How does a Puerto Rican girl with bad grades, raised in the Pentecostal church, become the first woman, and the first person of color, elected as the Lutheran bishop of Metro D.C.?
God called her, that’s how.
“I was born in Puerto Rico,” she said. “My family brought me to the Bronx when I was 2. They sent me back when I was 13, and I stayed there until I was 21.”
Leila Ortiz studied psychology at the University of Puerto Rico, but life interrupted her studies.
“I was an only child, a freshman,” she said, “working part-time, going to school full-time, going to a Pentecostal church six days a week — because that was where I was happiest. Then my mother became ill, and I was going to the hospital every day.
“After 3 years of that, I had gone from being an honor student to academic probation.
“One night at dinner, I finally told my parents what was going on. That night, it was decided that I would be leaving two weeks later,” she said.
Leila went back to the Bronx, staying with her aunt while she charted her course. She wanted to attend Hunter College, a public institution with a renowned program in Puerto Rican history, but her English was not good enough for admission. Instead, she enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, improving her English reading and composition skills.
All the while, she was also doing ministry in the Bronx. Her aunt’s husband was pastor at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Highbridge, one of the first Lutheran congregations in New York City to conduct services in Spanish.
“I didn’t really love what was happening in the church,” she admitted. “It was very different. I was raised in a Pentecostal church where the music was Latin-flavored, with drums and guitars. When I came to this Lutheran church, there was just the organ.
“I went to the basement, where the kids were, and since I had been a youth director in Puerto Rico since I was 15, I started teaching these eight kids what I knew. The kids enjoyed it so much, they started inviting their friends. By the end of the year, we had brought 17 new families into the congregation.
“The pastor, my aunt’s husband, said, ‘Maybe you have a call [to the ministry],’ and that felt right.”
The pastor connected Leila with David Andrada, assistant to the bishop for the Metro New York Synod.
“It turned out that he knew my aunt and my mother,” she said. “They were raised together in the Pentecostal church.
“He told me about the Uppsala Scholarship, a program for people of color or whose first language was not English, where you would finish your B.A. at Wagner College and go to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. It covered everything — tuition, room and board, books.”
That’s how Leila Ortiz came from Puerto Rico, to the Bronx, to Grymes Hill.
“By the grace of God, I came back to myself,” she said, “and was able to graduate with honors.
“I think of Wagner, I think of the best years of my life.”
As an Uppsala scholar, Leila became involved with Wagner’s Wednesday night chapel program.
“Even though I still didn’t really understand Lutheran theology, Lutheran anything,” she said, “that was my first introduction to Lutheran liturgy.
“Seminary was actually where I had my conversion moment.”
In Philadelphia, Leila started learning about the teachings of Martin Luther. During her second semester at seminary, one of her professors was lecturing on the Lutheran doctrines of justification and election — but she just wasn’t getting it.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘During these last three weeks I’ve been turning in papers, and almost every paragraph is marked with a red sad face,’ ” she said. “My thinking about God was always conditional — if I do this, God will do that.”
One day, Leila’s professor pointed to her side of the classroom, saying, “When you understand that God chose for you to be saved, and that you did not choose your own salvation, then you will understand God’s amazing grace.”
“That was my moment,” she said.
Looking around the classroom, she realized that this was routine stuff for everyone else, “but for me, it rocked my world. That’s when I said to myself, ‘This is why I’m here.’ ”
During her third year of seminary, she was expected to serve in a pastoral internship, something she was looking forward to.
“I remember thinking, ‘Yes, this is who I’m supposed to be, this is what I’m supposed to do,’ ” she said, “ ‘to preach and teach and evangelize and engage the people where they are.’ ”
But some of her professors saw something else in her. A month before she was to begin her internship, they approached her and said, “Leila, we think you have a gift for teaching, and we want you to consider Ph.D. studies. We’ll cover the expense.”
“I was humbled,” she said, “but I just wanted to be a pastor — and my internship confirmed that.”
But her professors persisted, approaching her again when she returned to seminary for her senior year.
“I was raised to be obedient,” Leila said, “especially to people I admired. I trusted the external call, rather than what was happening within me, so I said ‘Yes.’ ”
She did the coursework for her doctorate, and her dissertation proposal was approved — “but I still wanted to be a pastor,” Leila said.
A presentation she made in Washington on her dissertation topic drew the attention of an assistant to the bishop. During their conversation, Leila acknowledged that she was reaching the end of a three-year period during which she had to choose between ordination and a scholarly career.
The assistant encouraged Leila to get ordained, continuing to work on her dissertation while she began pastoral work. She was ordained in 2013; three years later she joined the D.C. synod staff — and then, in June 2019, a synod assembly changed her life.
“I’m amazed at the speed with which all of this happened,” she said.
In the runup to the 2019 synod assembly, with the current bishop’s term expiring, Leila had been committed to supporting the candidacy of one of her colleagues in the synod office. But in February, an opportunity for that colleague opened up in the denomination’s national office in Chicago — and when the assembly opened in June, Leila Ortiz was nominated in the first ballot by a number of her peers.
“I had only been ordained for 6 years,” she said, recounting the reasons why she had felt it was unlikely she would actually be elected bishop. “I’m younger than most previous bishops; I’m a woman of color; I come from a different denomination; I have a different world view, and I’m fairly new to the church.”
But the balloting continued, and she was always one of the candidates leading the pack. Finally, with the fifth ballot, the Rev. Leila M. Ortiz was named bishop-elect.
“I knew that, when I was called, something was up,” she said. “It had to be a move of the Holy Spirit; other than that, it didn’t make a lot of sense.”
She was installed as bishop on Sept. 1, 2019 — six months before Covid-19 turned life upside down.
“If it was already difficult to be bishop,” she said, “Covid made it even more complex.
“The challenge has been how to co-create a new normal, and participate in that which is holy for the sake of healing and wholeness … a space of respite that can hold the reality that we’re all living through right now.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s also been a humongous gift,” she said. “We’ve never seen this experience before, and hopefully we’ll never see it again — but we have been called for such a time as this. I’m grateful for that.”
The publication of this story on the web is an extended version of the original which appeared in the print issue of the magazine.