Obituary: The Rev. Lyle Christianson became activist for social justice

  • Article by: BRANDON STAHL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 28, 2014 - 7:51 PM

He intended to study physics, wondering if science and religion could be melded together. But the more he studied, the more Lyle Christianson felt a calling to go into ministry. He eventually became a Methodist minister and by the time he retired in 1991 he presided over Minnesota churches that were open to all people, including gays and lesbians.

After he died on April 16 at the age of 87, a former partner of one Christianson’s nieces sent the family a card saying how in the 1970s, the minister was one of the first to welcome her into a church.

“He embraced her as a member of his own family,” said Christianson’s daughter, Janet Johnson.

Christianson was heavily influenced by a former professor, Paul Tillich, a German-American theologian and philosopher. Christianson would often repeat the words that Tillich taught him, “Teach your congregation that you are accepted,” said the Rev. Ken Rice, a retired Methodist minister in Roseville.

Christianson was also influenced by his experiences during World War II, said his son, Paul Christianson. He was drafted, and served in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in Germany. Paul Christianson said his father knew his life was probably saved by the dropping of the atomic bomb, but he also lost a friend from high school to the war.

“Saying goodbye to a friend shaped his desire to wage peace in the world,” Paul Christianson said.

During his ministry, both he and his wife, Dorothy Anne, became active in social justice and peace movements, taking numerous trips to the Middle East to advocate on those issues. He went to several national Methodist conferences where he advocated for support of gays and lesbians in worship. He helped bring a group of farmers from lands ravaged by famine in Africa to Minnesota. Having grown up on a farm near Crookston, he taught them growing techniques they could take back with them, said another Christianson son, David.

His laugh and sense of humor were infectious, said his daughter Janet. He dressed up as Lena with his grandson to perform Ole and Lena routines. He once took pictures of misshapen carrots he grew in his garden and used them in a slide show he presented to other pastors as symbolizing them. He was known for driving a 1956 Ford willed to him by a parishioner. At one point, said his daughter, it would only drive backward, so he drove it that way for three blocks to his mechanic’s shop.

Following his retirement from the ministry, he became the field director of a union that assisted with church construction projects. He also became more focused on social justice. In 1995 he helped found and became one of the first presidents of Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers, a consortium of peace and justice organizations that has now grown to over 70 members.

“He was not an on-the-sidelines kind of person,” said Dick Bernard, who worked with him at Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers. “If there was something to be done, Lyle was willing to step in and do it.”

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, doesn’t remember exactly how he met Christianson. But after the two become friends, Marty said, the minister made a lasting impression on him.

“I saw him as a mentor for the type of person you wanted to be,” Marty said. “I cannot picture Lyle having enemies. He cared about everybody.”

Christianson also is survived by his daughter Diane, a brother, Wallace, and eight grandchildren.

At his memorial service on Saturday, May 3, at United Methodist Church in Roseville, the bulletin will feature a Bible verse Christianson recited often, and the one Rice said personified him best: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

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