Rev. Kevin Vandiver noticed the woman at the back of the sanctuary. She most always attended services but rarely participated. It didn’t take a lengthy investigation with his New York City congregation to determine that she was deaf. She was a part of the community, but often found herself on the outside because of the language barrier.
When Vandiver suggested the church bring in an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, he met some resistance, particularly due to the cost. But the pastor persisted and over time, he won. After ASL services became part of the service, the congregant grew more involved, becoming a part of the community.
After she passed away, her family made a point of seeking out Vandiver to tell him how much this had mattered. “You made a huge difference for her,” they told him. “You really changed things for her, in this church and in her life.”
Matt Fuehrmeyer recounted this story, which he heard during the search for a new Senior Pastor for the Lutheran Church of the Reformation (212 East Capitol St. NE). Fuehrmeyer said he admired that Vandiver did not view the woman as embodying a new demographic that could broaden the base of the church.
“He saw one person who needed the church to open its arms a little bit wider–and he made it happen. That was the kind of energy that I wanted a new pastor to bring to the congregation,” Fuehrmeyer said.
The rest of the Reformation Call Committee agreed. In January, nearly a year after Pastor Michael Wilker departed the church, Pastor Kevin Vandiver came to lead the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. He was invested on Feb. 12.
Vandiver was born into a Baptist family in Anderson, South Carolina.
“We did not come from much,” Vandiver said of himself and his younger sister, “but there was a lot of love in the house and a lot of encouragement from my mother that we could do what we wanted to do in our lives if we just would imagine it.” He did just that.
Vandiver was inclined toward the church from an early age; as he built forts in the woods near his home with his older cousins, he demanded they make space for worship. “I would tell them they had to put a church inside,” he recalls, “and I’d make them sit down and I’d preach to them. And so, it was not far from the beaten path to get where I am today.”
Not far, but with a lot of work along the road. Vandiver graduated from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC, with a B.A. in Music. He earned his Master of Divinity from the Duke University Divinity School in 2014, where he was a Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholar.
It was during this time that Vandiver’s leanings toward Lutheranism began to grow, thanks in part to the friendships he had formed in college. A Buzzfeed quiz he took around this time purported to match the taker with the denomination closest to their beliefs, and it came back as Lutheran.
However, Vandiver initially balked at the complicated process involved in becoming a minister of the ELCA. Instead, he joined an enrichment program that served underprivileged kids in a number of east coast communities.
At Christ Lutheran in South, NC, Vandiver found a role as the church started hosting the program, with its largely Brown and Black attendees. The Director of Outreach told him, “They [the students] need somebody who looks like you,” and introduced him to the senior pastor. That call committee hired him in four days.
He worked towards ordination at Christ Lutheran; then was to Riverside Church in New York City, going on to found a church “plant” in Harlem. In 2020, he was requested as the assistant to the Bishop of Metropolitan New York Synod before coming to Reformation and the District.
He met his spouse, Dr. Marci J. Vandiver, herself an author, speaker and tenured professor at Towson University in Maryland, in South Carolina. They have two young children.
Vandiver is tall, nearly NBA tall, a fact emphasized by the long line of his purple sash of office. On this year’s gray-skied Ash Wednesday, he sat at the top of the steps of Reformation, taking the open-door policy to its logical extension by placing himself out of doors.
As a young woman approached, he quietly murmured the rite as he gently drew the cross on her forehead. At the top of the steps, he is a calm, quiet, observant presence; behind the pulpit, he is amplified and animated. His sermons are ”empowering, frank, elegant, theologically grounded and challenging,” said Sarah Stauderman, a Reformation congregant and member of the Call Committee.
Those sermons are informed by Vandiver’s energy and experience as well as a great deal of academic work. Vandiver is currently a PhD candidate in Practical Theology with a specialty in Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary.
He is still getting familiar with the church and the neighborhood. With the church staff, he has gone out for lunch to local spots, such as the Hawk and Dove. “Everywhere you turn there’s a new adventure,” Vandiver said. “Just little gems to discover.”
Vandiver said he considers himself a big picture thinker, a person who helps to shape community. The “big ‘C’ church is in a pivotal place,” he said, noting that demographers say American Protestantism is on the decline. Reformation is in a unique place to bring the gospel to people in new and exciting ways, he adds.
Tradition and Reformation
Reformation is a church and a congregation known for their history of opening the church to the community. The church has provided a base for activism and acceptance. The church sheltered participants in the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice in 1963. In 2017, the church was a safe haven for participants in the Women’s March, and the next day opened its doors to attendees at President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“We must model Christ to the world,” Vandiver said. “That’s our mandate.” But, he adds, it’s important to be clear about who the church is as a community, and maintaining it as a safe space and haven for those people who have been “the last, the lost and the least.”
In that way, the new church leader carries on Reformation tradition. But he is also a break with it: in more than 150 years of church history, nearly a century in the East Capitol edifice, Kevin Vandiver is Reformation’s first Black Senior Pastor.
He is unusual not only in the Lutheran clergy but also in church membership overall. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has been working to diversify. In 1993, they vowed to ensure that at least 10 percent of congregants would be not-White, a goal that, according to data from Pew, remains unmet.
Members of the Call Committee say they wanted to ensure that the values of the church and congregation were reflected in the choice of a new Senior Pastor. “We’ve been preaching change for a long time,” Stauderman said, “and I think we thought that Pastor Kevin was the embodiment of that.”
Fuehrmeyer said that Rev. Vandiver addressed this question head-on in interviews, telling the committee the church had a lot more work to do to become a more open and welcoming place, “and that calling a Black pastor isn’t going to be some kind of instant fix.” Fuehrmeyer said that while he doesn’t think the Call Committee labored under any such delusion, Vandiver demonstrated during the interview process that he was a good fit to walk with them on that journey.
“I just preached about it on Sunday,” Vandiver said, when asked how important it was to be “first” here. “Maybe it will open up ways of people–not just folks who are Black, but for other folks who can see the visible manifestations of the heart of openness that the people of Reformation have and have had.”
Vandiver says he is excited about the future and looking forward to the ways that his gifts will mesh with those of the congregation. He said his goal is to really put emphasis on walking with Reformation to “places unknown.”
He said so in his brief remarks during his investiture service, quoting 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Eyes have not seen; ears have not heard; neither has it entered into our hearts the things that God has prepared for us,” before saying that he can feel that God is going to do something marvelous.
“So, thank you,” he concluded. “I’ll pray for you, and I want you to pray for me.”