I’m a pastor of an inner-city church. In this day and age of suburban “campus” type churches, the old, truly magnificent, awe-inspiring churches located in the inner city are often considered to be an anachronism. Inner-city ministry is seen more in terms of a social service agency, and an inner city church is either a career ender in ministry or a stop on to the wealthier, more active, with a much larger membership suburban church.
Yea, well, we know that most popular perceptions are bupkus, based more on the same perception that made someone the cool kid in school and less on what the real substance is. I am proud to be the pastor of one of those awe-inspiring inner-city churches, every time I walk into the sanctuary I can’t help but think, “wow, I get to be the pastor of this church”. I can see the steeple about three blocks away from where I drive in the morning. It never fails to inspire me and is inspiration that the average suburban church pastor will never get to feel. I go out of my way to show anyone, who is willing (ok, sometimes not so willing), the sanctuary and it makes my day to hear them kind of whoosh and then let out a soft, reverential “wow”, when they step into the sanctuary. Frankly I find it hard to understand why on earth anyone would want to go to any other kind of church. the people of First St Johns have done a magnificent job of maintaining this inspiring place of worship to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit for almost 145 years. Please don’t assume that I think it’s all about the building, it is not. It is about those people who make up the Body of Christ. You can have great Christian disciples who meet in a bowling alley, and you have a great church. I just happen to be fortunate to have both, a great group of people who are true disciples of Christ and who maintain a great building that truly honors God and evokes true reverence from those who serve the Lord there.
This isn’t about just a tribute to a great old church and people who are such great servants of the Lord. It’s also to recognize that these kinds of churches are where ministry really and regularly happens. There is hardly a day that goes by when I don’t encounter someone who is dealing with some serious issue in their life. Often it’s some kind of substance abuse, too often the problems of the people I encounter are self-inflicted. Frankly it’s tough to deal with those people, all they really want is for you to hand over money, we’re about 100 yards up the street from the city bus station and the first “institution” people going to or from the bus station encounter. You can imagine the possibilities, I get a lot of people who need money for a “bus pass”. Hey I take the opportunity to talk to them about their life and Jesus, the usual reaction is not spoken, but is clearly “I’m not interested in that, just hand over some money so I can buy booze or drugs.” When that doesn’t happen I usually get a sneer of disgust suggesting that I just don’t get it.
Well there is one pastor that gets it better than me and has been getting it for over thirty years. York, Pa. is a small city, it has typical urban problems, but on the scale of a small city. Rev Charles Wildner is the pastor of St Thomas’ Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Md. I say that so you don’t confuse it with St Thomas’ in the Carribean, I assure you after one visit you won’t be confused. I was raised in and we raised our children in a pretty tough city outside of Boston, Ma. I think that I’m fairly hard to impress but when we took a field trip from First St Johns to St Thomas’ earlier this year, I was impressed, not in a positive way. While First St Johns contrasts sharply with it’s downtown neighborhood, can’t really say the same about St Thomas’. It is a very degenerated neighborhood and while the church definitely stands out from the rest of the neighborhood, you can tell that it is a struggle to maintain the structure. The article I have from Lutherans Engage the World ( Erik Lunsford May-June 2014 pp 4-6) observes’ “trash blows across the street while prostitutes huddle on the corner. As he walks inside, Wlidner sighs and shakes his head; Someone has stolen the couch cushions again.” I didn’t notice the prostitutes when we were there, but there were definitely guys who I can only assume were soliciting business for their drug distribution enterprise.
While most city churches like his are a thing of the past and he told of many local churches that have closed during his pastorate, leaving him and the store front “ministries” as the only groups left ministering to those in the inner-city. One thing I tell people is that if they want to do real Christian ministry, do real Christian discipling, there is no place like an inner-city church. Pastor Wildner certainly lives that, I have my challenges to deal with, but I tip my hat to Pastor Wildner, I would describe him as a Lutheran Mother Theresa. Yea more than a little hyperbolic, but wow the man does some serious ministry in a serious area, he’s done it for thirty years and still has a congregation that can reach out and serve those around him.
I’m in the same district as Wildner, York is only 50 miles north of Baltimore, but the first time I heard of him was at an urban ministry conference at the seminary in Fort Wayne, In. I had to go all the way to Fort Wayne to meet this guy. When I heard his presentation I was hooked. Wow this guy pastors a church in this setting doing what he does with what he has to work with, you sir are my hero! Well I followed him around like a puppy dog for a couple of days to pick up his words of wisdom. He takes worship seriously, he takes his role as pastor seriously, I haven’t seen him without a Roman collar and sometimes even a cassock. Remember the scene in The Graduate when the man leans over to Dustin Hoffman and whispers “plastics”. In the same sense Pastor Wildner says to me Setting Three. This is the most liturgical, formal of the five recognized worship settings in our hymnal. He pastors in an area where the regular color of life is, at best, gray. Day in and day out is all the same, there is little excitement, little charm in the gritty inner city. He makes church special for those whose lives have very little “special”. He makes Jesus special to people who really don’t have anyone to think of as special, lots of people who might not even really have any family, they have a family in Christ at St Thomas’.
It’s not just worship, he regularly has people from the congregation at his home which is close by to the church. Let’s just say that for most of these people, dinner at the pastor’s house, is a big event. They somehow manage to maintain a halfway house. it sure ain’t much but for at least one of the guys who lives there (he talked to us during his visit) it is a roof, food and a chance to also rebuild his life by helping to run this house. There is a Food Bank, there is a ministry to the blind, there is a clothing locker. People in the neighborhood might not have much, but at St Thomas’ they can find something to wear and something to eat. My takeaway? Get serious about worship, about the liturgy, why we worship that way and how to impress those reasons on those in worship. Try to find ways to better serve those truly in need. Don’t misunderstand the folks at First St Johns do a lot of servant ministry; a really good foodbank, an unemployment support group, supports a family group, Spanish-speaking outreach, NA and AA groups, martial arts, Grief Share, police chaplaincy, prayer outreaches and others. But if a resource starved church in the middle of one of Baltimore’s toughest area can support a ministry like a half-way house, or providing transportation, well it inspires me to keep looking to step up our outreaches. It also inspires me to raise the level of my personal image, making more of an attempt to appear pastoral and serious about it. To raise worship to a more serious, profound level, in order for people who often do deal with real life and death, to have worship that really transports them into the presence Lord.
If anyone is so inclined, I would encourage you to provide whatever support you can to St Thomas’, I will be more than happy to provide address, phone, contact, Pastor Wildner’s ministry is worthy to be supported. I certainly will keep them in my prayers and would ask you to do so also and in the meantime, I am in awe and admiration of those, like Pastor Wildner, who are such devoted servants of our Lord Jesus Christ and who give me a role-model to strive to emulate.