LARSON: Time to reform our thinking about stereotypes

Susan Larson

Susan Larson

For most people, today is Halloween. But for Lutherans, it's Reformation Day, the biggest day of the year.

So what better day to welcome two of Gwinnett County's newest Lutherans, Karl and Vera Johnson from Minnesota, home state of the fictitious Lake Wobegon, whose Lutheran residents Garrison Keillor makes a living making fun of. And in addition to razzing them on the radio, Keillor has even written books, like "Life Among the Lutherans," poking fun at their Scandinavian stereotypes. You know, stone-faced blue-eyed blondes who don't eat anything spicier than ketchup and live on lutefisk. But then Keillor never met the Johnsons.

Karl Johnson was born in Hampton, Va., the son of a Tuskegee airman. Wanting to spread his own wings, he entered seminary in St. Paul in 1970 where he was ordained as a Baptist preacher. While speaking at a State Baptist Convention in 1993, someone said to him, "Just hearing you speak, you need to talk to a Lutheran named Rod Maeker."

Within months after meeting Maeker, a leader in cross-cultural ministry, Karl accepted a scholarship at Luther Seminary, where he says he learned to "speak fluent Lutheran."

It was here he met Ethiopian-born Vera Miller. But she's not Ethiopian. She was just born there while her father was teaching. When she was 3, her parents moved back to their native India, where Vera was raised Anglican, but attended school in a Catholic convent.

"People assume all Indians are Hindu," Vera said, "but I'm a fourth generation Christian."

Vera earned a degree in English literature in India and then moved to Minnesota, where her brother was attending seminary.

"I wanted to get grounded in my Christian identity," Vera said. She attended Lutheran Brethren Seminary and graduated with a master's degree in religion.

"In the process I felt God calling me to ordained ministry," she said. She enrolled at Luther Seminary in 1996 and was ordained in 2000, the same year she married Karl, who by this time was a bona fide Lutheran.

Soon after she moved here, I had lunch with Vera. I was a little surprised, considering the spicy foods she grew up on, that she ordered something so stereotypically Lutheran as meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But when the waitress brought her plate, she immediately scraped off the ketchup and asked for a bottle of Texas Pete.

I started to reread "Life Among the Lutherans" to see if maybe I missed something Keillor might have said about Lutherans who didn't fit the mold. I only got as far as the first sentence: "I don't know much about Lutherans, and that is one reason I've told stories about them over the years, so I could learn." Hmm, like what seems to be happening with this column.

So while I'm in this learning mode, I figured I had to ask the Johnsons that quintessential question.

"Have you ever eaten lutefisk?"

Karl responded with an emphatic "no," while Vera said, "Yes, but in order to stand it I had to smother it in Texas Pete."

Susan Larson is a freelance writer who lives in Lilburn. E-mail her at susanlarson4@yahoo.com.