Remembering The Rev. Canon Carlson Gerdau, Builder of Bridges

By Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen 

The shocking news again and again names the fact: we are living in an age of chasms. In a very real sense, the Trump era is a moment made by exploiting these divides. The so-called fragility of white America, as it loses its demographic and cultural dominance, lashes out in protest against any and every “other” it finds a threat. The attack on two Muslim women on the train in Portland is only the most recent of a horrifying cascade of examples of late. The brave men who stepped in to intervene paid a terrible cost for their risk in love.

The seeds of hate and love expressed in this recent spasm of violence across chasms of difference beg the question: what does a life look like which leads to love, and not hate? Is there a practice of life that builds communities and bridges divides, rather than reifying them as battle lines? Auburn lost one of its saints, The Rev. Canon Carlson Gerdau, this past weekend. A 25-year member of Auburn’s board, and a founding donor for and long-time supporter of our Center for the Study of Theological Education, Carl’s life story is a case study in such bridge building as a risk of love. In listening closely to the surprising lives of those who embody the virtues of love, we, too, find a path to build communities and bridge divides.

When I first met Carlson Gerdau, now years ago, it was for dinner at Henry’s on 105th and Broadway, one of his favorite spots. A sixth-generation New Yorker, his love of the city was infectious. As he described it, his family’s success led to his childhood on New York’s wealthly upper east side, and from there, an elite American trajectory. After a private boarding school, he attend college at Harvard. While working at a youth summer camp, he experienced a call to ministry and returned to New York’s General Seminary to study for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

Surely, he could have expected a posh appointment in a major parish in the Northeast, if not in New York City itself. Yet he asked to be placed in rural Michigan, among the mining towns of the Upper Peninsula. We bonded over stories living in the midwest, with humble potluck meals and the hard but beautiful life in rural America. Laughing, we swapped stories of our mistakes early on in ministry among working folk, and the humility called for in learning and loving local culture and its people. He served there nearly 20 years before a new position took him to Chicago.

That next summer, again at Henry’s, we got to talking about Carl’s long administrative service, first supporting Frank Griswold when he was bishop of Chicago, and then, after his election as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA), returning to New York to continue his role as “canon to the Presiding Bishop.” I asked about his current parish involvement, and he said two remarkable things. First, going against the grain of consumer choice, he said, “I go to the nearest church, and just get involved.” He wanted, it was clear, to build bridges to those who lived around him, whoever they were, and not shop for a church chock-full of the like-minded.   Second, and more surprising to me, he said all summer he filled in as priest for under-resourced Afro-Caribbean parishes in the South Bronx when they needed help. He said he loved the people, and felt they deserved as much support as any other parish, and it was a shame they didn’t always get it.

During his distinguished tenure as a board member at Auburn, we could always count on a “Carl moment.” He didn’t speak often, but made prescient remarks and took it as a personal mission to push Auburn beyond its progressive comfort zone. His last board meetings, in the winter and spring of 2016, were in the context of the presidential campaign. His style was to raise his hand, waving at board chair, just as he would the waiter at Henry’s. His constant theme, here honed to the moment, was this: “What I want to know is what Auburn is going to do to build bridges to these Trump supporters. They clearly are disaffected and if we don’t reach out to them, he’ll win them over, and with much worse intentions.” Around the table, language of resistance was the lingua franca, and his call shifted the frame back to our core mission, in part exactly to “equip leaders who . . . build congregations and communities, bridge divides, pursue justice and heal the world.” Not wanting us to fall victim to our own worst tendencies to widen chasms, Carl called us back to our proper work.

Just days before he died, I visited Carl in his apartment. In pain and wheelchair-bound, he hosted me in his classic style, outwardly crusty but with a profoundly tender and soulful interior life. I pointed to his somewhat ragged copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer sitting on the chair and asked him about his use of it. He remarked that he prayed the daily office, including morning, midday, and evening prayer. “One of the responsibilities of retired priests, in my opinion,” he told me, “is to pray for the world, and so I do.”

After Carl’s death this past Saturday, I found and listened to a sermon he gave two summers ago at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Remarkable for its clarity and humility, Carl’s witness to his faith as shown again and again through his life came through with utter clarity. His conviction is that God is on the side of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, and those of us with privilege are nearest to God when we find ways to cross bridges to others not seen as other, but as beloved of God.

By Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is the Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary. 

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