Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Old church has new mission


Cheryl Jeffries, left, prays with pastoral intern Abby D Ambruoso at Salem Lutheran Church.

The Blade/Lori King
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Turnip greens and macaroni casserole for the body, prayers and Bible study for the soul.

Salem Lutheran Church is striving to meet the needs of the community in as many ways as possible.

"It's about how we can bless these people and bless this city. It's really about Jesus," said Abby D'Ambruoso, pastoral intern.

Salem is the oldest Lutheran church in Toledo, founded in the historic Vistula neighborhood in 1842 as a German Lutheran congregation. It's so old that St. Paul's Lutheran on Erie Street, now celebrating its 150th anniversary, is one of Salem's "daughter churches."

The brick building on Huron Street, with arched stained-glass windows and a towering steeple, offers programs just about every day of the week.

The neighborhood of wood-frame houses with big porches and small patches of lawn is a rough one, less than a mile from where Det. Keith Dressel was shot to death in February.

The neighborhood unemployment rate is 60 percent, according to Mrs. D'Ambruoso. "And that's only the employable. Far more than that are not working and considered not employable."

The Rev. Mary Lou Baumgartner, pastor of Salem Lutheran for 17 years, oversees a number of outreach programs, including a soup kitchen and community vegetable garden, clothing giveaways, Vacation Bible Schools, and children's programs.

Mrs. D'Ambruoso, 26, a seminarian originally from the state of Oregon, arrived in Toledo last August for a one-year internship and lives in the second floor of the parish house, next to the church, with her husband, Will.

Bright-eyed and energetic, with boundless ideas for making the world a better place, Mrs. D'Ambruoso's inner-city internship has taught her things she never learned in her studies at St. Olaf College or Pacific Lutheran Seminary.

"It's one thing to read about poverty and hunger in the United States. It's another thing for somebody to come and knock on your door on a cold winter day and say, 'I have no money for food and the kids are hungry,'•" she said.

She invited the woman inside.

"It was cold and she said she had no heat in her house. She had five kids. I didn't know her from anybody but I brought her upstairs into my house," she said. "We sat at the kitchen table and had a cup of tea. I ended up sending her home with two bags of groceries that came out of my cupboard. It's not that I have a ton of money - I'm an intern - but I had enough to share."

The point of the story, Mrs. D'Ambruoso said, is that people who have been blessed should "open their hearts and open their hands" to bless others.

The obstacles that are faced by the poor and hungry are complex and not easily solved, she added.

Salem provides free meals on Tuesday nights for between 60 and 300 people, depending on the time of month; lunches on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and a continental breakfast on Sunday mornings.

But Mrs. D'Ambruoso is seeking to prevent poverty and hunger and homelessness from arising in the first place.

"You can't just put someone in their new house and say, 'OK, there go! Now you're life's going to be perfect!' It's so much more than that. There's a breakdown of the system. Education is failing our children. Education is failing our city. Unemployment is something that's really been brought home to me this year."

Seemingly little things can add to the problems, in ways that most people don't realize, she said.

"I remember when I first got here from Berkeley [Calif.]. There were ambulances going all the time. Now there are fireworks going 'til 10, 11, 12 at night. Pervasive noise is a part of the problem. If you can't get a good night's sleep, how much more is your temper going to rise? How much less will you perform at your job? Where you live makes a big difference," she said.

She is one of 25 Horizon interns in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, assigned to urban, inner-city, or rural churches to broaden their horizons.

"Most ELCA seminarians, like me, come from middle-class backgrounds, middle-class lifestyles, and middle-class perspectives," she said. "For the typical seminarian, Salem's neighborhood is more foreign than many foreign countries."

Mrs. D'Ambruoso has preached about two Sundays a month during her internship, recently addressing the topic "Care of Creation."

"How we treat the environment affects other people. If we throw poison into the water it's going to come back and affect our neighbors downstream," she said. "And it affects not only ourselves and our neighbors, but future generations as well."

In the church's side lot, Mrs. D'Ambruoso tends a series of small gardens, some bursting with flowers and others overflowing with vegetables and herbs.

She fills up grocery bags full of cabbages, acorn squash, zucchini, cucumbers, egg plant, broccoli, basil, and more, which are given to the neighbors.

"Greens are real popular," she said. "And tomatoes are a big hit with the kids."

Most of the plants are thriving, but Mrs. D'Ambruoso scowls at a droopy patch of peas.

"The peas, they're not doing so well," she said.

She breaks off a piece of arugula leaf. "Here, taste this. It's peppery."

Many of the neighborhood children are eager to pitch in with the gardening, she said.

"They ask me, 'Pastor Abby, can I help?' It's not the tidiest garden, but that's OK. The kids have a blast with it," Mrs. D'Ambruoso said.

Salem is a small church and getting smaller, however.

In 1999, more than 130 people attended Sunday services. Today, the number is less than 60.

By some measurements, Salem's future might be in jeopardy. But a number of other churches, both Lutheran and other denominations, as well as the denomination's local synod, see the church as a lighthouse in a stormy neighborhood.

The churches and groups provide volunteers and finances to bolster Salem's mission to the inner-city.

"The ministry they do at Salem, oh my goodness, it's amazing," said Burt Sigley, treasurer of the Toledo Area Lutheran Coalition, which helps fund the church's intern program.

He said the internship costs the denomination $25,000 a year, of which the national office, the local synod, and the Toledo Area Lutheran Coaltion all pay one third.

"Mary Lou Baumgartner is just so committed to the mission of Salem, and Abby does a fine job," he said. "The program gives a seminary intern the opportunity to minister in a neighborhood such as Salem's."

Whether the church's attendance grows, levels off, or declines, however, the neighborhood's needs remain urgent.

"There have been questions. 'Will Salem be here in 10 years?'" Mrs. D'Ambruoso said. "And the neighborhood continually says, 'You have to be here. You cannot leave. What would we do without this church?'"

- David Yonke

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