Our Story


From Old Swedish Church to Social Justice Advocates

Early History
St. Paul Swedish Lutheran Church began in downtown Oakland on December 19, 1886, with 13 people at the first service. In its early years, St. Paul sponsored many new congregations in the East Bay and founded Salem Lutheran Nursing Home. In the 1940s the church moved from downtown Oakland to Glenview, St. Paul’s current neighborhood, with the new church building opening in 1949. St. Paul’s congregational membership peaked in 1959 with 1,109.

A Turn toward Social Justice
Since the 1970s, St. Paul has been committed to social justice activism, including refugee resettlement. The Rev. Ross Merkel was called as pastor in 1982. At that time, St. Paul was a somewhat middle-of-the-road Lutheran church. Pastor Ross and a core group of congregants began to champion a series of changes that shifted St. Paul to a more justice-oriented focus, including a ministry of nursing and hospice care for people with AIDS, and full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in all aspects of congregational life.

Leadership in the Fight for LGBT+ Clergy
In 1983, St. Paul became one of the first Lutheran Churches in the United States to become a “Reconciling in Christ” (RIC) congregation. After Pastor Merkel was defrocked by the national ELCA in 1994 for being in a relationship with another man, St. Paul chose to retain him as its pastor. In 2009, the Sierra Pacific Synod council unanimously approved the reinstatement of Pastor Merkel to the ELCA clergy roster, and also approved the reception of other pastors on the Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM) roster, including two who had been interns and extraordinarily-ordained at St. Paul. Our welcoming and affirming activities have significantly defined who we are today.

St. Paul Today
In the fall of 2019, Pastor Holly McHale-Larsen became the senior pastor of St. Paul. Her creativity, energy, and sense of humor have helped us to weather and move beyond the pandemic. We are a church of activists, scholars, and musicians; of young children, retirees, and hard-working professionals. Pay us a visit in person or online!


In 1959 Pastor F. L. Lawson became pastor [of St. Paul], serving until 1981. During this time the community around the church stabilized and adjustment in planning and programming became necessary. Special emphasis on community outreach began and continues today. Pastor Lawson was the first young man in the history of our congregation to become ordained. Since then, four others within our membership were ordained. Our present pastor, Ross D. Merkel, assumed responsibilities on August 15, 1982. Since 1975 Ethiopians, Vietnamese, and Cambodian refugees were sponsored – we continue support for new refugees under Pastor Merkel’s guidance. Wednesday Supper and Education began in 1978 and continues. A Statement of Mission and Ministry was adopted in 1983. Senior citizen, youth and church women ministries continue. Since 1982 the church became a covenant congregation with Lutheran Human Relations Association of America, joined Lutherans Concerned, witness to the Gay/Lesbian communities, helped with community surveys on Asian ministry and contributes to local and world hunger, San Francisco/East Bay Urban Coalition, Salem Lutheran Home, Lutheran Social Services, synodical benevolence, supports refugee resettlement and the sanctuary churches through advocacy and the supply of physical needs. As we at St. Paul’s honor our Swedish heritage, we look forward to a beginning – another 100 years.

Written by member Alma Morten in 1986 for Swedish-American periodical Vestkusten, Number 13, October 6, 1986.