The Rev. Marilyn Robinson is an African-descent woman in an all-white congregation in an era when 11 a.m. Sunday is called the nation’s most segregated hour.
She was raised Catholic, spent years in independent Pentecostal churches, and now, in her late 50s, is a pastor in one of Christendom’s most formal denominations.
She once was blind, but now she sees — literally.
And she has been homeless.
Robinson will be formally installed at 3 p.m. Dec. 2 as pastor of Ascension Lutheran, 4803 S. Lewis Ave.
She is the only black woman pastoring one of the 53 churches in the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“My identity is in Christ, not in race or gender,” Robinson said.
“We’re really excited about having her,” said Bishop Mike Girlinghouse, who recommended her to the Tulsa church. “She’ll be a great asset to the community.”
Girlinghouse told The Oklahoman that Robinson is a good fit for Ascension Lutheran.
“When we look at a person’s gifts and skills, gender and race are not part of the equation,” he said. “Rev. Robinson has a very deep understanding of God’s grace,” and is “both a strong leader and a compassionate leader.”
He said the ELCA is less diverse than the U.S. population but is working hard to address that.
“That’s very important to us. And I think that Ascension calling Pastor Robinson is a sign of what we’re working toward.
“We’ve got a long way to go to create an inclusive community where everybody truly is welcome, but that’s what we strive for.”
Lutherans are not the only faith community that does not reflect the diversity of the society at large.
Bishop Bob Hayes, the first black man to oversee Oklahoma’s predominantly white Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, said he applauded the Lutheran Church.
“I commend them for being bold,” he said.
“Traditionally, 11 o’clock Sunday has been America’s most segregated hour, but that is changing slowly,” he said.
In 1986, Hayes became the first black minister to pastor a white church in Houston.
“The very first Sunday, they let me know this was not the place for me to be,” he said.
“I realized that being one of the first, I had to make it work.”
He served there for nine years, he said, building a spiritual foundation that has served him ever since.
Hayes said he is encouraged that young people today are much less race conscious than older generations.
“I’d recommend churches get to know the churches down the street. ... Our differences enrich us,” he said.
The Rev. Gary McIntosh, white pastor of the predominantly black Transformation Church in north Tulsa, said U.S. churches have remained ethnically separate primarily because of differences in worship and cultural styles.
“The church tends to be very prejudiced, more than society,” which is a “horrible hindrance” to its mission, said McIntosh, who spoke Thursday at the University of Tulsa on the concept of America as a melting pot, and what that means to the church.
“America is no longer a melting pot. We’re more like a stew,” he said. “Each ingredient has its own identity. But when we simmer together, we take on the flavor of each other.”
Ethnic groups have much to offer one another, he said.
The Rev. W.R. Casey, founder of Tulsa Together, an annual racial reconciliation service, said churches have failed to integrate because they do not understand each other.
“We need to get to know each other,” he said. “If we get to know each other’s culture, there’s no reason why we can’t come together as one in Jesus Christ.”
Robinson’s journey to Ascension Lutheran in Tulsa was long and circuitous.
She was born and raised Catholic in New Orleans, worked in Head Start programs in Chicago and lived for 14 years in Germany where her military husband was stationed.
When she began to lose her sight because of detached retinas, she returned to the United States for medical treatment.
Ten surgeries on one eye were unsuccessful.
Her husband of 25 years left her.
She fell down a flight of stairs and broke her ankle.
Blind and unable to work, she was homeless for a short time.
She called her adult son in Kearney, Neb., and asked if she could stay with him while she got back on her feet.
In 2000, six years after losing her sight, a doctor persuaded her to have surgery on the other eye. She did not expect the surgery to be successful.
When the bandages were removed, she was thrilled to discover that she could see.
She knocked on the door of her son’s house, and when he came to the door, she exclaimed, “Kenneth, you have an earring.”
He blurted out: “Mom, you can see.”
“Everything became brand new for me,” she said.
“It was wonderful.”
She can now read, one of her favorite pastimes, and can drive during daylight hours.
While attending a Pentecostal church in Nebraska, she began seeing a Lutheran counselor and eventually decided to try a Lutheran church.
“The first time I walked into a Lutheran church, I was certain God would strike me dead,” she said.
But she found herself fascinated with every part of the service, every hymn, every reading.
In Lutheranism, she said, she realized the meaning of the biblical term justification: “God’s actions on our behalf in Christ, ... one of the most exhilarating, liberating phrases I’ve every encountered.”
“I, at the ripe old age of 50-something, found out what it really meant to be free in Christ. ... I don’t have to earn anything. I don’t have to win God’s love.”
Eventually, she was accepted to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, graduating after four years on Mother’s Day this year. She was ordained Sept. 23.
Her daughter also is studying at Wartburg and will graduate next year.
Bishop Girlinghouse recommended Robinson to Ascension Lutheran, and the all-white congregation voted in September to accept her as pastor. She started there Oct. 8.
“Our goal is not to present the Lutheran tradition,” she said. “We want you to know and rejoice with us that God has done something wonderful and that you have nothing to do but to enter in and participate in that.”