The Pastor Has a Perfect Pitch

This is not your father’s minister
The Rev. Katrina Foster of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett is a strong proponent of music, in worship and in general. Morgan McGivern

   When the Sunday afternoon jam proved impractical to continue in the confines of Crossroads Music, in Amagansett Square, it quickly found a warm welcome a half-mile to the east, at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church.
    To the lively, welcoming congregation, hosting the jam session is just another expression of its desire to serve the community. To its pastor, Katrina Foster, the relationship is an especially good fit: After an 11 a.m. service that includes the pastor’s fervent singing on a selection of hymns, one is likely to find her behind a drum kit, jamming with the guitar-toting musicians grouped around the church’s baby grand piano.
    Forgive the cliché, but this is not your father’s minister. The native of Fernandina Beach, on Amelia Island near Jacksonville, Fla., is an ardent lover of rock ’n’ roll — the devil’s music, to previous generations of clergy — a hunter, and, until the birth of her daughter, Zoia, now 10, rode a motorcycle. She is also openly gay, married to Pamela Kallimanis, and risked defrocking to promote a change in policy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
    “I grew up listening to Southern rock,” she said. “I loved whatever my brother loved, so AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black,’ Ozzy Osbourne, Molly Hatchet, Lynyrd Skynyrd, .38 Special. Today I love hip-hop, R&B, an amazingly wide variety of music.”
    When a surprised visitor suggests that some of these artists’ music celebrates sinful behavior, the pastor is adamant. “You can’t be so serious about everything. We sang ‘Runnin’ With the Devil’ the first week [the Crossroads jam] was here. They said, ‘Pastor, can we do this?’ ‘Yeah, go ahead!’ ”
    “Sometimes, Christians get so serious, and stubborn and obstinate about things, that it’s no wonder people don’t take us seriously. You can’t talk to us! People live in a real world, and the real world is messy and hard. God is in the midst of all that, and we should be in the midst of it too. I enjoy music, and I enjoy the music here — these musicians are amazing. And I got to sing last week and hang out with them. I’m going to bring my congas in and play.”
    “We’re really interested in building community,” said Ms. Kallimanis, a poet and professor. “Music is part of that. That’s the idea behind bringing the Crossroads here, to try to extend a certain hospitality. We like to welcome as much creativity as we can here.”
    The pastor’s recognition of a call to serve came early. “I started acolyting” — performing ceremonial duties — “when I was 4. I got to wear a little robe, light the candles and extinguish them, and carry the cross, carry the Book. My dad built special candle holders because I was so short I couldn’t reach the standard candle holder that they had,” she said. “I would stand up there and sing louder than the pastor. I knew the entire service and absolutely loved it.”
    “We feel blessed to have her,” said Marge Harvey, a parishioner who lives in Montauk. “She’s got a lot of energy, a lot of interests, and she’s open to suggestions. We’re grateful for her presence.”
    “She’s dynamite,” Joyce Flohr, a parishioner from Springs, agreed. “I love her, my husband loves her. She’s gone clamming with my husband. I don’t know where she gets her energy — she’s very, very active.”
    Indeed, Ms. Foster’s energy appears limitless. She is also pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton, and is involved in aspects, large and small, of the church’s outreach, from the newly opened senior citizens housing on the grounds of St. Michael’s to taking an elderly parishioner shopping. Following the service on a recent Sunday, she simultaneously held a broad-ranging conversation while addressing questions from parishioners and, from Zoia, an inquiry concerning lunch.
    As in the worship service and the jam session to follow, music was in the mix. When John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ was mentioned, along with the subsequent backlash — from Christian clergy in the American South, in particular — she was quick with an observation of her own. “John Lennon was very prophetic in a lot of ways,” she said, referring to another quote attributed to the slain Beatle: “We live in a world where we have to hide to make love, while violence is practiced in broad daylight.”
    “I’m glad that we hide lovemaking — I don’t want to see any of that — but we have really distorted so much of the Bible, of the Christian tradition,” said Ms. Foster. “Christians must stand with the least and the last, because if you fail to take a stand, you stand with the majority, or the oppressor. Were the Beatles more popular than Jesus? They were certainly better known. The best way to make Christ known is for Christians to act as Christ. The fault is not the Beatles’, the fault is ours.”
    As pastor of the Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, where she served for 16 years, music was an instrument with which Ms. Foster transformed a church in decline. “When I got there, there weren’t that many people,” she said. “The whole place was falling apart, there was no money. One of the things that really helped was music. We went from very European, staid music to everything having a keyboard, bass guitar, congas, timbales, drums. If my drummer wasn’t there, I sat in on the drums, in my robes. If he was there, I played the timbales. We went from stiffness to Afro-Caribbean-Latin, enlivened music, and from 20 or fewer people on a given Sunday to 80 or more. We were also involved in the community, kind of like what we’re doing here: There’s music, there’s St. Michael’s housing, we have A.A., we have a food pantry.”
    Perhaps the most powerful example of the pastor acting on her faith came in 2007. At the time, the Lutheran Church allowed openly gay pastors but forbade same-sex relationships. “When I came out on the floor of our churchwide gathering, I put myself right in the crosshairs. I was part of a group that said, ‘The church sets aside so much money to defrock an otherwise qualified pastor — a half-million dollars every year. If we all came out en masse, if we make it no longer a financially viable option to pick off a qualified gay pastor year after year, we’d begin to dismantle that structure of inherent, institutionalized homophobia.’ I was speaking in favor of a resolution that would have changed our policies.”
    The resolution failed, and several bishops threatened to defrock Ms. Foster’s bishop if he did not defrock her. “My bishop, and other bishops who had openly gay pastors, now had skin in the game. They put together a Band-Aid resolution that basically said, ‘Bishops may choose to not defrock an otherwise qualified candidate or pastor.’ It was a small Band-Aid; it was a huge step forward.”
    Two years later, Ms. Foster, Ms. Kallimanis, and Zoia were featured in a documentary, “One Baptism, Many Gifts: The Story of Three Lutherans Called to Ministry.” The documentary was sent to all eligible voters attending the church’s national gathering, a move Ms. Foster said was instrumental in effecting change. “People went from seeing this as an issue to seeing this as people. My daughter was 5, and the camera loves her — she was just adorable and sweet. I think that changed more hearts than anything. And in 2009, we changed the policy of the church.”
    “It’s not too much of a stretch to say we changed Christendom,” the pastor observed. “It’s part of the inheritance of the Lutheran Church, this ongoing Protestant Reformation.”
    A reformation now featuring a lively soundtrack.