by Pamela J. Nielsen
Off the train, the Rev. Adam DeGroot, national missionary to Philadelphia, grabs a hearty brisket and provolone sandwich and wanders out into the bustling center of the nation’s sixth-largest metro area.
DeGroot declares, “I love this city.”
The young pastor from South Dakota hops a bus to Temple University, one of eight universities nestled among the historic buildings and towering office structures.
On the campus, he hunts for the perfect bench. Settling in, he pulls a flattened, stained and well-worn cardboard box from his backpack.
Its four sides display the words “Religion is for the weak.” As an evangelism technique, it’s rather out-of-the-box. He opens his Pastoral Care Companion, sips coffee and waits.
It’s the perfect bait for this fisher of men.
Soon, schools of students stream past with sideways glances and double takes as they spot the box and step around it. A student stops to ask about the box. An hour later, about a dozen have come and gone. The first student is still there, talking to the missionary.
DeGroot’s warm smile and genuine interest in the students puts them at ease. They eagerly challenge him, and he asks them to defend their beliefs. The exchanges are lively and honest.
And then the sidewalks suddenly empty. It’s time to head home. The missionary will be back another day with his box and the Gospel.
Philadelphia’s Sole LCMS Pastor
Urban ministry in Philadelphia began about 15 years ago when area Lutherans and suburban congregations formed Philadelphia Lutheran Ministries (PLM) to “enliven the city through proclamation of liberty in Christ.”
At the time, not a single LCMS parish existed within city limits. Today, DeGroot is the sole full-time LCMS pastor serving the city of Philadelphia.
The magnitude of his call weighs heavily on him. Assisting DeGroot is the Rev. Rob Kieslowsky, part-time executive director of PLM, whose parish is located just outside the city limits.
The two, who together with their wives carry out the core work of PLM, are optimistic about the opportunities in this urban mission field, sober about its challenges and realistic about the sparse resources at their disposal.
What does the city need? DeGroot confidently answers: “The need is for the Gospel and the pronunciation of the forgiveness of sins.”
At breakfast, DeGroot plans his day and downs his coffee before packing the supplies he’ll need. He hopes to make two home visitations before heading downtown.
As he zips up his coat, there’s a knock at the door from a weary Iraqi woman. She’s heard about the pastor and is desperate for his help in finding her son, who’s been imprisoned in Baghdad for nine years.
DeGroot listens to her and tells her about a God who loves her and her son so much that He sent His Son to save them.
He speaks of Christ who knows her suffering because He suffered on the cross for her. He comforts her with God’s Word and offers a prayer for her and her son, promising to help in whatever way he can.
When DeGroot has to leave, his wife, Melissa, a trained deaconess, collects more information about her missing son.
DeGroot walks briskly to the home of parishioners suffering from family strife. The two women are delighted to see their pastor, who comes to listen, pray, share God’s Word and sing a hymn of comfort.
With the sign of the cross, he blesses them and heads to the bus stop to make his way downtown.
DeGroot and his family live in the parsonage of Shepherd of the City Lutheran Church on the city’s northeast side.
The ethnically diverse neighborhood has seen better days; it is rife with crime, drug abuse, prostitution and gang activity — all within walking distance.
The fledgling parish struggles to exist. The church building, badly in need of repair, houses a slowly growing congregation that will likely never be able to financially support its pastor.
Yet inside her walls, the Good News of Jesus Christ is preached and His Sacraments provide a weekly feast for souls impoverished by sin. Bible class, a meal and food distribution to the poor follow the Sunday service.
Philadelphia is like so many urban centers across the country, long abandoned by the church. But as immigrants and professional workers have come to the city looking for a new life, it has become a ripe mission field ready for the harvest.
The LCMS, through the Office of National Mission’s (ONM) Mission Field: USA initiative, is actively partnering with districts, congregations and Recognized Service Organizations to place missionaries like DeGroot.
“We are responding because there is a need,” said the Rev. Bart Day, ONM executive director. “Districts want to remain engaged in ministry on the fringe, in hard places, where the reward is great but where the funding models are a challenge. We believe that through partnerships that support the worker (salary and benefits), we can keep ministry happening in the most needful places.”
DeGroot is joins a growing number of LCMS missionaries. He is one of the first national missionaries whose salary and benefits are covered by a network of support from across the Synod.
“We are sending network-supported missionaries, just like we do internationally. These missionaries will tell their stories, visiting congregations and schools. And as they do, they will build a network of people who love them, pray for them and financially support them,” Day said.
“We believe that the Synod will respond to domestic missionaries. People see the tremendous opportunities we have in our own backyard for mission work. The United States is the third-largest mission field in the world.”
- View the photo gallery: lcms.org/photo/degroot
- Read more about national and international missionaries: lcms.org/missionaries
- Contact the Rev. Steven Schave at Steven.Schave@lcms.org to learn more about the Mission Field: USA initiative
Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen is associate executive director for LCMS Communications.