With four months’ worth of cash and an itch to learn Spanish, Paul Erickson packed his bags and set off for Cuernavaca, Mexico.
He had recently graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College, and in addition to working on the language, he immersed in nightly Bible study with his host mom, Conchita.
There, he had his “aha” moment.
At Conchita’s breakfast table on his last morning in Cuernavaca, Erickson realized he would spend his life preaching the word of God.
“She said, ‘You know, you’re different. Most people will come to one or two Bible studies with us and then go do something else, but you stayed with us all along.’ And then she said, ‘Don’t forget what you’ve learned here,'” Erickson said. “That’s the moment when I said, yeah, I can’t just be an academic. I can’t just be a lawyer or something like that. I need to walk with people in this way.”
Erickson, who is approaching the 27-year anniversary of his August 1989 ordination, will settle in Milwaukee for a third time come September for a six-year stint as the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He will oversee 128 ELCA congregations.
He’s hopeful his past experience in bilingual settings and urban congregations, and his love for listening, will help him welcome and guide immigrant and minority populations and create a safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender worshippers.
Erickson — who turns 55 on Wednesday — was born and raised a pastor’s son in the Milwaukee area. His most recent Milwaukee assignment lasted 10 years, during which he served as the pastor at Faith/Santa Fe Lutheran Church in the 1000 block of S. Layton Blvd., just a block north of the Synod offices.
There, he was known for setting up Spanish-speaking services, though he gives the community — and God — full credit for their success.
“I didn’t do this,” said Erickson, who is fluent in Spanish. “I helped prepare the soil, and I planted some seeds. I just kind of created a space and said, well, let’s see what God can do with this.”
Joe Ellwanger, a retired pastor from Cross Lutheran Church on Milwaukee’s north side, said Erickson set the stage for Faith/Santa Fe to become a staple in the area’s Latino community. They worked together as urban ministers at the time.
The challenge facing the Lutheran community is the same any Christian denomination faces: building up the church while setting up its community for success, Ellwanger said. Poverty, violence and providing education are all within the church’s mission to give back.
“He knows some of the challenges and some of the ways that the bishop can actually be helpful to the church,” he said. “Not just overseeing it, but empowering it to be more than it is.”
The church evolved from a place of worship for those who’d moved beyond their south side roots, opting instead to live in areas like West Allis and Waukesha, to a community space for all area residents, about 50% of whom were Latino, Erickson said.
And it’s that work with the Latino community that church leaders he’s worked with, both in Milwaukee and in the St. Paul Area Synod, point to as his greatest success.
After leaving Mexico, Erickson returned to Latin America several times through his adult life. In Minnesota, he worked for the synod’s Guatemala Task Force in partnering with Augustinian Lutheran churches throughout the country to help develop worship spaces for their communities. Erickson is one of the strongest leaders the task force has had, said Janet Metcalfe, its chairwoman.
“It became clear when I invited him to go on our trip that August of 2003 that he was going to be a big part of our relationship (with Guatemala),” she said.
Erickson maintained his work in the task force while serving as associate pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church in West St. Paul, Minn., and later while working as assistant to the St. Paul Area Synod bishop for evangelical mission.
In the last two years, he’s led the synod’s Agora ministry, teaching nonordained religious leaders in immigrant and minority populations how they can help their congregations’ pastors with activities like Bible study.
“The work of bishop has many, many different aspects, and it can’t be done by one person,” Erickson said. “We’re all part of a team and the task of that team has many different aspects, one of which is to support healthy leaders. It’s one of the themes that this (Milwaukee) synod has.”
Church acquaintances and friends describe Erickson as quirky, honest and curious.
When the two first met, Metcalfe said, he claimed to “speak a little Spanish.”
“He appeared to be, when I found this out, a little bit of a jokester. He had a twinkle in his eye,” she said.
Just a few months before Erickson transitioned to becoming Agora’s director in 2014, the Rev. Patricia Lull became bishop in St. Paul.
Lull sat in Erickson’s car on one of her first days as he carted her around the city, pointing out each of the area’s 20-some Lutheran churches and detailing their backgrounds as they passed by.
“That curiosity about congregations will be a real asset in Milwaukee,” she said.
Erickson’s journey toward the bishop’s seat began in April. He spoke at four forums and vied for the spot against seven other potential nominees. A committee of church members and officials — with the help of God, he says — elected him to the position in June at a synod gathering at Carthage College in Kenosha.
The Rev. Jeff Barrow, current bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod, will retire this summer.
“Sometimes, you need someone who knows the system from the inside, but is willing to explore things on the outside to find that right balance,” he said. “I knew that was the kind of leader I could be, and if that’s the kind of leader they needed, I’d be happy to serve in that way.”
In recent years, Erickson said he’s considered how racial, gender and sexuality disparities have challenged inclusiveness in the ELCA’s congregations. None of those who are faithful to the church, he said, should be left out from the opportunity to worship — regardless of race, class or sexual orientation.
Breaking the norm that worship belongs within chapel walls is another challenge modern-day congregations face, he said. Some are shifting their prayer to places like food trucks to feed the homeless or impoverished, or gardens in the summertime, and Erickson said congregations’ main focus should be the worship, rather than where it takes place.
“There are tools that help us get to the main thing,” Erickson said. “But we’ve got to make sure that the tools are seen as tools, not the main thing. Our buildings are not essential.”
After a 13-year hiatus from the Milwaukee area, Erickson will move back to the city come September, with his wife and high school-aged daughter joining him sometime thereafter. He will be installed as bishop Oct. 8 at St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa.
He said he’s not able to set goals for the city’s improvement, not knowing what those areas for potential growth might be. Still, four values stand at the forefront of his approach — curiosity about others, creativity in worship practices, courage to face challenges head-on and compassion.
“If nothing else, if we are not about love, then we might as well just close up shop and go home.”