By Kim Plummer Krull
It was around 1997 when yet another family told the Rev. John Schmidtke that the lack of decent, affordable housing was forcing them to leave their crumbling inner-city North St. Louis, Mo., neighborhood.
“Where was this family going to go?” said Schmidtke, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, recalling the family with nine youngsters, including five who took part in the church’s children’s Bible study program. “They lived three blocks from the church, and this was their life, spiritually and emotionally. Even if they could find a place to move, where were they going to find healthy activities tied to another community?”
Today, instead of departing, families are moving to Salisbury Park, the tidy development of some 170 new or remodeled homes just beyond Bethlehem Lutheran’s front door.
Through its nonprofit housing corporation, Better Living Communities, the church is leading a dramatic transformation of a once deteriorating neighborhood. Families now have growing housing opportunities, children attend the newly opened Better Learning Communities Academy and Bethlehem Lutheran Church has more than quadrupled in size.
The improvement is so striking it caught the eye of FOCUS St. Louis, which honored Bethlehem’s Better Living Communities as one of 20 recipients of the 15th annual “What’s Right with the Region!” award. Schmidtke was among the honorees spotlighted at a banquet May 3, hosted by FOCUS’ distinguished membership of civic leaders who strive for positive community change.
“This is really God’s moment,” Schmidtke said of the award. “We prayed for a long time how to do ministry through affordable housing, and, really, what this is all about is opportunities to share Christ and continue ministry to this community.”
Bethlehem Lutheran membership had dwindled to about 30 when Schmidtke was called there in 1989. Most members were older, white adults who had moved away from the troubled Hyde Park area and returned only for worship.
Today, Bethlehem draws nearly 150 people on Sunday. Most are black. “It’s a growing, neighborhood church again,” said John “Jack” Gerber, a Better Living Communities board member and member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Sunset Hills, Mo.
Gerber, former president and CEO of Concordia Publishing House, began working with Schmidtke when the church stood as the lone anchor in an area “where you would be afraid to walk, with buildings falling down and drugs were all over the place.”
“We saw God’s hand working again and again,” Gerber said. “Many times we were ready to throw in the towel, but He wouldn’t let us.”
The transformation began when volunteers helped that aforementioned family with nine children repair their rental home for a Section 8 housing inspection. The group’s next challenge: major renovations on a garage that became the first Better Living Communities residence.
Over the years, the nonprofit has built 56 new homes and a commercial-developer partner has added another 120 homes.
God opens doors
Better Living Communities will begin construction on 40 more houses this summer with the help of tax credits from the Missouri Housing Development Commission.
Schmidtke calls the “hard-to-get” tax credits yet another example of how “God continues to open doors” and “send people into our lives.”
Those supporters include a diverse array of individuals from business, political and church circles — people, the pastor says, who set aside individual differences to focus on Better Living Communities’ mission to help families thrive.
Schmidtke counts both Republicans (such as former U.S. Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent) as well as Democrats (including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis City Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr.) as proponents.
Critical early support came from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF), which gave Bethlehem Lutheran Church a $1.3 million loan to purchase nine blocks surrounding the church, and the LCMS Missouri District, which guaranteed the loan. (To see the video presented by the LCEF in 2010 when that church received LCEF’s Fred E. Lietz Mission Project Award, visit http://vimeo.com/42139560.)
Urging Bethlehem to “dream bigger,” Schmidtke says, have been four sister St. Louis suburban LCMS congregations: Lutheran Church of the Resurrection plus Lord of Life Lutheran Church, Chesterfield; Webster Gardens Lutheran Church, Webster Groves; and Faith Lutheran Church, Oakville.
Also sharing their time and expertise are Better Living Communities board members, successful businessmen as well as LCMS members.
Once a self-described “doubting Thomas,” Rick Bagy, president of First National Bank of St. Louis, says that he got excited about Better Living Communities’ mission as he began to see hope in an area that many long ago deemed hopeless.
“I feel strongly that we can’t just abandon the inner city,” said Bagy, a member of Concordia Lutheran Church, Kirkwood, Mo. “Even though there’s still a long way to go, [the neighborhood] is certainly going in the right direction.”
Bethlehem Lutheran Church took another big step last summer when it created a second nonprofit and opened a charter school in the neighborhood. The Better Learning Communities Academy has an enrollment of about 53 students in kindergarten through second grade, with plans to open another grade each year through grade eight.
“It’s good to know that the public and private sectors and the church can all work together and still be who each needs to be,” Schmidtke said. “Ministry can take a lot of different forms. There are a lot of different ways to reach people with the Good News of Christ.”
While talking about the story behind Better Living Communities’ recent honor, the pastor continually points to the Lord and many earthly partners for the remarkable transformation. Others also credit Schmidtke’s lead role.
“He’s creative, dedicated, tenacious. He won’t quit,” said Jack Klobnak, a board member and member of Village Lutheran Church, Ladue, Mo. “He finds people who can help, and he makes things happen — no matter how big the challenge. If John Schmidtke said it was going to start raining silver dollars, I’d run and get a bushel basket.”
To learn more about Better Living Communities, visit www.bethlehemstlouis.org or www.betterlivingcommunities.org.
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
Posted May 17, 2012