It was not until Aug. 7, 1970, when his brother, Ken, was buried alive while sand-surfing down a Michigan dune, that Steve Klemz began to lean toward the ministry.
Sure, young Steve was reared in a devout Lutheran home. He took religious education classes every Saturday for four years, spent his summers at church youth camps, was comfortable leading prayers and was confirmed in the faith.
Indeed, church was in his bones.
But that dark night, the all-American kid with dreams of playing professional baseball sat under an oak tree and demanded that God explain why this had happened to his brother.
Klemz did not have an electrifying epiphany but sensed a comforting divine presence, he recalls, and heard a voice that whispered: “Hush, my son, I am the Lord your God and will never leave you or forsake you.”
It was like “being enveloped,” he says, “by how good the good news really is.”
Flash forward nearly 50 years to July 1. Pastor Klemz has spent his life sharing that good news and now is retiring from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City, after serving that congregation for 28 years.
During those decades in the Beehive State, the 69-year-old Klemz, a self-described “junkie for the Gospel of John,” has worked tirelessly on social justice issues, including capital punishment, civil rights and immigration reform, as well as helped create the Interfaith Roundtable to bring together religious leaders from many faiths at the time of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a camaraderie that has continued to this day.
Two years ago, Klemz began joining community activist Pamela Atkinson in her morning devotions among the unsheltered.
“Pastor Steve always arrived early and talked with everyone in line, even remembering their names — we usually have 40 to 50 people in attendance. He always engaged the guests by asking questions, listening carefully and responding respectfully,” Atkinson says. “He epitomizes the teachings of Jesus Christ with his love, his obvious pleasure with all that he does, and his delight with serving others.”
For Klemz, the devotionals with the homeless have been life changing.
“This is my biggest surprise in ministry,” he says. “Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus said it would be this way — that we would see him as we attended to those who are least among us.”
Still, Klemz does not take himself too seriously.
He is an “obnoxious Notre Dame fan” and a “hopeless Chicago Cubs fan” who confesses he once had his wife make his favorite Scottish cookies for the congregation emblazoned with a “C,” which most took to stand for Christ.
Nope, it stood for the Cubs.
Building character, community
Klemz grew up in Indiana, a few miles from the flagship Catholic university, Notre Dame, where he developed his great love for the school and its teams. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University, a small Lutheran school in Indiana, with a double major in sociology and theology.
While in college, Klemz was recruited to play for the Elkhart Shamrocks, a semi-pro team. He was on the squad from 1971 to 1973, and, after going 0-21 at the plate during his second season, knew that baseball was probably not his best career path.
In 1974, he married Paula Winzer and then it was off to the Christ Seminary-Seminex in St. Louis to become a Lutheran pastor.
After two years, Klemz was assigned to serve as an intern at Our Savior Lutheran Church in a predominantly Black neighborhood on the city’s north side.
“My first hospital call was about a member of our church who was beaten up by police,” he says. “At least 22 people saw it.”
At that time, “when you get beaten up by police, they charge you with assault,” he says. “[The victim] was handcuffed to the bed rails, but there was a key nearby.”
He told Klemz, “They want me to try to escape so they can shoot me.”
That clash propelled him into activism — he co-founded a community organization to address these ills.
The day after the young intern graduated from seminary and was ordained in 1979, he became the church’s pastor.
“I experienced grinding poverty, raw racism, the violent death of too many young men, and the debilitating results of redlining,” Klemz says. “I also experienced the gospel, where people always watched out for me.”
Then the family, which by then included two daughters, moved to Gethsemane Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., where Lutheran churches are as common as Latter-day Saint chapels in Utah.
The mostly white, middle-class suburban congregation was as different from St. Louis as anyone could imagine.
Still, Klemz pushed congregants to participate in a “Loaves and Fishes, Too” project, a ministry begun by Catholic activist Dorothy Day in the 1920s to feed those in need with warm hospitality.
It was in St. Paul that Klemz took his first mission trip to East Africa, launching a longtime connection to the continent and its spirituality.
In Tanzania, he encountered a deep notion of hospitality with “karibu,” the formal word for “welcome,” which means, “won’t you please come into my space so that I may share that which is of value to me.”
The saying “bega kwa bega” is translated as “hand in hand or shoulder to shoulder” and has taught the pastor the “meaning of accompaniment, walking together as partners in the gospel and life.”
Tanzania, he says, is my “holy ground.”
Life in Zion
Minnesota “was suffocating,” Klemz says. “I was the outreach minister, and there were so many Lutherans.”
When he got a job offer from Utah, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so dominant, he thought “it might mean something to be a Lutheran.”
Klemz arrived in Salt Lake City in 1992, with his wife and daughters and set out to implement his ideas about hospitality.
He oversaw dramatic expansion at his church — renovated the space to include a place to take in homeless families with showers, washers and dryers, added a new children’s ministry, enlarged the musical offerings, and became a “Reconciling in Christ congregation,” which “endorses actions and attitudes within the church that assure access to ‘Word and Sacrament’ regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, race, socioeconomic or marital status, physical or mental capacities.”
After his marriage fell apart in 2001, he met and wed Norma Gonzalez Klemz, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, adopted her two kids, and then together they adopted their grandchild.
It was this marriage that thrust Klemz into the immigration debate in a personal and professional way.
During his years at the blue church on Foothill Drive, Klemz has established and maintained friendships across denominations and faith traditions — including Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, all forms of Protestants from conservatives to liberals, and LDS (Zion’s organist, for instance, is a Latter-day Saint).
Jean Hill of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City will miss partnering with Klemz in support of immigrants.
“His compassion, intelligence and genuine kindness will be missed,” Hill says, “as well as his enduring love for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.”
The Rev. Curtis Price of the First Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and Klemz traveled together to Washington, D.C., to lobby for immigration reform.
“On that trip, we were part of an action outside of [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz’s office and almost got arrested,” Price recalls with pride.
As pastor, Klemz “is one of the most compassionate and pastorally caring people I know. As a scholar, he is unendingly curious and well read,” the Baptist cleric says. “As a preacher, he is thoughtful and engaging. As an advocate for justice, he is committed and courageous.”
For his part, Klemz has mixed emotions about stepping away from the pulpit after such a remarkable run.
“This is grace, to walk with my community of faith, sharing our joys, and when one of us is in sorrow, we all taste salt,” he says in a message to his congregation. “And we walk together, feeling as if we have needed every hymn, every liturgy, every Bible reading, every prayer, every song, every sermon, every act of kindness, every greeting of peace to comfort one another.”
Pastoral ministry is not “something to be achieved or attained,” says the Lutheran clergyman. “It comes as a gift, a grace that is not of my own doing.”
When Klemz speaks, “we all listen,” says the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, senior pastor at the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. “His quiet demeanor demands attention. Well, he’s reserved except when attention turns to Notre Dame sports. Then he’s like a 20-year-old cheerleader.”
Klemz also “is probably the best racquetball player in the clergy biz,” Goldsmith jokes. “He makes sure we all know that.”
He is, the Unitarian minister says, “a wonderful combination of seasoned theologian and enthusiastic sports nut.”
What will Klemz do in retirement?
“I will intentionally listen and attend to the spirit, discovering anew who I am as Steve, rather than Pastor Steve,” he says.
Klemz hopes to “discover anew what it means to be fully present with my family,” he says, “even when it means camping on a Sunday morning.”
Still, it is in his “spiritual DNA,” he says, to be “feeding the hungry, calming the troubled, welcoming the stranger — or whatever else those who are least among us may from time to time require.”
Whether in active ministry or relaxing retirement, Klemz says that will not change.