St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Silver Spring, Md.
Senior associate director of admissions; coordinator for multicultural admission; intercollegiate athletics liaison; assistant track-and-field coach; and adviser, campus hip-hop dance group at Gettysburg (Pa.) College.

My great-great grandfather founded St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gettysburg, Pa. My family ran it for several years, then stepped away from leadership when I was 11. St. James Lutheran Church is the place we chose to attend next because we knew the pastors, who were great community members. We were the sole African Americans to come in that door. On our first visit, some people wouldn’t shake our hands, even during the greeting. This happened in the mid-’70s.

The very next week, one of our pastors in his sermon said, “If you call yourself a child of God, shame on you for treating guests the way some of you did. I saw you.” Pastors Ed Keyser and Fritz Foltz let it be known that intolerance was not tolerable. People warmed up; people who weren’t accepting chose to leave.

One of my favorite moments at St. James was the first time I went to sixth-grade Sunday school. The kids were all people I knew from elementary school, all welcoming. They were excited to have me with them.

Singing a solo or duet or quartet is how I connect with my faith. I’ve been a cantor fairly often at my current church, St. Stephen. I can go from basso profundo all the way up to tenor two. The confidence to perform came from my childhood. Since I was 13, St. James’ music director Timothy Braband (he recently retired) encouraged me to sing and lead music.

I met my wife at a local hangout in Gettysburg. She was in seminary. We remained friends for 10 to 15 years. One time, when she was leaving one of her calls to move, I thought, wait a minute, she’s pretty amazing—we need to do something about this. We married in 2012, when we were 48. It’s a first marriage for both of us.

The title of pastor’s spouse is something you have to figure out as far as what works for you. It’s learn-as-you-go no matter how long you do it. I’m the pastor’s husband, but I don’t have set responsibilities at St. Stephen. I let them know when I’m available, then I enthusiastically volunteer. Sometimes I will show up five minutes before worship, or, if I’m a greeter, I’ll show up 45 minutes early.

“We were the sole African Americans to come in the door of St. James Lutheran Church. On our first visit, some people wouldn’t shake our hands, even during the greeting.”

Before I joined the admissions team at Gettysburg, I was working in the finance industry. In fall 1985, when I started working there, Gettysburg was celebrating 10 students of color in its enrollment. Now our entire admissions team focuses on diversity. Today, 25-30% of our students occupy some sort of underrepresented ethnicity on campus.

One of my areas of national expertise is finding under-the-radar talent that might exist in a charter school or elsewhere and giving them the same chance as someone more economically privileged.

Young people give me hope—their energy, their brightness, their caring.

I pray for peace, equity and kindness for all people. For churches of all denominations to not be so segregated. For an end to hunger and injustice.

I’m a Lutheran because I can care about more than just me and my local congregation, and the Lutheran church gives you literally the opportunity to care about the world.

Supporting people who are food- and housing-insecure are my passions. I’m looking forward to the day I can begin volunteering in soup kitchens again and those soup kitchens can involve sitting and fellowship. When my wife was pastor of St. Paul in Evanston, we had a very, very active soup kitchen there.

“If you don’t catch people in their early teens and help them along in their faith journey, they’ll just say, ‘I’m done with church.’”

My first march was with relatives when I was 5 years old. It was a voting rights march. It would have been 1968. I went with a cousin whom we all called an aunt because she was part of my mom’s generation. The part that ended up being seared in my memory [was] getting separated. It was on the National Mall; tens of thousands of people were there. My relatives taught me to know my surroundings and what to do. I went to the lost and found. My aunt found me sitting there. It was cool to see that so many people cared about civil rights and voting rights. After we returned from the trip, she talked to me about this and why the march was important.

Music is my life! I lead an 11-piece band called What Breaks Loose. I’m also involved with musicians in the D.C. Metro area. I had the opportunity to perform in the Penn State Blue Band and perform in front of nearly 100,000 people. What a thrill!

Until we moved permanently to the D.C. area, I was a confirmation teacher for many decades at St. James. If you don’t catch people in their early teens and help them along in their faith journey, they’ll just say, “I’m done with church.” I find joy in seeing youth reciting the Lord’s Prayer or liturgy and helping them examine what it really means.

I had the gift of having been taught to cook by one of the first women to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America. Anything involving high-quality ingredients with a unique pairing is among my favorite to cook.

Grace means you’re always forgiven, and you’re always given the opportunity to forgive and love regardless of who the person is.

I see God any day that someone feels valued because they were listened to for the first time. Any time I can talk to a person and say their choice of college doesn’t have to be Gettysburg, that’s God showing presence beside me and within me.

Regardless of denomination, Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in the U.S. Let’s fix that. Let’s be less segregated and more inclusive, and let’s act it out and mean it so that churches truly are ethnically, socioeconomically and culturally blended.

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago.  Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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