By Cheryl Magness
One weekend in 2016, the Rev. Marcus Ring, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Shreveport, La., had to leave town on short notice. Without time to arrange for a substitute pastor, he called his friend and fellow pastor, the Rev. Michael Shannon, to see if his parishioners could worship at Shannon’s church, nearby Faith Lutheran. Faith, also in Shreveport, was predominantly black, and St. Paul’s was predominantly white.
Shannon immediately said yes, and that Sunday, the members of St. Paul’s joined their brothers and sisters in Christ for worship at Faith.
Reflecting on that day, St. Paul’s member Bob Mathis said, “We were blown away over how they treated and welcomed us.”
Shannon remembers the day well too. “It was a good time,” he said. “Our people have always been welcoming and friendly.”
That Sunday turned out to be the first step in a journey that would lead, one year later, to the members of St. Paul’s and the members of Faith becoming one church family.
Keeping a Lutheran presence
St. Paul’s was founded in 1935. In 1963, it moved from its first location in Shreveport to a new one at 4175 Lakeshore Drive. The congregation thrived, reaching its peak membership in the 1970s and 1980s before entering a period of membership decline. The congregation was aging, and efforts to reach out to the community weren’t bearing fruit.
Longtime member and elder Tim Brobst, whose grandfather, the Rev. Lothar Kleinhans, was St. Paul’s second pastor, said, “We tried for years to bring people to the church, but it wasn’t working. It was like pounding your head against a brick wall.”
St. Paul’s was down to around two dozen members when Ring was called to a church in his home state of South Dakota. The members of St. Paul’s, who were already having trouble paying the pastor’s salary along with meeting other obligations, encouraged him to accept the call. “They were really loving people … concerned about him,” Shannon said. Ring accepted the call, and St. Paul’s entered a period of pastoral vacancy.
Meanwhile, Faith was facing its own challenges. A building fund had been in place for years, and although it was steadily being added to, it couldn’t seem to keep up with the rate of inflation. The roof and other parts of the building needed repair. The congregation was growing, and there was not enough room for Bible classes on Sunday morning.
“We would hold different classes in different corners of the sanctuary, but it could be hard to hear. Those adults can get pretty loud!” Shannon said with a laugh.
Brobst and the other members of St. Paul’s began to see a path forward. They held a series of conversations among themselves and with individuals in the LCMS Southern District. Then, in the spring of 2017, they voted unanimously to dissolve the congregation and offer St. Paul’s building, campus and remaining assets to Faith.
“They were really wanting to support a mission,” said Shannon, “and to keep a Lutheran ministry in that neighborhood, and they felt like we were the only group that could cause that to happen.”
When Brobst called Shannon on the phone to let him know of St. Paul’s decision, Shannon was in the car, driving. “I had to pull over. … You really get humbled. You’ve done what you can do, and then Jesus steps in. … When you look back, you see God’s hand all the way.”
Accepting the blessing
Brobst, who was serving as St. Paul’s congregational president at the time it was dissolved, said that even though the decision was unanimous, it wasn’t easy. “I was sad to be the person to close the church,” he acknowledged. “But we knew that Faith was outgrowing their building and raising money to expand, so it was an easy decision to offer our facility to them. We had prayed for years about what to do, and our prayers were answered with the decision to give St. Paul’s to Faith.”
Shannon said the decision to accept Faith’s offer wasn’t automatic.
“We met on it. There was a little back and forth … stuff that we had to get through. … But we finally had a vote, and the vote was overwhelming to accept the blessing, take the funds we had raised for Faith’s building fund, and spend them to do whatever needed to be done to renovate St. Paul’s.”
“The thing that touched me so much,” Shannon continued, “was that St. Paul’s members voted unanimously to give us their property. How could we squabble about whether to receive this gift or not? I couldn’t fathom it.”
Faith held its first service at the former St. Paul’s on June 4, 2017. On June 11, the former members of St. Paul’s came to worship at their former church, now home to Faith’s congregation. Shannon said they hadn’t told him they were coming, but as the service ended, they approached Shannon to tell him that they wanted to become members of Faith.
“I hadn’t gotten over the first wave of emotions of them giving St. Paul’s to us, and now we’re worshiping in this place and they want to join us. It was an answer to prayer for me in so many ways. …
“The one thing in this that is overwhelming to me is that St. Paul’s heard God’s call. They saw the need, they recognized it and they were obedient. This could not have happened without them.”
Asked whether it was difficult to blend two congregations into one, Brobst said, “Faith is such a loving congregation, it’s hard for us not to blend together. We will never learn to come together if we don’t learn from each other. …
“When we do that, we find out that many of the problems we face are the same. We also learn how we can be more sensitive to problems each of us faces. Only through Christ will we ever be one as God intended.”
Posted Sept. 23, 2020