A look at religion and the ‘misfits for Jesus’
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founder of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. She defines herself as “a sarcastic, heavily tortured, angry person who swears.” She is also heavily tattooed. She often hears herself referred to as “that scandalous and dangerous woman.”
Nadia is a former alcoholic and drug addict with a fundamentalist background, and she readily acknowledges that there is little in her personal history that qualifies her to me a minister. For whatever reason, she has established her church, The House for All Sinners and Saints, which is currently one of America’s most innovative and unique religions.
Nadia admits that she is better equipped to be a standup comedian than to be a minister. However, her followers will quickly tell you that they are drawn to Nadia’s passion. Her membership includes large numbers of AIDS victims, gays, lesbians and the mentally ill. Fortunately, there are also an equal number of individuals who are committed to serving the needs of the lonely, ill and impoverished. In Nadia’s words: “We are an imperfect people and we believe that God is using us to serve Him in an imperfect world. Our God ate with the wrong people and kissed lepers.” Nadia feels that her church should do the same.
On occasion, Nadia has defined her most dedicated church members as “misfits for Jesus.” They do not readily do God’s work, and even when they do so at Nadia’s request, they are filled with reluctance and doubt. It is only when they are compelled to serve that they come to feel that a life of serving others is “what they were meant to do.” One of Nadia’s favorite passages in the Old Testament deals with God’s calling Jonah: “Go at once to Nineveh.” Jonah’s response, since he is a “reluctant servant” is to go in the opposite direction, so he goes to Tarshish. In the end, Jonah does as God demands, but he is filled with self-doubt. “So are we all,” says Nadia; “and so am I.”
In a time when an increasing number of people have become disillusioned with Christianity, Nadia seems determined to demonstrate what can happen when ordinary people share bread and wine together and confess the failures of their own lives. Although the House for All Sinners and Saints seems to have a special affinity with the rituals of the Lutheran Church, the membership is remarkably diverse. She uses traditional hymns — the ones that are common to most denominations, and she does not hesitate to invent new ones.
For example, when All Saints Sunday comes on Nov. 1, Nadia encourages her membership to bake gingerbread “Saint Cookies” and place them on a decorated table. Church members become inventive and begin to make cookies that have personal characteristics. In addition, the “reluctant saints” might include former members. John, the Baptist shows up (without his head), Harvey Milk (who was probably not a Christian) has five bullet holes in his chest, and Joan of Arc (with red hair) and Cesar Chavez (dressed in worn denim overalls). Nadia is reluctant to confer sainthood on Alma White since she was a bigot and a racist; however, she founded a church that fed the poverty-stricken, The Pillar of Fire. As with many reluctant saints, their positive attributes outweigh their shortcomings.
These are troubled times and Nadia finds herself tormented by feelings of inadequacy when she confronts gun-carrying members and finds her beliefs shaken when she learns that her own mother is being a stalked by an unstable church member who follows Nadia’s mother to the House for All Sinners and Saints. Does she, a passionate advocate of gun control legislation, breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the NRA enthusiastic is there with a concealed weapon to protect her mother?
Nadia also struggles with her own shortcomings. One of her biggest problems is, she dislikes people who bluster and brag. When an unpleasant young man who is a member of HSS commits suicide, Nadia is reluctant to perform the burial service since she senses her own hypocrisy. When a national conference for troubled youth asks her to be their guest speaker, Nadia, who admits that she has “a problem with teenagers,” is once more filled with self-doubts (despite the fact that she has two of her own). She also has an “anger management” problem that can render her incapable of conducting church programs — especially if she has just a meeting of the deacons in which she had been criticized for excessive spending. In addition, she is often filled with anxiety and fear of heights; elevators sometimes reduces her to a trembling wreck, or a ride up a steep mountain to a church retreat.
What doe she do with all of these shortcomings? It took a while, but eventually, she found a solution. She turns to her congregation. She grasps a church ritual and uses it like brace to help her stand erect. When anger renders her speechless, she sometimes calls a young mother from the congregation, and then standing with this young pregnant woman, she finds her voice has returned. When she begins to tremble on her terrifying ride up the mountain, she simply turns to her neighbor, admits her problem and asks if someone has a Valium. They do. Nadia Bolz-Weber has learned to turn to her congregation for help. They always respond.
Is it enough? In a world where increasing numbers of young people commit suicide; where we are threatened by a poisoned environment, terrorism and apocalypse, can we save ourselves by joining hands, eating a shared meal and singing? Nadia would say, “It can’t hurt!”
This is a marvelous book. Quite frankly, religion is not my thing ... especially not in a book review column that is normally devoted to murder, mayhem and fantasy. If readers are interested, I would urge you to check out Nadia’s other book, Pastrix, which is a best-selling memoir. Nadia is becoming a popular guest on late-night programs and she is occasionally on NPR. I suspect that we will be hearing from her again. She has found a painful and soul-destroying affliction (a sense of irrelevance ... a belief that many of us are leading empty lives). Nadia may have found a remedy. She sometimes approaches the homeless with a handshake and says, “You look like you could use a good meal.”