When Noah Hepler, pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Philadelphia, was nominated by a member of his congregation council to be a featured “hero” on the Netflix series Queer Eye, he was convinced he wouldn’t hear anything back. “Nothing that exciting happens in my life,” said Hepler. But, as the world now knows, his life and ministry are the subject of the new season’s first episode, which premiered this month.
Living Lutheran spoke with Hepler about his experience making the episode, what he learned from the series’ “Fab Five” hosts, and how people have been moved by the way he shared about being a gay pastor.
Living Lutheran: Churches have been featured previously in the series—including in the popular episode “God Bless Gay,” which featured “Mama” Tammye Hicks as the hero—but not in as much depth as Atonement is in your episode. Did you have intentional discussions as a congregation or with Netflix about what it would look like to have a church be the focus?
Hepler: When I had that first conversation with the casting director, the “Mama” Tammye episode was the one that she suggested that I watch, just to get an idea of what kind of show it was. And, frankly, I got hooked when I saw it. What stood out to me was that this was a team of people, and the Fab Five were really allowing people to see the beauty in them that they weren’t seeing themselves, and I think that’s an incredible gift. After watching that, I said, “Yeah, I would like to be part of this, so I’m open to moving forward in the process.”
So, we were wondering, would it just be something that involved only the parsonage? Was the church going to be involved? We didn’t know. We knew that the Queer Eye team seemed comfortable moving forward, so we just relied on that, that they were going to be able to figure out how it was going to happen.
In that episode, Fab Five member Bobby Berk wouldn’t enter “Mama” Tammye’s church because of the religious trauma he experienced growing up. In your episode, he’s fully involved in working on Atonement’s space and supports your congregation’s mission. Could you tell us about the conversations you two had, including your apology to him on behalf of the larger church?
I went in knowing from watching the episode with “Mama” Tammye that there was likely going to be some conversation between Bobby and I. I’m glad it happened, because I’ve seen in some of the media [about this episode] that there’s a lot of emphasis on our conversation, and part of what actually happened was also his encouragement of me.
He talked about the risks that he took to speak about faith and sexuality, and how many responses he got, and how much it was helpful for other people. He shared that experience with me, which made it easier—especially as somebody who would rather just go with the flow—and as my own introverted self, step out into a challenging space and embrace it, knowing how helpful it would be.
I’m very thankful for those conversations with Bobby and his own encouragement that the help that this brings for others outweighs any pain or having to look at or reexperience the scars we might have felt from our upbringing—the help that this does is just so worth it. So, for me, that was kind of the other side, that I was thankful that we got to have those conversations, the two of us.
There’s also a powerful conversation in the episode between you and two other ELCA LGBTQIA+ leaders, Southwest California Synod Bishop Guy Erwin and Megan Rohrer, pastor of Grace Lutheran, San Francisco. What do you hope people learn about the ELCA from the episode—and what do you hope ELCA members might take away from it?
As I’ve been able to reflect back on my experience, it was really an embodiment of what’s central to us when we talk about our theology of the cross, that we find God in the unexpected place. But I think there’s also a part of that theology of the cross that’s connected, when Paul says that we carry this treasure and earthen vessels to show that it is God’s power that’s at work; clay pots are not where you expect to find the power of God (2 Corinthians 4:7). And Paul goes on in other places to talk about that what seems foolish to us is often what God deems as wise, what seems weak to us is what God calls strength (1 Corinthians 1:25).
In our wider culture, one of the places that’s been really translated well is in Brené Brown’s work around vulnerability. This was a point of vulnerability for me that ended up not being what I expected. It was actually a conversation with Bishop Guy the day before the reveal [in the episode]. He reminded me of our theology of the cross. And in that conversation, and through his words, I started realizing that, while I might preach about grace and forgiveness and this theology of the cross frequently to other people, I rarely would let myself apply it to me. That was a big thing for me, and that got reinforced after the reveal by friends who were saying very similar things.
So, as I’ve reflected back, I hope the big takeaway is actually for the church: that we as Christians, as Christian communities, invest ourselves in that kind of healing, strong vulnerability. That is at the core—especially for those of us who are Lutheran—of our identity. It’s a central theological point for us.
Honestly, there was so much work that didn’t make it to the show that happened for me. That’s inevitable, because they’re trying to cram my life into 45 minutes. But there was a moment in my conversation with [Fab Five member] Karamo [Brown] that I felt the impulse to want to try to defend the church to protect it, and say, “No, the church is awesome.” And I think that’s kind of in our culture to want to not admit failure to protect our image, and to remain the cultural idea of a strong institution. And that, I don’t think, is really what we’re called to do. There was a moment where I had to fight against that, and there was that breakthrough and that openness, and then to feel a sense of healing—that’s what I hope gets carried through.
I hope the big takeaway is actually for the church: that we as Christian communities invest ourselves in that kind of healing, strong vulnerability. That is at the core—especially for those of us who are Lutheran—of our identity.
And, obviously, that can get retranslated for a lot of people who aren’t necessarily part of the church in their own lives, but I do hope for the church that we can continue to embody that kind of vulnerability, because I think that helps us, if nothing else, at least to begin to stand in better ways with the poor and the oppressed.
What were some of the moments from doing the episode that sparked a change for you—and how were they reflected in your ministry going forward?
I’ve been trying to reflect on when this began for me, but there clearly began a moment within the past 10 to 12 years that I started what I call disconnecting from myself. There’s a pattern of prayer that we’ve begun to use over the past couple of years here at Atonement called the Examen. It’s very much a discernment prayer. It’s kind of a guided meditation, so there’s a YouTube video that I would use quite a bit, and one of the things that the person leading the prayer says is “Come home to yourself.”
And I always used to think, “Oh, that’s a lovely phrase and it sounds beautiful and I like the sentiment, but I have no idea what that looks like. I don’t know what to do with that.” It was something that bugged me because it seemed important, but I wasn’t connecting with that at all.
As my experience with the Fab Five began to unfold, I started realizing what that phrase might mean. This disconnect I had been feeling in my life, which was probably very central to these moments of depression that I would enter into, and this feeling that “I can’t figure out this whole pastor thing the way that I think maybe I ought to be” was playing out in my life.
Frankly, I was having conversations with my council about this, because I was telling them, “I don’t quite feel like myself. I don’t know what’s going on with that, but it’s something for all of us to pay attention to and to figure out what that means for us.” And in the process with the Fab Five, I felt that reconnection beginning to happen. It was kind of like meeting my own self for the first time.
It reminded me of—this is an adaptation of something that St. Augustine said, that God knows us better than we know our own selves. There’s an encouragement from Augustine that, in finding God, we actually find ourselves. I sometimes describe my time with the Fab Five as kind of like the queer version of Via de Cristo or one of those other lay renewal movements: it’s very intense, it’s very fast and, in that, there was this reawakening to my own relationship with God and, therefore, finding myself again.