On the ‘heartbreaking’ death of a city church

The Godbeat reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel consistently does good work. “After 125 years, Bethlehem Lutheran Church holds last service” is the latest example. It was one of those stories that I came across via a Google alert, expecting it to be a boring depiction of what happened to cause a church to shutter its doors. Usually those stories are only exciting if they involve some type of doctrinal or financial corruption.

But this was an amazingly engaging story in spite of the lack of those elements, one that made me cry and actually got me to pray for the people involved in it.

The news hook was that Bethlehem Lutheran (LCMS) held its final two services last Sunday before closing up shop. The editors at the paper wisely allowed the reporter to write at length about what happened and sent a skilled photographer to take pictures that showed the love the community had for each other and for their building.

The piece struck me right away with its natural emphasis on sacraments and worship. The beginning:

Janet Engel knelt at the Communion rail at Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Sunday, tears welling in her eyes.

At 85, she’d built a lifetime of memories in this sacred space. She was confirmed here. She attended its grade school. Every Christmas, every Easter was celebrated in these pews.

And on Sunday, for the last time, Engel knelt to receive the Holy Eucharist here.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Engel, who gathered with hundreds of current and former members for final services at Bethlehem, which closed its doors Sunday after 125 years.

“It’s wonderful to see all of these people again,” she said. “But closing the church — it’s just heartbreaking.”

These humanely told stories are a regular feature of this reporter’s. I still recall some of her writings on Roman Catholic and Muslim communities for how they permit adherents to discuss their religious beliefs.

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