Lowell Erdahl, former bishop of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA and assistant professor of homiletics at Luther from 1968 until 1973, died at home on December 14, 2021 at age 90. He had been battling several medical ailments including leukemia, said his wife, Carol.
Erdahl was not a clergyman who sat on the sidelines during his many years as a leader in the Lutheran church.
He marched in antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam War, joined with other religious leaders to oppose U.S. military intervention in Iraq, blasted welfare cuts proposed by the Minnesota Legislature, and joined a protest outside an Eden Prairie church where religious leaders were meeting to promote a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
“He was a towering figure because of his preaching, because of his courageous leadership for a more just world and for his advocacy, especially for persons who identified as LGBTQ+, to be fully welcomed into membership and leadership of the church,” said Mark Hanson, former ELCA presiding bishop.
“It wasn’t a popular identity for a pastor to be such an activist, but those were his deep, deep values and he lived them out in his day-to-day life,” said Bishop Patricia Lull of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod.
Erdahl’s twin brother Arlen of Prior Lake represented the First District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1983. This led to a family joke about the two brothers that played on Lowell’s activism, said Arlen’s son Rolf: “One of them went into politics, the other went to serve in the U.S. Congress.”
The two boys grew up on a farm east of Blue Earth, Minnesota, the sons of Christian and Ingeborg Erdahl. Lowell went to St. Olaf College, where he met Carol Syvertsen on the debate team. They married in 1955.
After graduating from St. Olaf, he studied at Luther Seminary, where he later taught; served as pastor at Farmington Lutheran Church and University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis; and was elected bishop of the Southeastern Minnesota District of the American Lutheran Church. He was elected bishop of the St. Paul Synod in 1988 after three Lutheran denominations merged to form the ELCA, and retired in 1997.
Erdahl wrote 10 books, including “Be Good to Each Other,” a book about marriage that he wrote with his wife, and “Winsome Wisdom,” which offered daily “thoughts to ponder and to live.” Carol Erdahl co-founded the Red Balloon Bookshop for children in St. Paul, which she has since sold.
Paul Erdahl of Minneapolis said his father appreciated a diversity of thought and religious views: “He was open and accepting and tolerant of other people.” He was a past president and chair of World Citizen Peace, a group “empowering people to create a just and peaceful world,” said executive director Kathy Millington.
Erdahl called for full civil rights for gay and lesbian people, advocated for the ordination of women and championed the ordination of ministers of the LGBTQ+ community who were in committed relationships. His views were not always so progressive, he admitted in a 2009 article on the Minnesota Public Radio website.
“I was wrong in my understanding of both homosexual humanity and the Bible,” he wrote. “I now thank God for gay and lesbian Christians who have been my teachers.”
Anita C. Hill, a retired Lutheran pastor who is a lesbian, said Erdahl participated in her ordination in June 2001 and then joined her in the Pride parade. “He was overwhelmed to see so many people along the route who were glad to see representatives of the church,” she said.
Besides his wife, children and brother, Erdahl is survived by four grandchildren.
A memorial service for Erdahl will be celebrated at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 7, 2022, in Luther Seminary’s Chapel of the Incarnation, located in Olson Campus Center, 1490 Fulham St., St. Paul, MN 55108. A reception will follow the service.