CHICAGO — It’s Monday evening in September, and Nadia Bolz-Weber admits to feeling “low-key” as she unwraps a cough drop in the lobby of her hotel. The Lutheran pastor is scheduled to speak that evening — the sixth city she’s visited in seven nights on her book tour for “Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People,” released in September.
And that’s not counting church the day before.
Hours later, though, she is energetically lofting a ham over her head in the city’s stately Fourth Presbyterian Church and proclaiming in language as colorful as her tattoos, “That is a big-a– ham.”
The ham is for a raffle to benefit several of the church’s ministries, the kind of unexpected move that has become the norm for Bolz-Weber, former stand-up comic and alcoholic, current CrossFit devotee and Lutheran pastor.
Close-cropped hair and sleeveless shirt showing off her tattoos that show the church year? Check. An open door to the drag queens, the addicted and the others who feel out of place at church? Check. Love for ancient liturgy and Lutheran theology? Check.
The combination is at least a good chunk of what has made her a popular speaker since her memoir, “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint,” hit bestseller lists in 2013.
In “Accidental Saints” — which, she joked, her publisher wouldn’t let her title “Purpose-driven Sinners” — she shares the stories of the saints with whom she lives and worships: the awkward parishioner with the bad breath and baggy pants she avoided at her church, the pink-haired teenager she sat beside on a plane ride to a Lutheran youth gathering, the bishop she pastored through the death of his wife who later drove drunk and killed a woman.
The stories Bolz-Weber shares are the stories of the saints that remind her of the people with whom Jesus surrounded himself, she said.
“It’s a pretty rugged crew — like, how Christianity became quite so squeaky-clean is beyond me when its origins weren’t even close to that,” she said.
They’re the stories of the saints she said she finds useful, not the gilded images of people “just inches away from God themselves” on holy cards or in Butler’s “Lives of the Saints.”
“I’m so hopelessly far from that, I don’t find hope in that,” she said. “To be given ways to see how God gets redemptive things done through broken people, that is helpful, because I feel like I’m surrounded by that.”
And, Bolz-Weber said, “I do admit some fairly horrible things about myself.”
Like how she dodged that parishioner with the bad breath — left him off the e-mail list for the church retreat and declined to officiate his wedding. After he died from a brain tumor, she was reminded of how undeserved God’s grace is and that, she writes, “sometimes God needs some stuff done, even though I can be a real a–hole.”
Still, life has changed in the two years since “Pastrix” was published and Bolz-Weber began to get national attention.
There are more demands on her time, she said, and she’s moved from pastor into the role of public theologian, spending more of her time writing, traveling and speaking. She now works part-time at House for All Sinners and Saints, the liturgical, inclusive and irreverent church of more than 250 people she founded in 2008 in Denver.
She loves her church too much to let it suffer from “founder’s syndrome,” she said, saying that the founder rarely is the right person to maintain an organization. The Rev. Reagan Humber, who joined the church this year, is the right person to pastor the Denver church, though, and, she said, “I guess since he’s gay, it’s okay for me to say I’m completely in love with him.”
In her new book, she writes that she wondered why the church attracts so many “losers” and not more “cool” people like her — until she realized it was attracting people exactly like her, the parts of her she wanted to “push down, compensate for and cover up.”
About 400 of those people filled the pews on a September evening at Fourth Presbyterian.
There was the white-haired parishioner who spun in her pew, showing off the raffle prize she’d won at the event: a Christmas ornament with an image of Santa Claus kneeling beside baby Jesus in the manger that Bolz-Weber had written about hating. There were baby-wearing moms and bearded men with tattoos on their arms and gauges in the ears.
There was a large group of first-year students from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on the city’s South Side, including Angela Remmers, who said she has been shamed for being gay and shamed for being Christian. Bolz-Weber’s openness has “helped me increasingly be open,” she said.
Remmers’s classmate Troy Medlin, who was raised in a conservative evangelical Christian church, said he resonated with the image of “accidental saints,” having met and been changed by a few himself.
“It’s not ideas that change you but these flesh-and-blood encounters with real people,” Medlin said.
Bolz-Weber said she hopes those horrible stories about herself create a space for people to step into and see themselves. She hopes they’ll recognize themselves in the things she’s said and done and thought and find the same hope and grace she has.
It’s a form of leadership she says she calls “screw it, I’ll go first.”
But she knows people won’t always be listening to her stories.
That’s one reason she and popular blogger and author Rachel Held Evans organized the Why Christian? Conference last month in Minneapolis. The two chose 11 speakers, all women whose voices they wanted to amplify, to “stack the deck for who they will listen to next.”
A second conference is planned next year at Fourth Presbyterian.
Bolz-Weber knows the story of Christianity, of all its crimes and misdemeanors, she said. Still, she said, “So many of us still have skin in the game.” She wanted to know why. And she wants to hear those stories from those accidental saints like the ones she reads about in the Bible.
“Jesus never scanned the room for whoever was the most clean-cut and never used any swear words and never made mistakes and understood everything perfectly and lived a sanctified life and then He sent them to do his work,” she said. “He always used the scoundrels and the broken people and the demoniacs, you know what I mean?”