Nadia Bolz-Weber is an ordained Lutheran minister and founder of the House for all Sinners and Saints -- but her sleeve tattoos and sailor's mouth are an immediate tip-off that this woman ain't your momma's minister. Beyond these obvious social cues, Bolz-Weber's view of theology also sets her apart: Tapping into a vein of would-be worshippers looking for a place that was both Christo-centric and open to all social views, she created a community through the church she co-founded. (For a detailed explanation of Bolz-Weber's beliefs and her background, check out this House for All Sinners profile and case study.)
But this isn't "the church for the tattooed people," Bolz-Weber stresses in a conversation with the pastor; this is a church for all. In advance of the House for All Sinners and Saints Blessing of the Bicycles happening this Sunday, June 24, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, she talks about what her congregation really looks like, and why it is important to anoint and thank our two-wheeled transportation.
Westword: Can you talk a little bit about who you are and how the House for All Sinners and Saints formed?
Nadia Bolz-Weber: I started the church in my living room about four years ago with, like, eight people. I'm a Lutheran pastor, but most of the people at my church aren't Lutheran -- we have everyone you can imagine. I wanted to start a church that I would want to go to; I didn't find any churches that I felt I could be myself at. I have sleeve tattoos, I swear like a truck driver -- the sort of piety around being a person of faith never really fit my personality. So I started a church that felt like [a place where] me and my friends didn't have to "culturally commute" to go to, if that makes sense.
Can anyone come to the House for All Sinners and Saints?
To visit? Yeah. In four years, we've had three Sundays where we didn't have visitors -- we usually have between ten and forty visitors. It's like a "destination church," or something (laughs.) It's a very peculiar blend of tradition and innovation; there really isn't anything close to it. We do an a cappella Gregorian chant setting of the liturgy; but it's like informal high church. It's completely in the round, and the liturgy is led by whoever wants to lead different parts of it.
Nobody is deciding who's good enough to do a reading, or who can do the prayers; the people doing the liturgy actually write the prayers themselves. It is super participatory, but it's high church. It's an odd combination. Here's the thing: Most of the people in my church are very suspicious of institutions and presumed authority. Here I am, ordained in the Lutheran church, right? I'm presuming to have authority in an institution, so right there, that's a huge barrier. The fact that, for instance, we're in the round, there's no front for the two "special people" to be standing in. It's a shared experience; we've democratized even the physical space.
I'm still the pastor, I still do a couple of things in the liturgy that are mine to do. Everything else is really up for grabs. One thing that I think is really different, is that we're very socially progressive, but still Christo-centric. It's really Jesus-y while being socially progressive. That's an odd combination.
It seems like often, we have to pick between the two -- being Jesus-y and socially progressive.
Exactly. And I think that's a false dichotomy; honestly, people believe all kinds of stuff. I feel in no way responsible for what the people in my church believe. But I feel responsible for what they hear. But what they believe isn't my job, and subsequently, we have everything from Agnostics to Evangelicals that come to church. It's all good. We have a couple of pagans, a Jewish guy. We have a lot former Catholics because it's totally liturgical and sacramental; that piece is really familiar, but without the other stuff. (Laughs.) It can be meaningful for you in whatever way it is for you. They are a community.
You show up for church on Sunday night and you look around and you go, "I am unclear what all of these people have in common." (Laughs.) It is like a freakshow: we have baby boomers that drive in from the suburbs and aging hipsters, and it just doesn't make any sense. You would think it's a demographic, but it's not. It's not even like "This is for the outcasts"; we have a lot of outcasts, but we have lawyers and bankers. It's not even like, "Oh, this is the church for the tattooed people."
We're just a church that does stuff that makes sense to us -- we're not trying to be anything. I don't know how to make that distinction? It's like, we're not trying to be open and affirming of gay people, it's just that three or four of the people who started the church with me are queer. That's just who we are.
How did the Blessing of the Bicycles come about?
We love bikes, we think god is for bikes. As a theologian, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say, "God is for bikes." (Laughs) We wanted to celebrate the inherent goodness and beauty of human-powered transportation. We have a lot of bikers at our church, and we see our job more as blessing things that we think are cool and awesome, rather than being judgmental about people we don't agree with. (Laughs.) Our church is really inclusive -- we have tons of GLBTQ folks. It's a really great place and so, since we have so many people who bike, we wanted as a community to have an event that everyone in Denver could participate in. We wanted to bless people's bikes because sometimes helmets just aren't enough.
What does the blessing entail?
So, we have a thurible -- you know, that metal, swingy thing with the smoking incense -- made entirely out of parts from a vintage Schwinn, and we use that to bless the bikes with. And then aspersion -- which is where you sprinkle things with water -- is done with the tassels that go on the ends of girls' handlebars. (Laughs.) I mean, it's really tongue-in-cheek, but it's super-fun. We do these prayers that include things like, "Save us from anger when jerks cut us off in traffic." Things like that.
We have a moment of silence for people who have lost their lives while bicycling. Then we bless the bikes, go on a ride around Park Hill, come back, and have a keg of Fat Tire, pizza and red velvet cake. What's not to love?
Let us pray,
Present in a world groaning under the excesses of consumption we acknowledge the inherent goodness of non-motorized human powered transportation and give thanks for the simple beauty of the bicycle. God of life,
Hear our prayer.
Present in a community filled with children we pray for those learning to ride. Keep them smart, safe and visible on their neighborhood roads. God of life,
Hear our prayer.
Present in a community filled with strife we pray for the victims of road rage, and bike theft. And we ask for the strength to forgive mean people. God of life,
Hear our prayer.
Where did this idea for the Blessing of the Bicycles come from?
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Oh, I don't know. We always do crazy shit. (Laughs.) I can't even remember -- to us, it just seemed like a logical thing to do. Every few months we do a thing called "Beer & Hymns" in the basement of the Irish Snug. We'll cram seventy to a hundred people in the basement of the Snug and belt out really old hymns with pints of beer in our hands. That just seems logical to us -- maybe not to everyone else. (Laughs.) It's the ethos.
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