Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Church keeps spirit of community

Salem is focused on mission as other urban churches dwindle


Salem Lutheran Church in the historic Vistula area was founded in 1842, and the red brick building was rededicated in 1987.

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In the middle of the central city, a once-thriving church has been steadily deteriorating over the decades.

Once the pride and focal point of the neighborhood, the church has been losing members to the suburbs. A few holdouts live nearby, but the rest of the dwindling congregation only comes in once a week, commuting from the suburbs for the Sunday morning service.

It's a scenario found in all U.S. cities, in virtually all denominations.

And it's one that can draw either the ire or the endorsement of the Rev. Ruben Duran, program director for new congregations for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"We have 5,000 churches in the ELCA worshipping [with] less than 80 people on a Sunday morning, and almost 3,000 of them are in the city," Pastor Duran said from the denomination's headquarters in Chicago. "These urban congregations have varying degrees of investment, theologically and churchwise. There are different dynamics and we have to assess whether we have a chance to be the church there for people in those communities."

In other words, the key factor on whether a small urban church should continue is whether the congregation is part of the community in which it is located.

Old urban churches that are isolated from the neighbors and open their doors only for Sunday morning commuters are not long for this world if Pastor Duran has his way.

"I wish I could have the power to put in a newspaper under funeral news: 'Your church is dead. Give us the keys.' " he said.

Pastor Duran, a native of Peru who speaks passionately about churches and their mission, said he has witnessed too many worst-case examples of dying churches that refuse to give up the ghost.

"When I was assistant to the bishop in Chicago, there were places where people only go on Sunday. They unchain the doors -- not just unlock, but unchain -- to their building and have their worship, and then after worship and after coffee and doughnuts they chain the doors again. They hire somebody to watch their cars during the service, afraid the community will steal their cars while they are worshipping. I've seen this with great pain," he said.

In contrast are churches such as Salem Lutheran on North Huron Street in Toledo's embattled Vistula neighborhood. The church was founded in 1842, and when its red-brick Gothic building was rededicated in 1987, it was a gem in the midst of a genteel urban community.

Today the neighborhood is one of the city's poorest, wracked by unemployment six times the national average, high crime rates, and boarded-up buildings.

Pastor Duran and the Rev. Marc Miller, mission director for the ELCA's Northwestern Ohio Synod, have been meeting with Salem Lutheran Church's staff and members for years, assessing the congregation's role in the community and its vision.

"In Salem -- I was just there and I've been there many times before -- we have some middle-class white folk who don't live there but they do care, they really care," Pastor Duran said. "And they on purpose have become members of Salem to be part of the journey to be there for the long haul. Those people need to be applauded. They bring not only their heart but theological understanding that this is what it means to be the church. They want to be part of it even if they don't live there."

The Rev. Harold Abts, who has been Salem's interim pastor for a year and a half, said it is a matter of attitude.

"There is so little visible classism to me here," he said. "I think the Holy Spirit has been messing with these people."

People who want to try something new usually get a green light from the church council.

"Salem is just extraordinarily good at saying of new possibilities: 'This may be of God and we should not be opposing it. If it goofs and it folds, we will not die of it. Mistakes will not kill us,' " Pastor Abts said.

Salem has attendance of about 50 on Sunday morning, Pastor Miller said. But every Tuesday, about 100 people come to the church for a meal and spiritual fellowship. Another 30 to 50 come to Salem during the week for Bible studies.

This week, the church's kitchen was undergoing repairs, so the Tuesday meal consisted of hot dogs cooked on a grill, Pastor Abts said.

The church also has a community garden, offers a free pancake breakfast every Saturday, hosts numerous community meetings, and opens its rectory doors whenever neighbors knock, even if it's in the middle of the night.

"They have just found all these different ways to connect with the community," Pastor Miller said.

The Northwestern Ohio Synod is committed to Salem and another small, mission-minded church, Redeemer Lutheran on Upton Avenue, Pastor Miller said.

"Those congregations have incredible support from all the local congregations across the synod and they have partnership with us, the office of the bishop, and with the offices in Chicago," he said. "There are 175 congregations in our synod and more than half of them are mission partners. They are partnered in prayer, giving, and service with Salem or Redeemer or Threshold [a start-up church near the University of Toledo]."

He said Salem could never survive on the donations given during church services. At one Tuesday evening service, for example, Salem received a total of $4.06 in the collection plate.

"They could not do it without their ministry partners," Pastor Miller said. "They will receive nearly $100,000 this year from other congregations, about half their budget."

Pastor Duran said another important factor for healthy urban churches is leadership development. That makes the church a transforming force in the community.

"The ministry needs to be very intentional in the development of leaders in the community, for youth, children, adults. How can we walk with you to improve your life so you can break the cycles of poverty? That's huge," he said. "Not every church does that. It can't be, 'Come to us on Sunday, give us your offerings, go home, we'll see you next week.' You can't do that in a church like Salem."

Contact David Yonke at: or 419-724-6154.

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