This radical San Francisco minister challenged the Lutheran Church, ordained gay clergy and gave last rites to AIDS patients

James DeLange was an established Lutheran minister from Minnesota when he accepted the call to save St. Francis Lutheran, a charming but crumbling old church with a small, struggling congregation in San Francisco’s Castro District.

It was 1981. The AIDS crisis was beginning to kill the parishioners of “Our Lady of Safeway,” as it was called, because of its proximity to the Market Street grocery store. To fully immerse himself in the pandemic, the new pastor moved to the neighborhood and began attending AIDS marches and vigils. He had a wife and two children, but he also became the family of those who had been abandoned because of their sexual orientation.

In the late 1980s, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had refused to ordain any openly gay, non-celibate ministers, so DeLange offered to ordain them in St. Francis. This radical inclusiveness resulted in the suspension of St. Francis from the church in 1990. But it also gave strength and determination to the congregation, celebrated at its annual “Expulsion Day”.

A gripping speaker with a deep, driving voice that swept through a cathedral, DeLange was a guest minister at St. Marks Lutheran Church on O’Farrell Street in 2017 when he began to lose his train of thought and was visibly scattered in delivering a sermon. .

Diagnosed with dementia, DeLange spent his final years at home in the Eureka Valley with a view of his former congregation and even the Safeway sign on Market Street. On August 20, two Lutheran ministers mentored by DeLange came to his home to say the Lutheran prayer for the dying, just as DeLange had done at the bedside of men dying of AIDS.

An hour after the prayer session, DeLange died in bed, dressed in his red and blue St. Francis Lutheran T-shirt and facing the view out the window. His death was confirmed by his daughter, Lynn Krausse. He was 88 years old.

“Jim DeLange was a remarkable and uncommon person,” said former state senator Mark Leno, who knew DeLange through community service both in the Castro and throughout the city.

“He felt and believed deeply, and he had a stiff spine when the Lutheran church challenged him and his local colleagues on his inclusion in the LGBTQ community. He had my admiration for that,” Leno said.

DeLange’s impact transcended the Lutheran Church. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, he was invited by then-Mayor Art Agnos to join a committee that formed what would become the San Francisco Interfaith Council in response to both the displacement of people from the earthquake and the growing homeless population in the city.

“Jim was one of the first to open his church sanctuary for people to stay through the worst of winter,” Agnos said, “and he immediately assumed a leadership position in recruiting organizations nuns of all faiths to join him in responding to the homeless crisis.

Delange ended up serving on the board of directors of the interfaith council for 23 years, including a long stint as chairman of the board, from 2004 to 2012. The winter shelter he helped start still exists, and the council is mobilizing the city’s 800 communities of faith in these times of disaster, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Wherever I go in San Francisco, people come up to me and tell me how important my dad was in their lives,” Krausse said. “How kind he was at the right time and offered perfect advice and support. If what they needed was money, he would give them $100. He was there doing God’s work.

James William DeLange was born on July 6, 1934 in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he grew up. His father, William DeLange, ran an industrial laundry service specializing in cleaning coveralls worn by workers at the 3M factory, which made tape and other forms of adhesives. As a child, James worked in the factory loading washing machines and delivering clean uniforms with his father.

Salvation came through a neighbor who was the pastor of the Lutheran church in Gethsamene. DeLange had been baptized a Presbyterian but his mother began taking him to Lutheran services to support their neighbor, the pastor. This led DeLange to become active in youth ministry at North St. Paul High School, where he was also involved in drama.

After graduating in 1951, he attended the University of Minnesota, but the Korean War was on. Convinced that he would be drafted into the army, he instead joined the Naval Reserve. This allowed him to transfer to Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield, Illinois. Luckily, he was assigned to the Navy Reserve, tasked with setting up bowling for the St. Paul Officers’ Club.

He was off duty and off base when he met Beverly Hansen, a farm girl who had come to town to go bowling. She met DeLange in the alley. They married in 1957, and Delange was ordained in the synod of the Missouri Lutheran Church, a particularly conservative denomination.

A year later, Delange was commissioned to start a Lutheran congregation in the growing Orange County town of Huntington Beach. The herd started in the two-car garage of a house he paid $12,000 for, with a monthly payment of $85. Faith Lutheran Church, as it was named, quickly outgrew the garage and became a campus to accommodate a congregation that included over 1,000 families.

In the mid-1970s, a schism between factions of the Lutheran Church split it into a doctrinaire group that wanted to adhere to biblical infallibility, and a more progressive group. DeLange was appointed executive secretary of the progressive faction which split to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

This cost him his job at Faith Lutheran, who remained at the Missouri Synod.

DeLange and his second wife moved to the Bay Area in 1976. Delange continued to hold an administrative position for the new association until he got the job at St. Francis, which had allied itself with the most progressive faction.

When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America spoke out against unmarried gay ministers, DeLange was a perfect representative of the opposition, having emerged as a progressive Lutheran despite his upbringing in the church’s conservative orthodoxy.

“He saw cruelty to the gay community every day in San Francisco,” his daughter said. “For the church to then ostracize gay clergy became very personal to him, so he pushed back against injustice.”

In 1985, he led the St. Francis contingent in the Pride Parade and soon helped organize Lutheran Lesbian and Gay Ministries. Saint Francis eventually withdrew from the synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“Jim was a direct ally who invested an enormous amount of his political capital in the movement for the full inclusion and participation of LGBTQIA+ clergy,” said Jeff Johnson, pastor at UC Berkeley Lutheran Chapel, near the California campuses.

DeLange was also good with tax capital. When the earthquake struck in 1989, the south-facing brick facade of St. Francis Lutheran collapsed. This gave impetus to a fundraising campaign to rebuild the historic structure which was built in 1905-06. DeLange served as project manager and fundraiser and he didn’t stop there. He started a church endowment fund that has grown over the past 40 years to benefit organizations around the world, according to current St. Francis pastor Bea Chun.

“What Jim did for the congregation was give us a plan to follow,” Chun said. “We are inspired by his courage and his drive to be an innovator.”

DeLange’s second marriage also ended in divorce. In 1991, he married Diane Nelson, a member of a Mill Valley Lutheran congregation. She did her part for St. Francis by starting a senior lunch program with Nelson herself cooking for 50 or 60 hungry souls every Wednesday. She died of cancer in 2011.

After retiring from St. Francis in 1999, DeLange continued to minister and dealt with Democratic party politics. His Christmas Day “Green Drink” party was a standard, with people coming to sip his secret creme de menthe concoction.

“Jim was the kind whose door was always open,” Leno said. “He had such a wide range of knowledge, from his pastoral work to his community work to his leadership on queer issues.”

DeLange is survived by his sister Rochelle Schrodt of St. Paul; his daughter Lynn Krausse of Bakersfield; son Brad DeLange of San Francisco; son-in-law Matthew Nelson of Alameda; daughter-in-law Adrienne Brown of Kentfield; and four grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Saturday, September 24 at 10:30 a.m. Memorial donations may be made to St. Francis Lutheran Church 152 Church Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

Jerry B. Hatch