The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Sonja Hagander: The Future of Faith

January 26, 2019

Sonja Hagander: Our graduates go on into seminaries and divinity schools who are powerful speakers for justice, who are innovative in the ways they think theologically, who are pushing systems. I want those people to be my pastor. I want those folks to be my faith community leader because they are shifting the global church and we need their voices.

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present the Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of the Augsburg Podcast. Today I'm speaking with Pastor Sonja Hagander about Augsburg and its roots of interfaith work and its vital intersections. Welcome Sonja.

Sonja Hagander: Thank you.

Catherine Day: So happy to have you here today. I would love for you to tell me a little bit about your growing up because I understand that there was this interesting intersection with music and your faith tradition.

Sonja Hagander: Our house was really full of music. I grew up in Shoreview and attended Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Roosevelt, Minnesota. It was a church that had a lot of music and my mom was a music educator and so I grew up really experiencing faith and living it out by sharing musical gifts, hearing it, singing myself, learning to play the piano and the flute, and really seeing that affirmed and hearing affirmation in a faith community by sharing music. A lot of creativity. There were a lot of musicals. My mom was the choir director for all different kinds of ages and we experienced a lot of different kinds of theater within the church, and that was okay and that was cheered on. So I think a creative faith came about because of especially music as I was growing up.

Catherine Day: When you found yourself in this creative Christian faith based environment, that felt very natural to you?

Sonja Hagander: Felt very natural, yes.

Catherine Day: So you didn't have any question that there was a path for you in terms of a faith tradition of Christianity and understanding that particular path?

Sonja Hagander: Not early on. It was a place of welcome and deep hospitality and a lot of creativity and vibrancy, and it was a congregation close to Luther Seminary so I think it was a thinking faith that was also infused into that space. I grew up watching people of all ages ask big questions. My dad was one that no question was off limits. We had a ton of books on our house. He was such a well read human being and invited questions. So that seemed, that was the environment for me in terms of growing up in a Christian faith setting.

Catherine Day: So that idea of asking questions, if you had doubt, you could express your doubt?

Sonja Hagander: Oh completely. Yeah, to me doubt is a part of the faith experience of my faith. We see that in scripture too, people asking questions, the Psalms are partially filled with those kinds of, what are up to God, why God, and that was okay. I heard my parents asking those kinds of questions. I think I must've heard it from the sermons as well because I've never felt like doubt was not okay, and certainly I've struggled deeply with that, but always felt in some ways safe in asking those kinds of questions, especially with the people closest to me.

Catherine Day: So your own educational journey, you mentioned your proximity to Luther Seminary. Tell us a little bit about that path of your own education after you left this, you stepped away from that creative household off to the next phase of your journey.

Sonja Hagander: I ended up going to Concordia College in Moorhead and loved it. I think people thought maybe I would be a music major, but I wanted to explore a lot of different areas and I ended up being an English, Spanish, and Math kind of person. I was active in musical groups and my first year I think had a lot of other students inviting me into campus ministry activities. I have this memory of thinking why would I want to wear my faith on my sleeve, which is sort of ironic now in terms of what I do here at Augsburg. But I think I wanted to explore broadly and not be just with one group on campus at that time. Then I did go on to become a leader more within the area of social justice and faith on campus.

Catherine Day: What was that aha that led you into the social justice? What were you reacting against or moving toward?

Sonja Hagander: An active faith that could be seen in the world and in everyday space, I think that grew out of some of my classes that I had on campus looking at world and global issues. It probably also connected to my study of Spanish and looking at different areas in the world where the first language is Spanish and now looking back some of the issues around multiple identities and intersectionality, words that maybe I didn't have at that point.

Catherine Day: And it's emerging for you there. Did you do study abroad as part of your path?

Sonja Hagander: I did. I lived in Mexico for a summer with a family in Merida, Mexico, with six brothers ages 3 to 18. That was quite the experience. I loved it so much. And I went on to do graduate work at the University of Edinburgh on Scotland for a year and had flatmates from all over the world. That was fantastic. After seminary lived in southern Germany at the Goethe-Institut in Murnau. Those global experiences I think have been significant in terms of how I look at faith now here at Augsburg.

Catherine Day: You've mentioned, I know you went to Edinburgh, you had these international opportunities. Maybe you could talk about why those were so compelling for you.

