The Rev. Gordon J. Straw, Cornelsen Chair for Spiritual Formation at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC), died at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, Ill., on Saturday, January 5. In the fall of 2018, he was diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma and died of complications related to his treatment. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn Soto Straw, and their daughter, Amanda.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, February 9 in the Augustana Chapel at LSTC, with a pre-service gathering from 1-3 p.m. and the memorial service at 3 p.m. A reception will follow the service.
Straw began his position as associate professor and Coordinator of Candidacy July 1, 2017. On several occasions, and to many people, he called this seminary position his “lifelong dream.” “Gordon brought to us a remarkable array of gifts, from his distinctive Native American perspective, to his grounding as a faithful Lutheran, to his commitment toward forming students in spiritual practices, to his clarion and irenic voice for genuine justice,” said James Nieman, president. “I deeply valued his wise counsel and am grateful his light shone among us so brightly, if but briefly. We will honor his legacy by this school’s enduring commitment to spiritual formation.”
When LSTC’s Board of Directors in April 2017 elected Straw to the position, Esther Menn, dean of academic affairs called him “the right person at the right time for LSTC.” Reflecting on his time at the seminary, Menn said, “Gordon made a great impact at LSTC, in the classroom and beyond. He was beloved for taking time for meaningful conversations and for enjoying communal lunch in the refectory. His kind and grounded presence inspired many of us to live into our best selves. We will miss him deeply, as we strive to carry on his legacy.”
Shortly after he joined the faculty, Straw recalled how his grandmother’s death when he was a seminary student steered him from his original “call” to teach toward ordination and parish ministry instead. He said his new seminary position and a return to that call to teach was “the fulfillment of a very long dream.”
He was especially passionate about helping prepare seminarians for public ministry in Christ’s church, saying, “I have been enriched by my own experiences as a student and teacher at LSTC and by the people of the LSTC community for more than 20 years.” He had taught at LSTC prior to joining the faculty, as well as at the Catholic Theological Union and in the Diakonia Program of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Prior to joining LSTC, he served at the ELCA churchwide office, including program director for American Indian and Alaska Native Ministries, coordinating director for ethnic ministries, committee staff for the theological education advisory council, program director for lay schools for ministry, and candidacy leadership manager for Region 8 of the ELCA.
He was a member of the Brothertown Indian Nation, wrote and lectured on Native American Christian theology and related contemporary issues, and on topics in systematic theology and American Lutheran church history. Straw worked with other Native American ELCA leaders to develop both the Native American Emphasis and the Vine Deloria Jr. Symposium at LSTC, at which he gave his inaugural lecture in November 2017.
After discovering in himself a passion and preference for interim pastoral ministry, he held 11 half- and full-time interim ministry calls over 15 years in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod. He served in outdoor and campus ministry, and on several synodical and ecumenical committees and councils.
Straw earned the master of theology degree from LSTC in 1997 and had completed all coursework for a PhD in systematic theology. He earned his master of divinity degree from Luther (then Luther Northwestern) Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota-Morris.
On May 20, 2018, he received the honorary degree of doctor of divinity from Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. He was praised for his advocacy for theological education among ethnic specific communities by Craig L. Nessan, academic dean at Wartburg. “[Gordon’s] support for lay schools for ministry and the education of the universal priesthood of all believers has been exemplary,” Nessan said.
Straw’s love for connecting cooking to spirituality and hospitality was well known. He had been scheduled to teach a J-Term course entitled “Spirituality of Food and Drink” until his disability leave. He traced his passion for hospitality to his mother and his grandmother, who was his spiritual mentor. At LSTC, he communicated to students and the entire community that spiritual formation is about how we live our lives every day, and that how we live honors God and those around us, as well as ourselves.
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The Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) is dedicated to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Based in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, it is the leading urban Lutheran seminary training students for purposeful vocations in the global community. Aligned with its Lutheran heritage and built on a foundation of intellectual rigor, LSTC’s innovative, nationally recognized curriculum gives students skills for visionary Christian leadership in the public sphere.