Steve Larson ’63: Therapist and Retired Clergy

Posted on January 16th, 2016 by

The philosophy department has invited all living alumni of our department to return to the college on April 16 for a day of conversations we’ve called “How Are You Thinking About Your Philosophy Major Now?” 

As replies begin to arrive, they are accompanied by wonderful letters. Here’s one from Steve Larson, a retired clergyman, therapist, and criminal justice program developer, who will be returning to campus in April.

Steven Larson, Marriage & Family Therapist in Austin
"Chasing Grace" letter to GA classmates

Since I was a little boy I remember hearing in church how the Grace of God was everywhere and in every living thing.  I heard the Presence of God in every train whistle, as I laid in my bed (at 3), praying that my Dad would return from the war on the next train. It was that comforting presence that always seemed to be just a breath away, and I felt that I  was never alone. As I grew, I was taught that my loving God was a companion just beyond my thoughts and, of course, as a Lutheran boy I heard about Grace every Sunday in church and Sunday School, never really being certain of its meaning. Because I lived in rural Minnesota it meant that Grace was available primarily to white Lutherans who went to church. (there were many Native Americans in my school, but I kind of thought they believed in buffalo and other animals as their God. We Lutherans weren’t really sure about Catholics and other religions either.

My experience at Gustavus certainly expanded my understanding of Grace. There were students from Africa and a few from Asia.  We had a small mix of other cultures and some presence of diversity, but few Muslims and African Americans. I believed that other religions were really misguided and they didn’t have the same God. If you didn’t name Christ than you really weren’t on the right path. Most of my close friends claimed to have been “born again” and that act was the necessary step to salvation and eternal security.

It wasn’t really till I got to seminary, in good old Rock Island, that my awareness of that Real Presence expanded. Working as an orderly in an emergency room, while in seminary, meant dealing with African Americans, Latinos, and people from all parts of the globe and  from every economic segment of life. It meant working and getting acquainted with steel workers, alcoholics, addicts. prostitutes, cocktail hostesses, bartenders, cons, and sometimes even criminals, not to mention motorcyclists, pregnant and runaway teenagers.

I did some of my own research on the Presence of Grace by writing  a paper for the course  “Church and the City” on the Feasibility of a Ministry to the Prostitutes on the Rock Island Strip. I would sit at the “Rock Around the Clock” restaurant and interview women who were waiting for their next trick.  I often discovered that they too knew of a loving presence even though they often didn’t call it God.

After seminary and ordination in Christ Chapel, I took a call to a changing neighborhood parish in Ft.Worth, Texas and lived in a very diverse community, racially and economically. There was a varied  presence with the spiritual histories of the African Americans and Latinos and that presence  seemed powerfully present in their souls.

The  church I served didn’t survive the riots of the late 60’s after a white bus driver shot an acting out teenager  in front of the church and the white members feared returning on most Sunday mornings.

The LCA sent me to the Urban Training Center in Chicago for a month where the first week was spent on the streets of Chicago, homeless and with only a social security card. Our task for the month long experience was to develop communications relationships with 3 youth gangs and challenge them to become politically involved in there neighborhoods. Their passion was the survival of their families and their neighborhoods. Then I attended a Race Relations Seminar in Nashville, where some angry people burned the Macdonalds across the street, yet there was a powerful ecumenical presence in the Priests, Nuns and religious people from every culture and tradition.The Grace of God was a powerful connection.

My God got bigger and bigger realizing that Real Presence was in each one of these people regardless of what they called it. (especially the homeless and the gang members) Our Christ was not exclusive to us Christians and for many from other traditions the Real Presence was available to all, even Muslims and Buddhists and folks with no awareness of tradition.

So after two years in s Lutheran parish I ventured to become the first Crisis Intervention Unit for the Ft. Worth P.D. Each night I  responded to suicide attempts, domestic disturbances, and abandon/abused children. In between I would deal with the homeless and runaways. I was either praying on the way to a suicide attempt or hanging out in some bar talking to some disturbed or angry drunk who usually was carrying a piece. People on the street needed programs for depended neglected and  runaway youth, as well as, drug programs and  counseling. Everyone was in need of knowing a Real Presence. A couple of times Grace meant walking down the barrel of a gun knowing that Presence would keep me safe. Our worship became a meeting in a night club on Sunday afternoon ( before the bar opened). The worship related to street people, cops, and bartenders and others who usually slept on Sunday morning or who were on the street most of each night. They were all hungry for Grace, hungry to know they were loved no matter what they had done or who they were.

I took a call to a parish In Berkeley, Calif. which  was somewhat diverse, but still very exclusive Lutheran.  The church got involved with the Food and Shelter Project, serving the homeless, which often brought Berkeley professors and their families together with the homeless from Telegraph Avenue.Those relationships expanded the Presence of Grace for many of the members and the seminary students from the seminary close by. Grace went beyond the Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists,and Episcopalians involved in the Project.

Since my move back to Texas, 20 years ago, I have experienced a Real Presence with the incarcerated in The Bastrop Federal Prison, the Austin State Jail, and the Travis County Jail. Four of us therapists ran groups for men and women from every culture and crime. They came from drug cartels and gangs with numerous religious traditions.  Many found a Presence in their relationships with each other and their developed communities. There seemed to be a strong connection in their relationships with each other and the connection went beyond money and drugs.

I have sat with people in therapy for 22 years now, helping them too know how to survive emotional fusion and codependency. Many would  find a sponsor/and loving presence within themselves and some discovered that God is no farther away than their next breath or their next prayer  or their next Yoga session. They didn’t have to join a church,  synagogue, Mosque,or become “born again”. They didn’t have to commit to some tradition in order to become loved, forgiven or understood.

Alanon has been gift in my life for the past 4 years. There everyones God is a Higher Power and it is about God “as we know him/her”. and that doesn’t seem to divide people like some denominations and religions seem to do. In the Twelve Step Program there is no judgement and no cross talk, just Grace.

Thanks to Tlielard De Chardan, H Richard Niebuhr, Matthew Fox (Creation Centered Spirituality), A.D. Mattson and others of my heros; my God has become as big as the universe and that Grace Presence is in all of life. Time in China,The Amazon Jungle,and Africa has helped me to discover that Grace is Present in all people regardless of what they call it. My current mentor is a poet named Mary Oliver. She knows this also and captures this real Presence in all her work .

It is important to us Lutherans to remember that our baptism was an “outward sign of an inward union”. That union was there at our birth and the presence is in all of life.

One of these days I get to chase Grace into another exciting world, A Real Presence only known in the Light of the World. And, by the way, I realize I really don’t have to chase Grace. It is always in the next nanosecond. Looking forward!!                   Steve


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