SEPA: The Church with Kaleidoscope Lies
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America claimed the property of Redeemer Lutheran Church in 2008. Law suits quickly followed. The constitutions were manipulated or thrown out completely.
The court awarded our property to the synod without hearing the case, citing no jurisdiction in church matters. They noted that if the law were followed our congregation’s arguments have merit.
SEPA despite their presence in East Falls for six years, ignored the Lutherans of East Falls. They evicted us from our property and set about selling the land as soon as all liens on the property were clear.
SEPA has been gossiping about our congregation for the last decade. People who never stepped foot in our church, pastors who left decades ago, and those seeking favor from SEPA leaders speak with authority about things they know NOTHING about.
One pastor started, “Well in 1960 . . . ” Give us a break. Our oldest member was just 25 in 1960! She was an airline stewardess—not around that often! Our second oldest member was in first grade! The rest of our 82 members had yet to be born.
With no bilateral forum, the stories grow. Gossip is like that.
We’ll share our side of the story regarding the most prominent lies.
The lies we address hear were shared with us by people in the community—neighbors and people who toured the property with SEPA sales agents.
Redeemer tried to have the bishop arrested.
My, this story has grown! The most recent tellers have the bishop in handcuffs in the back of a squad car.
This never happened. Bishop Burkat placed our congregation in an untenable situation that cold day in February 2008. Without consulting with our leaders she announced a meeting at a time a major congregational event was already scheduled. She was warned that the congregation could not meet with her. She came anyway and brought unannounced an audience of about 10 people.
Two members refused to open the church when the congregation could not be present. Read what happened here.
All we did was suggest that the police be called to diffuse an escalating conflict. When one of the bishop’s party mentioned arrest, we quickly put the notion to rest. We wanted only to end the conflict peacefully.
If two sides of an issue are certain of their positions, both would agree to have the police negotiate a peaceful parting (our only intent). SEPA representatives left immediately, leaving behind a lawyer and locksmith—hiding out of sight of the front of the church.
The lawyer and locksmith skedaddled when two police cars happened to pass by—common on our main corner of the neighborhood. Police were never called. There was no threat to arrest. No handcuffs. Our repeated attempts to set the record straight have been ignored.
No one threatened the bishop with arrest.
Redeemer refused a million dollars to merge with another church.
A second version of this lie that is so absurd it does not deserve an answer. Redeemer was offered a million dollars if they’d accept black members. Two thirds of our members were Tanzanian immigrants and we also had African American members.
Redeemer was never offered money to do anything.
So how does such a bold lie gain footing? Here’s our guess.
Redeemer had a covenant with Epiphany Lutheran Church. Epiphany was a mission congregation about two miles from Redeemer. Their building had been condemned due to termite damage. They were selling their land.
The goal of the covenant was to merge our congregations. Epiphany and Redeemer leaders agreed that this should be done slowly, as our communities were very different and the stakes were high if things should fail. The financial arrangement was simple. We paid for the building. Epiphany paid for the pastor. We never discussed Epiphany’s assets becoming Redeemer’s. Our eyes were on merging ministry not “getting Epiphany’s money.”
The covenant worked for nearly two years.
We were informed of the breaking of the covenant by email. Pastor Muse would be gone in ten days. (The constitution calls for 30 days notice.) Epiphany intended to continue using our building as they worked through closure for another six months (rent free). This was arranged without consulting anyone at Redeemer!
It was broken suddenly by Epiphany—not Redeemer. This occurred shortly after the sale of Epiphany’s property and after a private meeting between Epiphany’s president, Pastor Timothy Muse, and the bishop. Redeemer was not involved. We had no knowledge that a meeting about our covenant was taking place.
We knew nothing more than the property had been sold. We were happy for Epiphany. Pastor Muse had met with us and pledged more of his time for Redeemer. He admitted being preoccupied with Epiphany and the land sale. We were looking forward to this.
We started talking with Epiphany to speed up the merger process.
The last conversation we had with Epiphany ended when Redeemer pointed out that our African members are part of the congregation—not a separate entity. Epiphany said, with obvious uneasiness, that they were under the impression the Africans were separate.
