by Pamela J. Nielsen
That’s where he was sleeping,” notes missionary to the city of Philadelphia, Pastor Joshua Gale. The days were getting shorter and the nights colder. Each day, as the construction workers arrived to repair the dilapidated church property, they would find him in the outside stairwell of the church. James had fallen on hard times, made some mistakes and was one of approximately 4,000 homeless people daily living in the shadows of our nation’s fifth largest city.
“I was so cold,” recalled James, “I went down the steps and found a place to sleep right there. One day I came down the steps and there was blankets and a pillow and I didn’t know who or where . . . I met Pastor Gale . . . and I’m just grateful.” Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries (PLM) is renovating the empty church building and the adjoining two houses to serve as the physical location for their citywide operation as well as a church plant and transitional housing for the homeless.
Fresh out of seminary, Pastor Gale, who is called by PLM, hit the streets of Philadelphia on foot, engaging with the very visible homeless community. After some initial skepticism, the community embraced the tall, bearded pastor who frequently arrived with sandwiches, socks and blankets.
“Lutherans were actually out there doing what the church is supposed to do, to help people in need, and that’s what made me cling right on to them,” shared CB, a formerly homeless man who now serves as the property manager for PLM and shares one of the transitional homes with James. The men have formed a strong bond with Pastor Gale and are studying the Small Catechism with him.
Where to Start
Where does a group of congregations surrounding a city that has only 3 full-time pastors and a mere 356 members begin to reach out to a population of 1.5 million?
Some years ago, the LCMS congregations realized that the world was quite literally at their door. PLM was established as a unified effort by clergy and church members to fund and oversee domestic mission work in the greater Philadelphia area.
“What it takes, number one, is to first plant altars and pulpits and then that will be the nucleus of what we do. What makes us different is our Lutheran ethos around the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, followed by the fruits they provide in our various vocations and callings. Having our congregations and what we do in the cities as places of refuge is key,” explains Gale. He points out that people respond to the mercy shown them, which in turn opens the door for preaching and teaching the Gospel.
Pastor Tom Engler, executive director for PLM, is emphatic: “The biggest contribution we can make to the world is our teaching, our catechesis. It’s the gift of God’s Word, it’s not a program that we are pushing or methods.”
PLM’s efforts extend beyond the homeless population to the many immigrants pouring into the city. “This is an international mission field right where we are,” notes Pastor Gale.
The Philapelphia area pastors regularly gather to study God’s Word together. A fruit of these lively theological discussions is Pastor Cho, a Presbyterian pastor from Korea who was invited to join the study sessions. He and his congregation, Philadelphia True Light Lutheran Church, became Lutheran and were brought into membership in the English District of the LCMS this past year.
Rev. Arthur Zogar, a pastor at Christ Assembly Lutheran Church, serves the largest and most thriving congregation in Philadelphia. It is a congregation of African immigrants, many from his native Liberia. The church is involved in an effort to strengthen and foster economic development among this immigrant population.
Through PLM’s Enterprise Division, business training and mentoring along with microloans help establish a strong community in and around the churches, providing beachheads in otherwise crime, drug and poverty-stricken areas.
“We are just getting involved with Indonesians, they are worshiping in a home,” said Pastor Rob Kieselowsky, who divides his time between a small parish and development work for PLM. “Our district president told us they were here in the area. LCMS President Rev. Matthew Harrison put us in contact with Darin Storkson, the LCMS regional director for Southern Asia and Oceania. Darin sent us 20 Large Catechisms in Indonesian. . . . The Indonesian pastor is using them to teach his flock.“
Pastor Arthur Boone works largely with Hispanics. Noting the unique challenges of urban ministry, he points to the fact that city churches no longer have older, lifelong Lutherans. Instead, they are filled with younger families who don’t know anything about Christianity. “I’ve taught ESL classes, and we had a couple of Chinese teenage brothers who had never heard of Jesus before. Through that class we have seen about every nation on the earth and many religions and sects; it’s a real challenge.”
Any City, USA
Replace Philadelphia with any large city in America and the story is the same: the church has largely moved out, poverty is endemic and people from every country in the world are flocking to these gutted urban centers.
Engler is passionate: “One thing I want to get across, I want the Synod to know, is that we have these large populations with very little presence, and its going to take a Synod effort to get back into the cities. Yes, we are doing it locally, as the church we are the body here and if we concentrate our efforts we can reclaim the city and reintroduce ourselves to it.”
ONM in the City
That’s where the Office of National Mission (ONM), with its many ministries, grant funds and other forms of church revitalization-focused assistance, comes in. Executive Director Rev. Bart Day, along with the ONM directors for Recognized Service Organizations, Church and Community Engagement, and Urban and Ethnic Ministry, have made several trips to meet with the pastors and lay leaders in Philadelphia. Bringing their varied knowledge and skills to the table has provided valuable guidance and expertise for the work in Philadelphia. The ONM has facilitated bringing the Lutheran Housing Corporation on board as part of a joint effort to revitalize the communities surrounding Lutheran congregations in the city.
Additionally, PLM has been encouraged to apply for ONM grant dollars that will provide initial funds for various projects. The ONM is committed to walking alongside PLM and will be playing a significant role not only in Philadelphia but other urban areas as well. They are eager to provide congregations and districts with resources, assistance and guidance as requested.
Day sees PLM and the work they are doing as both a model and testing ground for urban ministry across the Synod. “ONM is looking to support and share successful models of ministry that can be duplicated in other cities. PLM is doing great things, and we believe even better things are yet to come.”
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- 5th largest city in US
- 1.5 million residents
- 9 percent immigrants
- 4000 homeless people (estimate)
- 4 LCMS congregations
- 3 full-time pastors
- 356 baptized LCMS member