Sonja Hagander: Well in between my seminary years I went ahead to study at the University of Edinburgh on a scholarship and I studied comparative literature. That became really important because I was able to study the work of M. M. Bahktin and some literary theory which really invited me to then to return to seminary and look at the gospel of Luke for instance and how Jesus crosses boarders in that gospel particularly and invites all kinds of different people from the community as you read the narrative in scripture, to praise God to give witness to faith, to essentially cross boarders. The stories are really full of intersections.

Sonja Hagander: For me that was so powerful because that had been my experience in other international travel. And then once I was in Cabrini, that was lived out in a very powerful way, that the scriptures were living, this was a living power of the spirit alive in the world literally crossing borders, which was what the witness to what Jesus is up to is apparent in scripture as well.

Catherine Day: Tell me where did the experience of Cabrini Green and Chicago end up emerging? Was that in college or after? How did that happen?

Sonja Hagander: Yeah, Cabrini Green was my internship during my seminary years. I served at Holy Family Lutheran Church which is on Wells and Division in Chicago, and I loved it. It was called the Horizon Internship and that place had really raised up 25 or 30 pastoral interns at that point. And that was part of their work, to welcome would be pastors into the community for the year.

Sonja Hagander: At first, I remember arriving and thinking, "What do I have to offer who grew up in the suburbs, am white to this congregation and community predominantly African-American?" But that was their work, to take individuals and to teach and to raise up and to invite them into wondering what was God up to in that urban setting.

Catherine Day: Can you describe Cabrini Green? There are some of us who simply know the words. We know there's a lot of story behind it.

Sonja Hagander: Cabrini was one of the first housing projects so to speak in urban Chicago and had several buildings. I can't recall how many at its highest point. When I was there, some of the high-rise buildings were completely not populated any longer.

Catherine Day: Yes, they're torn down now.

Sonja Hagander: Mostly torn down. On internship I lived in what was called [inaudible 00:09:36] Village just a block away that was really built with government, business, and faith community monies to say there's a healthy way to live in the city and this is it. Cabrini was just blocks from the Gold Coast, just a few blocks from Michigan, easy access to downtown, a very vibrant community. People knew each other in that community. I was known as the intern pastor and always felt safe and a part of that community. And now most of the people that lived there have been dispersed because of the gentrification.

Catherine Day: When you think about the roots of interfaith work and the roost of vital intersections which is kind of a topic you're exploring, what did you discover in your experience at Cabrini Green that you apply here today?

Sonja Hagander: Cabrini for me was initially a crossing border time and deep in there were physical walls up. I think broader communities thought that there were walls that they were crossing. So it was intersection of all kinds of different people and it was a place where Holy Family Lutheran Church could set the table at the intersection and invite people in to learn about themselves and to learn about other people they didn't initially know about and come to build friendships I think across in some ways real and imaginary borders.

Catherine Day: Can you think of a story from that time of and experience that you had, an encounter that you witnessed or participated in that might illustrate that border crossing?

Sonja Hagander: My internship committee was made up of maybe 8 or 10 members of Holy Family and the chair of that committee actually was a seventh grade kid named Tyrese. He'd speak the truth. He had grown up in that community and was very active at Holy Family Lutheran Church, and most internship committees are probably not chaired by a seventh grader.

Catherine Day: Actually it was very surprising to me.

Sonja Hagander: But that was his work, that was his role. And in some ways this, what, 12, 13 year old kid took me under his wings in a very gracious powerful way to say, "This is what is like for me as a kid growing up in this part of Chicago and here's the fullness of life I'm experiencing and I want you to understand it too."

Catherine Day: Have you any idea where he is today?

Sonja Hagander: Yes. He's still in Chicago. He is a parent. The strangest thing occurred a couple years ago. One of my colleagues, Pastor Babette Chapman and I were talking about Cabrini Green and Holy Family Lutheran Church in my office and at the same time she was on the phone with an individual connected to Redeemer Lutheran Church here in Minneapolis named Manny, and guess what, we learned they're cousins, and within five minutes I was on the phone talking with Tyrese who's now of course an adult and is a parent himself. It was great.

Catherine Day: You had mentioned to me before that gospel continues to be important to you. Can you cite a passage or make a reference that would be something we could be thinking about?

Sonja Hagander: The very beginning of Luke where the writer is writing to Theophilus and it's this letter really to this person in power, that's what we know about this Theophilus, and then much of the stories are about people that don't initially have power and they are the ones that are speaking the truth about God. I experience that in my life today and I think that's what makes that gospel so powerful, is that we can experience that gospel in written form as a story and then we see that in our every day life as well.