For two years, Epiphany had been meeting with our integrated council, which included officers that were from our African membership. Where did they get the idea that our African members were a separate voting entity?
- Maybe from the bishop-appointed trustees who reported to Synod Assembly that we had only 13 members — excluding our 60+ black members.
- Maybe in that private meeting with the bishop. The bishop, shortly after this, approached our African members and suggested they move their membership elsewhere. Why? SEPA needed to create a claim of diminished membership. They were working to create the conditions they needed to justify taking over. They were already plotting to get our property. Our African members rejected this proposal.
Redeemer was not afforded the same courtesy when SEPA decided for us that we should close. We were locked out at the first opportunity.
Wouldn’t you think that a bishop would encourage two congregations operating in covenant to discuss the breaking of a covenant?
Not when the proceeds from the sale of property are up for grabs.
Epiphany’s property sold for $600,000 with SEPA claiming all but 5%, according to a bitter Epiphany member we encountered on one of our Ambassador visits.
Herein lies the motive for encouraging the breaking of the covenant. Epiphany was a mission church. The property rules for mission churches give some property rights to the synod in exchange for financial assistance in ministry. Redeemer was not a mission church and owned its property with no obligation to SEPA. There would have been serious questions had we completed the merger. Would Epiphany’s mission status be imposed on Redeemer, and therefore cost us our property rights? Conversely, but unlikely, would SEPA lose it’s access to Epiphany’s money if the merger went forward? Was the covenant a Trojan horse all along?
Redeemer is racist.
This is a serious accusation in today’s world when the slightest racial comment can cost dearly. It should never be thrown around to achieve a personal or private agenda. Never without proof.
Racism was brought into our community by SEPA Synod.
We heard this lie from several people in the community who had looked at our property with interest in buying. Some were people of color. “They wouldn’t have let you through the door,” SEPA’s sales agent said. But the lie was not new.
In 1998 Rev. Robert Matthias visited our congregation and gave an impassioned speech. “Racism must stop.” We asked him to cite one incident so that we could address his concern. He was dumbstruck. “Uh! They told me you are racist.”
Eleven years later, a companion of one of the trustees entered our sanctuary on Mothers Day 2009. She gasped as she looked across the sanctuary and saw our diverse membership. They told me you were racist—that you wouldn’t baptize black babies. (This isn’t in quotes because I cleaned up the language.)
NOTE: Our visits to 80 congregations reveal very little diversity within SEPA congregations. Most are more than 95% one color or another. There is little room for any SEPA congregation to be judging any other congregation on inclusion.
With this in mind, here is the history of racial integration at Redeemer.
The first black family joined Redeemer in the 1940s—the Elam family.
There were no headlines: First Black Family Joins White Church. This predated that kind of thinking!
We also had a pastor’s family with Indian heritage in 50s or so. Synod now has our archives, so I can’t check the facts. I believe the family’s name was Bauer.
This was all before the turbulent 60s with racial unrest, the Civil Rights Movement and subsequent White Flight.
Redeemer stayed in the city. We dealt with the changes in society while staying put.
The Wadlington Family, joined Redeemer in the early 80s. The father served on council. Again, no fanfare.
One family joined before the formation of the Lutheran Church in America and another before the formation of the current ELCA.
Through the 80s and 90s it was not uncommon to have a row of unaccompanied children from government housing projects sitting in the front of our church on Sunday morning. They were welcomed—popcorn crumbs and all! We also had an eight-week summer program that welcomed all children.
In our 25 years hosting a Ken-Crest early intervention center, Redeemer worked with the director and staff — many of whom were African-American. Many of the children in the school were African American and most of the children at Redeemer attended that school.
Our first Tanzanian members joined in 1998. Pastor Davis’s three years as pastor (c. 2001) transformed our congregation into a mini-UN. We had several black families join among other ethnic groups. A family from North Philadelphia joined in 2000. These members attracted other members. Many of these people played leadership roles in the church. Three served terms as president. Two served as treasurer.
From 1999 to 2008, we worked with five black pastors: Harvey Davis, Jesse Brown, John Parkinson, Festo Mutashobya and Ipyana Mwakabonga and several vicars. We asked to call Pastor Festo in 2007. SEPA met with him and he never set foot in our church again.
