Doctor of Ministry student Rev. Mark Knutson has served as pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Ore., for more than two decades. Change and growth seem to be the very essence of his ministry.
“Our goal is to become a church that is multicultural and multinational,” he said. “But it’s more than a goal. We actually practice it.”
When Knutson arrived, membership was at 230. It is now close to 900 and includes large ratios of African American, Asian American, and LGBTQ members.
“We’ve grown because people see faith making a difference,” Knutson said. “They were doing same-sex marriages back in the ‘90s, before I got here. We led the way on the LGBTQ community coming to the faith community.”
Today, Augustana Lutheran is recognized for its stance on immigrant justice but its work on the issue goes back to the early days of Knutson’s ministry. Partnering with the Latino community, the congregation offered support to women newly arrived in the United States. When those women were threatened with deportation, the church made its position clear.
“We said, ‘We are Sanctuary,’” Knutson said. “We said ‘No one’s going to take you while you’re here.’ Then we started teaching about it and preaching about it.”
As immigration issues have become more heated in recent years, Knutson and his church have become increasingly active. They offer workshops and trainings, and gather in large numbers to serve as witnesses when an immigration raid is underway.
In 2014, the church became a host Sanctuary when Francisco Aguirre, an undocumented labor activist, was presented with a deportation order. He was offered a home in the church, where he lived for 81 days while legal complexities were worked out.
For the first two nights Aguirre slept in the chancel. “If ICE dared to come into the church with weapons, they would have had to drag him from the altar and we have a very long aisle,” Knutson said. “That’s an image that would strike the country.”
During Aguirre’s stay, the church hosted a special worship service attended by more than a thousand people, including leaders of the NAACP and Urban League, along with bishops, the mayor, and members of the city council.
With immigration raids increasing, the church is preparing to respond. “If things got ugly in this nation, which they already are, we’d figure out a way to take up to 100 people here,” Knutson said. “And it’d become a community of all of us, not just housing.”
Knutson finds a wealth of scripture to support the church’s work, and shares his findings through workshops and classes. “It starts with Genesis, with Creation,” he said. “At the beginning of every work group we look each other in the eye and we say, ‘You are made in the image of God. You are beautiful.’ Then we hug each other.”
He offered a stream of biblical references that support the idea of sanctuary, from Isaiah, Micah, the Psalms and into the New Testament. “When Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled to Egypt, what would have happened if Egypt had built a wall along the border?” he said. “Where would we be now?”
It is Leviticus, though, that speaks most clearly on the subject, he said. “It’s there in 19:33-34,” Knutson said. “’When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’”
For Knutson, it always comes back to people “stepping out in faith.” He said, “We couldn’t do any of it without the other churches. We couldn’t do it without the synagogues and the mosques who support us.”
Seeking a Doctor of Ministry in the Church Leadership track at Wesley seemed a perfect fit for this ecumenical outlook. “I did the research,” Knutson said. “Wesley has a history of social engagement. It’s about reinventing ministry together. And the faculty are top notch.”
He especially appreciates the diversity of his cohort of fellow students. “I’m in heaven when I’m there,” he said. “For a parish pastor to take a full week and engage with a group like that, and with professors that really teach? There’s nothing like it.”
Naming professors Lovett Weems, Josiah Young, and Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, Knutson said, “They took me deeper and deeper, finding the pieces that help formulate strategy, and undergirding it with scripture. I would recommend Wesley to anybody. It has real impact.”