Catherine Day: Can you talk a little bit about Lutheran identity and Augsburg as you see it? How does that show up for you here?

Sonja Hagander: I think I see that mostly in story. I'm intrigued right now in this year, in 2018, 2019 about how members of this community right now tell their story about why that's important. And that's not just from Lutheran folks on campus or Christian students or faculty and staff. I'm intrigued by how my Muslim colleagues or Muslim students tell me why that's important to them, why they want to keep that sense of Lutheran rootedness here. For instance, I'll hear a Muslim colleague say, "Because you Augsburg with your Lutheran identity worship or have daily chapel, I as a Muslim can count on respect for my five times a prayer a day and have resonance really across those pretend borders that we might put up between Christians and Muslims in other parts of our world or life." That's important.

Sonja Hagander: I think for me there's a deep sense of being claimed by Christ in my baptism so that I am completely free to engage the neighbor, to engage the incredible ideas and research that happens on this campus in a way that we can do that without fear because of that Lutheran identity.

Catherine Day: I have always struggled with an understanding of Christianity in spite of the fact that I was raised in a Christian home, to simply understand some of the most basic aspects of the tradition. I struggled mildly with the holy ghost, whatever those words were. The easiest words were faith, lope, and love. I probably got those burned into me the best. But your expression through your baptism to be claimed by Christ, I don't hear those words very often, and I would like you to ... it could be that one or another phrase that you could unpack around the ways in which that rootedness is contributing to the interfaith work here.

Sonja Hagander: The image for me of my baptism or any baptism of this sort of dunking and drowning in water and then being refreshed and raised up out of that, for me is important in interfaith work because I make mistakes, I mess up in relationships, and that image of kind of going back to the well, going back to my baptism and sort of dying to those ways in which I have made a mistake or offended someone deeply around faith matters. I can receive forgiveness in relationship with that other person and start anew. And I think the best interfaith work from my standpoint as a Lutheran Christian, as a Christian is when I am able to lean into that offering of forgiveness and my own vulnerability of imperfection, and for me that baptism image becomes a real vibrant living way of being in relationship with other people here at Augsburg.

Catherine Day: In that context, the notion of making mistakes and asking for and perhaps being granted forgiveness, how does that inform each semester, each day here at Augsburg, and where does it show up in the work you're doing?

Sonja Hagander: Every day I am blessed to have colleagues within the office of campus ministry. We have a high level of respect for each other and a high level of trust and I think offer each other a deep sense of generosity in our work. We don't shy away from hard issues or hard work or conflicted theology that won't necessarily become resolved in an hour. But I think it shows up in terms of that kind of generosity and understanding that isn't, our work isn't perfect, we're not striving for perfection, but we're I think striving for respect, agency, social change, impact so that our students have a sense of the fullness of life and their own agency.

Catherine Day: Well, I'm interested in that word agency does come up quite frequently and it's come up in some of our other podcasts. Christopher Houltberg for example in the first season spoke about agency and the word play on his own agency of the fact that the students are agents for their design work. It sounds very intentional though and I think of it as an intersection. Maybe you can unpack what you think agency means on this campus, what do you mean by it, in a sense a definition of it, and how does that play out too in the interfaith work?

Sonja Hagander: I think agency includes the initial respect as students, especially students, this is true for faculty and staff as well, that when they are first setting foot on this campus that as a whole and individually that I understand they have great agency that comes from whatever they bring to this space as a human being, and that part of my work, the Augsburg's work is to accompany that agency because of their decision to come here as students into a learning community.

Sonja Hagander: In terms of interfaith work, I think then when I sit at a common table with people of other core commitments, of diverse core commitments, that we all understand that each of us has agency out of that specific core commitment and that part of that first work is to understand more deeply what those belief systems are that those individuals hold in their own voice, in their own narrative, with their own uniqueness, and that that individually they have agency, but then as a whole cohort, as a whole group that creates a different kind of agency that's not melting down into one common denominator but those voices remain distinct.

Catherine Day: If I can read into that, so let's say that that interfaith circle, that table you described, it might have 10 faith traditions around it, and what you're saying is that they're not being melted down, they're raising up something distinctive and maybe finding a connection to more than one of the others at the table around their tradition?

Sonja Hagander: Yes.

Catherine Day: Or their beliefs?

