Happy Anniversary, St. Luke’s!
On this very day, June 1, 1900 St. Luke’s was established as a congregation of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, one of the many predecessor bodies that over time merged into what is now the ELCA.
The church history prepared for St. Luke’s centennial celebrations back in 2000 tells the story this way:
“The history of St. Luke’s Church began on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1898, when a Sunday School conducted by St. Peter’s Church held its first session in a vacant store located at the corner of Diversey and Washtenaw Avenues [which today is where the JFK crosses over Diversey, just north of Brentano School]. Lars Undem and J. Paulsen were in charge.
In November, 1899, M. Edmund Haberland, a student at the Chicago Lutheran Seminary in Lakeview (located on the spot where Wrigley Field now stands), was called to develop a church in the area. He was still a student of the seminary and had only a limited about of time to devote to his work. But by persistent perseverance the work gradually grew and the confidence of the community was gained.
On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1899 the first Christmas service was held… In March, 1900 the mission moved into an empty store room near the corner of Rockwell and Diversey Avenues [over by what is now the Green Exchange]. The first session in this new location was held April 1, 1900, and the last session January 6, 1901 when the congregation moved into the new chapel.”
The church’s founding charter was signed by Pastor Haberland and his wife, Verna; Louis and Sara Mueller; Andrew and Hannah Gusterine; August and Caroline Johnson; Wilhelmina and Andrew Lindblad; and Lars Undem — one of the adult Sunday School teachers from St. Peter’s that had kicked the whole thing off. That’s five couples and a single guy who, with the help of the wider church, went from a Sunday School class in a store front to the three-story church building that stands behind this sanctuary in just a couple of years. It’s amazing to think what just a handful of people were able to do together by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I wonder what those early days were like. We know so little about these charter members. They’d been connected to another congregation, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. They’d been active in an adult program of Christian Education together. Their pastor was a young man still in seminary. What made them want to start a new church together?
We can only guess, but there are clues scattered throughout the parish register. The neighborhood was full of congregations like Norwegian Lutheran Church (the Minnekirken) that still stands on the square, and other congregations that worshipped in Swedish or German. But this community founded itself as St. Luke’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today the word “English” in this neighborhood might sound exclusionary, but in 1900 it signaled an openness to the children of immigrants from different parts of the world who spoke different languages and ate different foods, who had different traditions and customs. St. Luke’s picked a name that said, no matter which country your family originally came from, you are welcome here. This guess is supported by the names in the parish register: German names, like Haberland and Mueller; Scandinavian names, like Lindblad and Undem; Scotch-English names like Johnson.
Apparently this openness to the diversity of the neighborhood was attractive to others, who quickly began to join the parish. The congregation grew from eleven to twenty in the first year, adding 31 people overall in the first year and a half. But not everyone stuck around. Early on, at least four members decided to go back to St. Peter’s, including Lars, the only single guy on the charter. We might speculate about why that was, but who can say for certain. It’s hard to be the one person in a small group who’s different from everyone else. The bachelor in a group of couples. The parents in a room full of childless young adults. Don’t be fooled, it’s hard work building community across lines of difference.
There are about ten others whom the records indicate were “excluded by Council” within the first two years. Some of the entries say, “excluded by Council by request,” and others do not. Again, who can say what this means for sure, it might indicate that people who signed up early drifted away without giving anyone a reason, leaving it to the Council to decide that they were no longer interested. Or, it may be that there were disagreements about the direction the congregation was taking that resulted in a more active act of exclusion by the lay leaders. Who knows?
There were certainly enough reasons for people to be coming and going. Folks who’d grown up in stable big steeple churches were in for something different, coming to a storefront on Diversey for Sunday School, devotions and prayer. A young pastor, not even fully trained, might have drawn younger families into the church, but alienated people who had decades of life experience on him and his wife. Then there was the challenge of generating the will and raising the funds to move not once, but twice, from Washtenaw to Rockwell and then finally to Francisco. Building a church, creating a community, takes a lot of hard work. Not everyone was up for it.
I wonder how those early dozens would have heard the passage we read from First Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). Obviously we have to be careful not to equate every suffering and struggle of our own with a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Just because something is difficult does not mean it is a holy undertaking. Christ’s sufferings are the ones he willingly chose to take on so that the world as it is might be transformed into the world as God intended it to be. So, to the extent that the matriarchs and patriarchs of St. Luke’s understood that their struggle to create a place for people of all nationalities to gather around the means of grace, the table and the font and the Word of God, so that they could be strengthened in their faith and equipped to participate in God’s mission to restore the whole creation, their struggle might be remembered as a sharing in Christ’s sufferings.
As they faced hard decisions together about whether their little adult forum could be something more, about whether or not this young seminarian had what it took to lead and care for them, about whether or not they could raise the money to build a chapel, about what language they would use in worship — their parents’ or their neighbors’, I wonder how they might have heard these words from the gospel of John, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11).
So many questions in front of them with no proof that any of their decisions would be the right ones, only faith that the God who had brought their families to these shores from many different places was the same God who spoke through Jesus to the disciples saying, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Although, those words probably weren’t much comfort to the original disciples. Recall that their original question to Jesus had been, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Those disciples had already been together a long time, they’d journeyed with Jesus through the course of his earthly ministry. They’d seen him heal the sick and cast out demons. They’d seen him confront the powers and principalities of this world. They’d seen him killed, but they’d also seen him raised from the dead. They’d seen all they needed to see to be convinced that God was in Jesus, and Jesus was in God, and that Jesus was with them, so they dared to hope that Jesus would do for them what they had been hoping for all along — that Jesus would finally restore things to they way they used to be, that he would restore the kingdom of Israel to its glory days.
That is the temptation we face on Anniversary Sunday, especially this year, isn’t it?
We too have seen God at work in this place. We too have stayed steady in our ministry to the sick, to those battling the demons of addiction and depression. We too have watched as the power of the Holy Spirit breathed new life into our dry bones, raising this church from a condition everyone around us expected would lead to death. We’ve seen all we need to see to be convinced that God is with us, and God is for us. So, as we gather this morning, this season, this moment in the life of our community after Easter, after the resurrection, we — like the original disciples — are drawn to ask, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore” things to the way they used to be, they way we remember them, or have chosen to remember them.
And Jesus, full of the power and glory of the resurrection, does not tell them what they want to hear. He says, “it is not for you to know the times or periods that [God] has set … but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:7-8). You will give your testimony to the power of God at work among you, and in the world, and you will carry this story out with you to all the ends of the earth. Out. Forward. Not back.
And with those final words, Jesus ascends into heaven leaving the disciples wondering how, in fact, they were going to do any of that. Two men in white robes, maybe angels, maybe messengers, maybe just two baptized people dressed in the garments of their faith, finally shook them out of their wondering and asked, “why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly — and mysteriously — as he left” (Acts 1:11, The Message)
Not knowing what else to do, “Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James … together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:13-14) went home to Jerusalem and got together and prayed. That was the first act of the Acts of the Apostles who went on to build the church. They got together and prayed.
Which, come to think about it was the first act of the founders of St. Luke’s, they got together at Washtenaw and Diversey and they prayed. Then they moved to a new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more. Then they moved to yet another new site, and they prayed and worshipped some more. And then, sounding an awful lot like the early church, they gave what they had for the sake of this new community they were building, and soon they had a place to gather with their neighbors, people from many lands with many languages.
Peter writes, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert … and after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory through Jesus Christ, will fulfill, restore, strengthen and establish you. To God be the power forever and ever! Amen” (1 Pet. 5:8,10-11).