When SEPA made the most recent racist allegations—grasping at straws to justify their interference—Redeemer had 69 black members. All of them were locked out in 2009 and one of them was sued personally by SEPA. He was served court papers as we gathered to celebrate his attaining permanent residency status! Welcome to America!
SEPA’s bishop, Claire Burkat, simply refused to recognize our black members, even after we met with her on November 1, 2007. At that meeting, Bishop Burkat went around the room and asked how long each had been a member of Redeemer. She seemed to be intent on proving that our black members were not true members, but were recruited at the last minute to bolster Redeemer’s position. Her jaw dropped when the first person she asked, one of our East African members, said 10 years, the second eight years, the third seven years. We proved to her that evening that we had steadily grown in membership and racial inclusion. But SEPA has a way of ignoring facts.
Here is our analysis of racism in the Redeemer saga.
- Racism is when you start and foster racist rumors with no corroborating evidence.
- Racism is when a bishop looks at a congregation’s roster and comments—“A lot of these names look African.”
- Racism is when you then totally ignore the majority membership of a church and report to Synod Assembly that a church has only 13 members (our total white membership). SEPA was given our congregational roster that included some 82 names in November 2007. Bishop Burkat reviewed it and asked for addresses after the meeting, which we provided. The report to synod was a bold and purposeful lie.
- Recism is when you say things like “White Redeemer must be allowed to die. Black Redeemer — we can put them anywhere.” —Bishop Burkat, November 2007
- Racism is when you assume that Black people can’t make decisions for themselves so you don’t give them the right to vote on their own property. 2008-2009
- Racism is when you further degrade people of a different color by suggesting that they should really have chosen a different church to join and then direct them to a church where you’ve decided for them that they will “fit in.” (This happened twice at Redeemer.) 1998 and 2008.
The people of Redeemer stripped the church of its contents after the court order.
SEPA representatives actually testified to this in court, with no evidence. The court asked for none and gave Redeemer no forum to counter the accusation.
But now the same person was telling SEPA’s potential buyers the story. The fish story keeps growing.
No one from Redeemer entered the church after the court order.
The court order was issued at 5 pm on a Friday. SEPA, remembering to keep the Sabbath holy, changed the locks on Sunday morning.
Kim-Erik Williams, the archivist at the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia, was surrounded by clutter as he told potential buyers about how we stole from our own church.
As archivist, he had overseen the removal of church records. Boxes of files were carried from the church. I personally saw someone, not from Redeemer, load four large boxes of church records into a car. I recorded the license plate number. In December, a team from SEPA spent a morning cleaning our church in preparation for reopening (or so they said). They carried dishes and boxes of items to their cars. On another occasion, we saw a man loading our folding chairs into a car. But SEPA tells people Redeemer stripped the church to its walls.
Most recently, mine months to the day AFTER SEPA sold Redeemer’s property, SEPA returned and took the chancel furnishings and everything of any value.
We know who stripped our church!
Redeemer showed no respect for the bishop.
This charge has never been made to our faces. We’ve heard this only recently from multiple sources. A new fish story.
Bishop Burkat was shown respect by our members
in the face of disrespect for our leaders.
We had a two-hour meeting in November 2007 that the bishop started with name-calling. We are “adversarial” (repeated numerous times). All this, before we said word one. We were able to shift the tone of the meeting, It ended with the bishop making encouraging promises. She broke every one of them.
- Redeemer was respectful when the bishop opened a meeting with our council with a name-calling rant.
- We were respectful when Bishop Burkat attempted to marginalize our black members in their presence. “White Redeemer must be allowed to die. Black Redeemer…we can put them anywhere.” We were shocked, but respectful.
- Two of our African members gave a respectful presentation to Synod Assembly in 2009 and then Redeemer was attacked at the microphones, and by design, provided no ability to answer allegations. The host of witnesses against us included people we did not know or had no contact with our congregation in more than a decade.
- We posted our correspondence with the bishop during the first year of the conflict. Read it for yourself. You will see that it was respectful. All our attempts to communicate were ignored.