Sonja Hagander: Yes.

Catherine Day: Can you give me an example of how that might show up? What kinds of topics might be at that table?

Sonja Hagander: I've sat at tables where students are engaging the theme of race and how their core commitments, especially around religion and belief, spirituality influences that kind of conversation and that those topics can be sort of paired down or taken out from one individual's story about that intersection of race and religion for instance.

Sonja Hagander: Or I've been with groups of students who come from a lot of different religious belief systems who look at space on campus and want to impact and have agency on what a space looks like. They'll sometimes look at each other and be really quite different in terms of religious perspective but realize they have a common denominator on a shared practice or something they appreciate about the space together. That's really powerful because then when they leave here, they're going to enact that in their workplace life or in their family life.

Catherine Day: I do want to think about that, what comes after, as you do some dreaming. This is a time of celebration for the university because of it coming upon its 150th anniversary, its sesquicentennial, and to a large extent the campus is treating that as, yes, we're excited about how we got here, and we're really interested in where we're going. So when you dream a little bit, what do you imagine for this vital intersection of the interfaith tradition and how might that look in 5 or 10 or 20 years?

Sonja Hagander: I would want the Lutheran identity to still be living and vibrant and alive in terms of how it propels us into interfaith work. So that means students are still engaging with some of those core ideas and the uniqueness of a Lutheran voice in interfaith work I think is really important.

Sonja Hagander: I would want the Twin Cities to absolutely know that Augsburg University is the place to come to engage in really excellent interfaith practices and that we've been molded and shaped by the people that come here in the next 5 and 10 years in that work.

Catherine Day: What do you imagine around the vitality of the church going forward?

Sonja Hagander: It's going to look really different. I think it's going to revolve more about the immediate neighborhood around whatever faith community take shape. I think all people are hungry for to see that impact of the faith community on their neighborhoods and with their neighbors. I think people are hungry for how faith community leaders will help accompany and equip groups and individuals to cross borders and to have that make sense theologically and not just be an add-on. I think the more faith communities are active in their neighborhoods, I think that can only lead to a different kind of vibrancy.

Catherine Day: When you go to the neighborhood and you put it at the neighborhood scale, what changes about the faith?

Sonja Hagander: I think to answer that fully is we don't yet know until we're actually with the neighbors in a specific neighborhood and doing that work together and asking those big questions together because I think that's back to the Gospel of Luke, that's the narrative that we see. It's not done without those neighbors. It's done absolutely in partnership with those neighbors in a particular neighborhood. There are probably good ways to do that and bad ways to do that, but I don't think we can envision the end result because we need our neighbors to do that.

Catherine Day: Well, if we connect it to what you said earlier, it's also if we take it out of the binary of good and bad, it's more about we've made a mistake, what do we learn from it, what do we want to do now, what might it look like if we took that learning and went forward, that kind of question. You're nodding. I'm just kind of wondering is that part of the evolution out of our learning to that's not all bad or good?

Sonja Hagander: Yes. I think in that work it must be grounded in forgiveness.

Catherine Day: I guess I would add maybe some humility. It's always struck me that this is a place that has a commitment to humbleness, and I didn't ask you about that before, but in what way has that informed the border crossing and the interfaith work?

Sonja Hagander: Yeah, I think humility is a key ingredient, a key really mode of being in the world for the interfaith work. When I'm with cohorts of students and they've worked through maybe their own sense of ego as a group, things go better than in the cohort. If you're in a room with a lot of strong egos, it's hard to get some good work done.

Catherine Day: I'm sure it was during some of these conversations I've been having on campus, but someone mentioned there are two drivers potentially in a car, if we're that car, the ego and the soul. What they reminded us of is that the soul should be driving and the ego can sit in the backseat.

Sonja Hagander: I like that.

Catherine Day: Do you think that's happening here, that the soul is leading here?

Sonja Hagander: On our best days yes. I mean, I can look around the campus and see a lot of souls that are leading, a lot of humble experts who are willing to put their hearts fully out there and be vulnerable and share their gifts and talents. So I get to see that model all over this place. A lot of it isn't lifted up. We don't know all the stories. It's quite phenomenal to see the hearts that are leading.

Catherine Day: Well, thank you for spending this time with us today. That's all we have time for.

Sonja Hagander: You're welcome.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day and I've been speaking with Pastor Sonja Hagander.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to the Augsburg Podcast. I'm president Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit