(RNS) — A Lutheran pastor who is among the 18 people indicted alongside former President Donald Trump on charges of trying to interfere in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia returned to his pulpit on Sunday, preaching to the small Illinois congregation just days after his arrest.
The Rev. Stephen Lee, an emeritus Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor, was the last of the 19 defendants to surrender at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia. Lee appears in his mugshot wearing a clerical collar.
Lee preached Sunday at the Living Word Lutheran Church in Orland Park, a southwest Chicago suburb, where he is serving as an interim pastor. He did not directly discuss the arrest or indictment during the service, which was livestreamed on YouTube — but made veiled references to his situation.
He began the service by launching into an impromptu reading of a passage from the New Testament’s Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, which has become popular with prominent conservatives in recent years. The section Lee read calls on believers to “put on the full armor of God” in order to “struggle” against “rulers” and “the powers of this dark world.” Ephesians was not among the Bible lessons slated for Sunday’s services, according to the LCMS lectionary, the official schedule of readings.
Lee appeared to grow emotional as he read the passage’s conclusion: “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given to me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.”
The pastor also appeared to allude to his arrest at the beginning of his sermon, when he praised the congregation and repeatedly thanked those in attendance who had prepared in case of his absence.
Lee was originally expected to remain in the Fulton County Jail after his surrender on Friday (Aug. 25), as he was initially unable to pay for a bond on his $75,000 bail. According to reports, Lee’s $7,500 bond was raised after podcaster and longtime Trump supporter Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, half of the onetime duo “Diamond and Silk,” urged listeners of her podcast to contribute.
Lee is alleged to have attempted to influence a Georgia election worker in December 2020, after Trump accused her and another election worker of election fraud. Police body camera footage shows Lee acknowledging that he knocked on the door of Ruby Freeman, prosecutors say, as part of a larger effort in which defendants “unlawfully conspired and endeavored to conduct and participate in criminal enterprise in Fulton County, Georgia, and elsewhere.”
In the same police footage, Lee is seen explaining he is also “prior law enforcement,” saying he was a “sergeant out in California.” According to Reuters, Lee served in the Mendocino County, California, sheriff’s department and provided chaplaincy support to police officers in New York City. However, an NYPD spokesperson clarified to Religion News Service earlier this month that Lee “has not been employed as an NYPD Chaplain.”
His lawyer has said Lee is innocent of the charges, telling reporters that Lee’s actions don’t amount to a crime. “You have a pastor being indicted for knocking on a door,” attorney David Shestokas told CBS News. “For them to try and tie him to this criminal enterprise is just an incredible, incredible stretch.”
Nearly 20,000 people have signed a petition organized by the advocacy group Faithful America calling on Lee’s denomination, the second largest of three major Lutheran groups in the U.S., to expel Lee because of his arrest, but it’s unclear whether Lee will face any repercussions.
Reached by RNS on Friday, after Lee surrendered to Georgia authorities, a spokesperson for the LCMS Northern Illinois District — the body that oversees Lee’s church — noted that Lee is “a retired pastor in the LCMS,” which the denomination refers to as “emeritus status.”
The spokesperson did not comment on whether Lee will continue to serve as a pastor in the district, saying only that “with respect to what is going on in the investigation, we have a policy of not commenting on any investigation.”
A spokesperson for the LCMS’ national office did not respond to inquiries.
Shortly after Lee was indicted in mid-August, a person answering Living Word’s phone line told RNS Lee was no longer the church’s pastor. However, Lee appeared in the pulpit later that week as well.
At the end of the church service this past Sunday, a church leader noted that the congregation is actively searching for a permanent pastor.