- 2×2 has published political cartoons addressing our view of SEPA (and the church in general’s) leadership. All of these were published since 2011, two years AFTER we were locked out of our church and after every other effort to communicate was exhausted. They are meant to show the difference between what church leaders say and what they actually do. Somebody needs to!
Redeemer leaders questioned authority with our constitutions and SEPA’s Articles of Incorporation in our hands. The courts agreed that our arguments had merit. SEPA and the ELCA gave us no voice.
SEPA was the disrespectful party.
- The four trustees lied to us, failing to identify themselves as trustees for months, laying a foundation of deceit.
- The bishop refused to deal with our elected leaders, insisting on taking issues to the entire congregation. This is disrespectful to elected congregational leaders.
- Two trustees, Larry House and Tracey Beasley, attended worship and walked to the front of the sanctuary before the benediction and announced they were in charge, disrespecting our worship.
- Lying about us for years is disrespectful.
- Suing individual church members with NO attempt to negotiate beforehand is disrespectful.
- Refusing to acknowledge the need for reconciliation is disrespectful of the entire church’s mission.
This entire conflict was built upon profound disrespect for the laity.
Redeemer ran off its pastors.
Redeemer ran off no pastors.
The bishop’s office was instrumental in recent pastors disappearing.
Let’s go back as far as our current members’ memory.
- Pastor William Burglund served Redeemer for seven years and retired.
- Pastor William deHeyman served Redeemer for eleven years and retired. There were some improprieties in his ministry, which Bishop Merkel addressed. Some damage was done. This no doubt affected his ministry, but he served five years after this and left on his own. This may have been when the gossip started since Pastor deHeyman worked part time in the synod office.
- Pastor Robert Matthias signed an 18-month term call with Redeemer. We looked forward to his presence and hoped that he could be instrumental in healing the damage of deHeyman’s term. Bishop Almquist visited our council a few months later and asked for the term call to be broken. He had an assignment for him in Bucks County. We used supply pastors for the next year. Pastor Matthias returned — within the time he would have been with us under the term call he had signed—to impose Involuntary Synodical Administration. He visited our bank with a former treasurer and transferred $90,000 from our local bank account to Synod’s account. It remains a mystery how that $90,000 which had been in a Thrivent high-yield account had been transferred to the local bank, where we maintained a small working balance only. No signers for the Thrivent account were still active members.
- Pastor Jesse Brown served a one-year term call. At the end of the term call, Pastor Brown asked to cut his hours to a minimal 10 hours per week. SEPA asked us to regularize this call, which would lock us into one pastor willing to commit to little more than Sunday morning responsibilities. We knew we needed more help than he was offering. We agreed to continue with a term-call or on a month-to-month basis—and even to extending the call for one more year. SEPA attempted to force the issue. The offer to continue with a term call remained on the table. Rev. Brown left on his own.
- Pastor Harvey Davis served Redeemer for three years and retired on his own. He has recently been heard talking about his contentious relationship with us. We are unaware of any contention. We consider this to be a breach in pastoral ethics. Pastor Davis has been uninvolved with our congregation for about 15 years.
- Pastor Muse gave us no indication that he was planning to leave but disappeared after a private meeting with Bishop Burkat. He provided ten days notice by email.
- Redeemer presented Bishop Burkat a resolution to call Pastor Mutashobya. He had worked with us for seven months as a member of our congregation. He was willing to commit to five years of service. He disappeared after a private meeting with the bishop’s office. This was the bishop’s pivotal mistake. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain by approving our call to Pastor Mutashobya. But mission in East Falls was not the objective. Acquiring our land was the objective.
- The supply pastor who was serving us in 2008 STILL worships regularly with Redeemer.
We’ve heard other lies, much of it against our members personally. It is vile and vindictive in nature. It deserves no repetition.
A Bright Future Awaits
And so Redeemer moves on. We’ll forgive the untruths. We are a reconciling people.
We never abandoned our mission. Obviously, we have always been more viable than SEPA member churches were led to believe.
God must have a purpose for our trials.
- Perhaps it is to make us stronger.
- Perhaps it is to force us to innovate and change the way we do ministry.
- Perhaps it is to alert all congregations to the tactics being used by their leaders.
Regardless, it has set us apart.