A public pastor for a public church

Brian Eklund ELCA

More than 50 years ago, in 1968 to be precise, Brian Eklund (MDiv 1970) was a spritely 20-something seminarian. Axel Kildegaard, professor of theology and director of contextual education at LSTC, approached him for a conversation that would change his life.

Kildegaard had been ready to send Eklund to a three-point parish in Iowa for an internship when he learned of a pilot project in Los Angeles sponsored by the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), a predecessor to the ELCA. The LCA was looking for five young clergy who could be placed in an urban setting, work halftime, and collaborate in ministry while being trained by the Urban Training Institute. If future pastors hoped to reach those in the city, they needed to participate in the structural dynamics of the city and thus usher in a new theological relationship between church and city.

Eklund’s life and ministry would ultimately be shaped by this conviction.

A lunch conversation…

Not too many months ago, on a sunny Southern California afternoon, Eklund graciously told his story. It is the story of a public pastor for a public church, even before it was part of LSTC’s lexicon.

Eklund has been serving the people of southern L.A. for 45 years. Looking at him and listening to him string story after story of ministerial miracles, you wouldn’t think he’s old enough to have been in ministry that long. Eklund has all the energy and enthusiasm of a recent graduate. He transitions easily, and quickly, from conversations in Spanish with neighbors to recollections of political battles in his community. And he’s just as comfortable serving communion as he is playing the banjo or spinning wood—all while wearing sandals, cargo shorts and a ballcap.

After seminary, he and his wife Ruth moved to San Diego. He worked for six years at a hospital, but his sense of call to urban church ministry remained, and he accepted a call to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Los Angeles where he had served as an intern. It was there that Eklund and his family would place roots and serve among the urban poor for the next four decades.

A church in the heart of the city

In the early 1900s, this area in the heart of the city was inhabited by affluent families, both Black and white. It was the location of the prestigious University of Southern California. But wealthy families eventually moved, as did economic stability. Racially restrictive housing covenants forced Black and brown communities into overcrowded neighborhoods. Multiple forms of discrimination proliferated. Racist business practices and outright violence kept communities of color from finding economic opportunities. And the neighborhood eventually became a seedbed of poverty, gang violence and drug use, especially in the wake of the crack/cocaine epidemic. By the 1980s the neighborhood was known by the pejorative and racially loaded term “South Central LA.”

Those who are old enough will never forget the spring of 1991 when Rodney King, a Black man, was brutally beaten “between 53 and 56 times” by four white police officers. In a moment of injustice that has become all too familiar, the officers were later exonerated. The verdict set off one of the most horrific episodes of civil unrest in American history. Riots fueled by decades of systemic racism and an unmitigable pattern of police brutality broke out across Eklund’s parish.

“We were all surrounded by fires, sirens and chaos for three days,” he said. “The shopping center across from St. Mark’s was burned to the ground, but the church was unharmed.”

In the wake of this collective outburst of anger, a vision that had been planted 20 years earlier took root. Eklund and four other ELCA pastors formed New City Parish, an urban coalition of multiple churches located in and around southern Los Angeles. Together, they focused on transforming their community and developed holistic ministries and social outreach programs. They advocated for the poor, organized community members, developed relationships with local leadership, taught people how to think critically and to find their own voice, and cultivated a sense of healing and comfort.

LSTC prepared him well

Central to this vision was the theological training Eklund received at LSTC. As he put it, “A church has to root and re-root and re-root itself in the neighborhood. A parish is a neighborhood. It is not just ‘the church,’” This localized, parish-based approach led him into a ministry marked by beautiful moments of collaboration, miraculous local victories over giants like USC and the Staples Center (where the Lakers, Clippers, Sparks and Kings all play), and more stories than could fit into a single lunchtime conversation.

A noteworthy partnership Eklund forged was with Diane Donoghue, a member of the Sisters of Social Service. Like others, Eklund and Donoghue saw that families were being displaced in southern L.A. Discriminatory housing practices, slumlord building owners and opportunistic business people were forcing families out, often for the sake of building low-wage garment factories or “sweat shops.”

Eklund worked with Donoghue as she founded the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, which provided quality housing for low-income families. In 2001, in a moment of beautifully just symmetry, Esperanza converted one of the abandoned sweatshops into Mercado La Paloma, a modern facility where more than a dozen nonprofits and locally owned businesses conduct their affairs.

The Mercado is the backdrop of our conversation. Construction workers mosey in for their lunch. Moms and students and businesspeople visit in the food court. Eklund knows many of them, making introductions to a handful of business owners and the executive director of Esperanza. (Eklund is president of its board of directors.) Then he visits with Gloria, a local seamstress who has been running her business out of the Mercado for 29 years.

With these stories and surroundings, it’s impossible not to think of public church, LSTC’s theological (masters) curriculum which is sometimes difficult to define. Now, thanks to inspirational conversation over tacos in southern L.A., we have a vibrant picture that helps define public church at its best.


Original article published in the Winter/Spring 2022 Epistle Magazine; written by Bill Myatt

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