On the ‘heartbreaking’ death of a city church

On the ‘heartbreaking’ death of a city church August 13, 2013

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.

We learn that the small congregation had their final service followed by a larger reunion that drew former congregants and clergy from abroad.

I want to quote the entire piece since it does such a tremendous job of capturing how Lutherans speak. We hear from emotional parishioners and we hear pastors speaking about Ecclesiastes, death and eternity.

All that is done before we get into the “why” of the piece. The reporter goes back to the German immigration trends that led to Bethlehem’s growth. The baby boom of the 1950s swelled the membership rosters before things turned:

What began with the white flight of the 1960s was only exacerbated by the collapse of manufacturing in the central city, the recession and a growing trend in society away from organized religion, especially mainline Christian churches.

In recent years, membership had dwindled to about 150 people, many of them elderly and shut-ins, according to Pastor Micah Wildauer, who split his time between Bethlehem and nearby Hope Lutheran Church. Most Sundays, attendance hovered around 50.

I love the complexity of the answer. We learn that the small congregation couldn’t maintain utilities and payroll, much less the massive building maintenance and repair costs. Parishioners upped their giving and a large bequest came at the right time, but it only prolonged the eventuality. The article is full of details, such as how the church tithed from its own offerings to missions before using the rest for survival. There’s something touching about that.

Then we hear from the folks who came for the final service, including one member pictured in the middle above:

“This is going to be one of the roughest days of my life,” said Steve Phifer, who was baptized in the church and recently married there.

Phifer is deeply sentimental about Bethlehem, crediting the church and his mother with giving him a strong foundation in life. In recent years, Phifer maintained the church’s boilers at no cost, and though he’d moved from the neighborhood, he returned regularly to mow grass and plow snow for two of his elderly teachers.

Like many, he’s developed deep friendships here, across lines of race and age.

The pictures nicely capture the diversity of age and race of the congregation, as well as congregants’ affection for each other. It was a nice component to the online feature.

The piece ends with the perspective of an older member, including her quote as the perfect kicker for the piece.

I found the piece so engaging that I researched further online, finding out what members would be doing in the absence of Bethlehem. Many said they’d be attending the nearby Hope Lutheran. An online Facebook group gathered information, records, pictures and the contents of the cornerstone to the beautiful old building. You know it’s a good piece when you want to find out more.

So even though praising a piece generates few comments, I felt compelled to do so. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has done a good service to readers with this piece, a bittersweet portrait of a community of believers.

Picture found via Facebook page for Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

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  • wilsonhines

    I personally know a Lutheran MS pastor who is a good friend who confided in me that he “feels as if” he and a few other pastors have been selected as “The Closers,” meaning they are sent to a church to close it.

    I know the reason they give for their churches closing and they are right, but there are reasons why those reasons exist that the Synod refuses to deal with. God is not dead, but sadly they are acting like it.

    I’ve probably already said too much.

  • FW Ken

    It really is a beautiful story. I’m impressed at how the faith came through in the time of loss. The writer is to be commended. I would, however, like to know what will happen to that beautiful church building.

  • helen

    There is another nearby Lutheran church in this story… I would like to know more about that, and about its prospects for survival. Sending the congregation on down the road is only feasible if “down the road” is close enough for elderly drivers,or if there is alternative transportation, and if the other church is not scheduled to be closed, in the plans of the district.

    [A small congregation I know, with a modest investment in facilities, has managed to stay open more than 50 years after “the district” marked them for closing. It has even expanded the church a bit in the last decade and is currently replacing its fellowship hall/SS building. The “forgotten village” has become a refuge from higher taxes in the nearby towns. They even have a new Post Office!]

    • Absolutely. Tragedies get follow-ups. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to read the follow-up to the merging of congregations?

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    It is a well-written story that makes one feel for the people of that congregation.
    But there is going to be more and more of this in most churches because of a factor that is the elephant in the room that was not directly mentioned–The fact that mainstream Christians–including Catholics–are virtually not having children. And no church, organization, nation, or culture can last for more than a generation or two if it’s members do not raise families large enough to create a future for it. The Bible certainly had the best advice if a community wants to have a bright future: “Be fruitful and multiply!”
    I think it was Time magazine that just recently had a cover story on the birth dearth in our country that seems to cut across most groups here. Whether that was part of this church’s gradual demise in membership could be a sad unmentioned possibility–just as Christian Europe is on its way to demise and replacement by Islam–as our culture and Europe’s culture becomes more and more enamored of sterility and anti-child in attitude.