “I want us to be the voice that stresses the Gospel and the story of Jesus; the Bible is a story of welcome, not of condemnation. I never had a faith crisis. I never went through that time of doubting God’s love for me. I’ve been blessed with a sense of peace about my relationship with God. When I see people who are hurting or doubting their relationship with God, I want to say, ‘Try this, because it really can be a wonderful place to center your life.’ ”
Erson’s initiative to develop St. John’s Lutheran as an “alternate voice” identifies with the transforming role of this church within the Village community. The church was built in 1855. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s it played a conservative role in the community, often at odds with the Village’s growing hippie culture.
“St. John’s took it as their role back then to bring in youth groups, showing them the prostitutes, showing them the drug addicts, showing them the hippies,” Erson explained. “They would say, ‘Look at it! It isn’t glamorous! Don’t run away! Stay home!’ ”
Gradually, though, St John’s Lutheran transitioned away from its staunch conservatism. The church slowly instituted a more progressive program, catering to and developing a connection with the liberal community around it. Erson described this process as an intentional “restarting of the congregation.”
As a result of the church’s transformation, Erson noted, “Though we have this old building, most of the members of the congregation are relatively new members.”
St. John’s intentional effort to connect with the community is apparent through its recent actions. The church has partnered with several community organizations, including New Alternatives, a group that reaches out to the homeless L.G.B.T.Q. homeless community. Visually, one can see the growing partnership with the gay community through an array of rainbow banners festooned around the entrance of St. John’s.
It’s all part of the effort to connect.
“In observing some of those key days — World AIDS Day, Gay Pride Week and National Coming Out Day — we are making sure that important days for the community are important to us to,” the pastor said.
“Right now we are a very small congregation. There’s not a lot we can do on our own,” Erson said, modestly, as the interview drew to a close. “But we’ve got a great location, a lot of enthusiasm and a door that’s wide open and welcome.”
With his optimism, warmth and sincere efforts at outreach, Erson seems to be in the right place at the right time both for himself and for St. John’s Lutheran Church.