On July 12, Alvera Mickelsen died peacefully in Saint Paul, MN at the age of ninety-seven. A founder of CBE and its first board chair, Alvera was a prophetic theologian and gracious ambassador of biblical gender equality.
I first met Alvera while I was a seminary student attending CBE’s 1991 Colorado conference. There I shared a bunk bed with Alvera; she was in the bottom bunk and I in the top. After a busy day of lecturing, and developing and promoting books, Alvera tried to slip into bed, only to have students, staff, or board members stop by her bunk to discuss an idea or a problem. Alvera was deeply engaged with each person, despite her fatigue. There and always, Alvera distinguished herself by listening attentively to everyone. To her, everyone was created in God’s image, so everyone had something significant to contribute, regardless of age or education or circumstances.
Alvera was a people’s theologian, bending her enormous talents toward fanning into flames God’s gifts and call in everyone’s lives. And, she was enormously successful because she was far more interested in seeing everyone become an advocate for biblical justice than she was in her own success or reputation. She had no need to do it all herself. Her holy self-disinterest was wildly empowering.
As the people’s theologian, she was adept at communicating not only with those who sincerely wanted to learn but also with some who were antagonistic. Without exception, she extended dignified treatment to everyone. During one lecture a man asked, “Where in the Bible does it say husbands and wives share authority?” Smiling and giggling, Alvera invited him to read aloud 1 Corinthians 7:4, where Paul discusses the authority husbands and wives have over each other’s bodies. No need to evoke the Greek or ancient manuscripts. As a people’s theologian, Alvera preferred to make her point using the English Bibles familiar to everyone.
Her popular approach made Alvera the perfect “Bible Answer Lady.” Once, on Christian radio at the Minnesota State Fair, she convinced thousands that you could be a Christian and also a feminist. One man questioned whether it was possible, and she responded by asking him to read aloud the definition of a feminist: “A feminist is someone who supports the political, economic, and professional equality of women.” He said, “Well, I agree with that!”
“Well, great! Then you’re a feminist” Alvera replied.
As a people’s theologian, Alvera enjoyed pointing out the obvious in Scripture. In her article, “Did Paul Really Practice What He Preached?,” Alvera made clear that a consistent reading of Scripture must respect that Paul worked alongside women leaders in the church. She insisted that their legacy should guide our reading of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, not the other way around. Alvera’s publishers appreciated the elegance of her pedagogy, which honored people’s capacity to read and understand the plain meaning of Scripture. For this reason, many of her books remain in print today.
Like Paul, Alvera joined hands with countless coworkers very different from herself, nurturing and emboldening their gifts and calling. And if you sat in Alvera’s nursing home room very long, you would have the pleasure of meeting some of these people—people like a friend who took three buses just to spend thirty minutes with her on a Sunday. The effort she made to express gratitude also revealed how God used Alvera to make real Christ’s love for all people, especially those on the fringes.
As Alvera entered hospice this year, she was assigned a pastor who had been one of her students. When he asked how he could pray for her, Alvera became his first patient ever to return the favor and pray for him!
During our visits, Alvera and I enjoyed reading The Message, a paraphrase that can bring Scripture to life for those who are very familiar with the text. As I read, and when a passage was expressed particularly well, Alvera would look at me with her sparkling blue eyes and say, “How wonderful!”
As she grew frail and had trouble keeping her eyes open, I continued to read and pray. The week she died, after I ended my prayer, Alvera lifted her head slightly and said, “Amen!” These were the last words I heard from her in this world.
In reading The Message days after she died, I came her across her likeness in Proverbs 4:18–19: “The ways of right-living people glow with light, the longer they live, the brighter they shine.” Alvera shined very brightly, and may it be so for us all.
To read more tributes to Alvera, visit the links below: