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 6’1″ (185cm), 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.
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. But 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.”
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: BBC News