LSTC Alum Rev Dr. Tom Gaulke MDiv ’07 PhD ’20 on Hope, Healing, and Promises

Rev. Dr. Tom Gaulke (left) and his first book, An Unpromising Hope (right)
Above: Rev. Dr. Tom Gaulke (l) and his first book, An Unpromising Hope (r)

One of LSTC alum Tom Gaulke’s most foundational spiritual experiences was also one of his earliest memories. “It’s as far back as I can remember,” he says. “I was sitting on a carpet at Hales Corners Lutheran Church. I think it was kindergarten. And the teacher was playing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ on the piano and the sun was shining in the window, and I had this really overwhelming spiritual experience and I’ve always been sort of obsessed with God ever since.” The memory of that experience has stayed with Gaulke for a lifetime and has shaped a professional practice now dedicated to understanding the complexities of lived experience, honoring and understanding a plethora of spiritual practices, and which often explores undiscovered ecumenical territory to reach people at their most vulnerable.

Gaulke’s keen interest in spiritual development, community transformation, and moral reasoning has always transcended denomination; it was fostered by his experiences working with youth in natural settings, his interest in social justice, and his work in community organizing. As a teen, Gaulke was drawn to interdenominational experiences and enjoyed building community. “In high school,” he remembers, “I was in this Christian ska punk band with all my interdenominational friends.” By the time he was studying Comparative Religion at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, he was certain he wanted to go into ministry. He also had cultivated a passion for critical exegesis and hermeneutics, planting the seeds of what is now an illustrious career as a researcher and writer. Perhaps most crucially, he was also, at this time, spending his summers working at a Lutheran Camp, continuing to build relationships with people from varied backgrounds and with many different interests. 

It was at that camp that Gaulke learned about the candidacy process for becoming a rostered minister in the ELCA and there, too, that he first learned about the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, a school with a reputation for supporting ministries engaging with the kinds of difficult questions around belief that Gaulke often confronted in the interfaith communities that had become so foundational to his own spiritual identity. Between the artistic vibrancy in the city and the values espoused by the institution, Gaulke knew that attending LSTC was the next best step for him in his path.  

Once he enrolled as an MDiv student, Gaulke began to build relationships with scholars including Professor of Theology and Anthropology Dr Linda E. Thomas, Dr. Kadi Billman, and Harold S. Vogelaar Professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations Dr. Mark Swanson, all of whom proved to be pivotal mentors when Gaulke came back to LSTC for his PhD in 2017. By then, he had chosen a topic for his dissertation: delving into the concept of promise so often espoused in theological settings. He renewed connections with LSTC experts and added Assistant Professor of Church and Society and Ethics Dr. Marvin E. Wickware Jr. to his committee. In a 2021 interview with The Real Hyde Park, in speaking about An Unpromising Hope (Pickwick, 2021), the book that was published from a revised version of his dissertation, Gaulke said, “Sometimes our hope sounds like a dirge. Sometimes it sounds like hip hop or punk. But the search for deep hope is almost always born from pain and happens always in hopeless times. Although hope is always contextual, the sources I study generally point toward the experience of hope that takes place in community.”

For Gaulke, his work outside of publishing spoke to the extent to which he believed in the power of fostering that community and building hope—even without outcome-based promises. From his first call at First Trinity in Bridgeport to his time as a campus Pastor in the South Loop in 2014 to his work leading the congregation at Gethsemane Lutheran in Cicero, Illinois, to his work as a faith organizer for The People’s Lobby in 2021, Gaulke has made it a practice to look at his community and discern the best way to dive in and engage with people of varied backgrounds with an aim towards the common good.

Today, as Interim Campus Pastor at Carthage College, Gaulke makes it a daily practice to find new ways of connecting with youth. At the same time, he continues his work as an academic, advancing our understanding of grace, eschatology, and the human condition. His forthcoming book, Everyday Armageddons: Stories and Reflections on Death, Dying, God and Waste, co-authored with LSTC alum Rev. Matthew Holmes, takes on these themes and more, offering theopoetic interludes alongside reflections and narratives that explore real people’s lived experiences of modern death. 

As Gaulke’s expansive life and expansive professional practice demonstrates, we contain multitudes. He encourages others who share his interests to consider LSTC as a locus of spiritual and professional growth. “From exposure to varied perspectives to a curriculum that encourages us to consider seriously what it means to be church in public, LSTC Is a wonderful place for one’s personal and public ministry to begin. And if you’re doing it right, being in Hyde Park and in Chicago, LSTC is also a place where you can connect with people beyond LSTC, people doing creative, beautiful, and interesting things across faith traditions, across the city, and all over the world.”

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