National Lutheran News

University Lutheran Church of Hope celebrates a rich legacy

The century-old parish has been served by three pastors who became bishops.

As it celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2004, University Lu-theran Church of Hope in southeast Minneapolis en-joys a reputation as a leader in tackling difficult social-justice issues.

Three of its pastors known for their activism in the peace-and-justice area have gone on to positions of leadership in the ELCA and its predecessor bodies.

* The current presiding bishop of the ELCA and president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWR), Mark Hanson, was senior pastor at Hope from 1988 to 1995. He went on to head the St. Paul Area Synod for six years and was elected leader of the ELCA in 2001 and of the LWF in 2003.

* Hanson’s predecessor as head of the St. Paul Area Synod and its forerunner, the Southeast Minnesota District of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), was another former Hope pastor, Lowell Erdahl. He served there from 1972 to 1982.

* And Erdahl was called to fill the pulpit at Hope when its pastor, David Preus, was elevated to the presidency of the ALC. That came following the tragic death of Kent Knutson from a rare neurological disease. Preus had served as senior pastor at Hope for 15 years and continued on as head of the ALC for another 15, up to the merger that created the ELCA in 1988.

This record raises the question of whether Hope, in some unique way, serves as a “breeding ground” for leaders of the Lutheran church in the United States, at both the local and national levels.

A number of clergy and lay leaders who have been members or pastors at Hope urge caution in making such a connection. The personal characteristics of individuals who rise to top positions, the other candidates on the ballot and the major issues and politics at the time of an election are much greater factors than the congregations from which a leader comes, they say.

It may seem puzzling to some that Preus, the first of the trio, stepped into the public arena as a strong advocate for measures to combat the decline in urban neighborhoods and racial injustice.

Preus came from a long line of leaders in the old Norwegian Synod, the most theologically conservative of the Norwegian-immigrant church groups. It was that synod, little inclined to be proponents of social and political activism, that founded Hope. Their aim was to provide a Lutheran congregation in southeast Minneapolis and a church home for students from Norwegian-immigrant families at the nearby University of Minnesota.

During the 37-year pastorate of the Rev. C.S. Thorpe, the church rose from a struggling mission congregation to a strong worship center whose primary outreach activity was what its founders had envisioned —a mission to the Lutheran students at the University.

Three years after Thorpe’s retirement in 1948, the Rev. Arndt Halvorson took over as senior pastor. Known as an outstanding preacher, he propelled the congregation to an all-time high membership of over 1,400 and launched a major expansion of Hope’s physical plant.
The sanctuary, located on the northwest corner of 6th Street and 13th Avenue SE, three blocks from Dinky-town, was augmented by an education and chapel wing and, in later years, by parking facilities. Hope now occupies nearly a full block. After six years at Hope, Halvorson accepted a second call from Luther Seminary and served 30 years there as a professor of homiletics.

When Preus was called to succeed Halvorson in 1957, following a brief stay as campus pastor at the University, it soon became apparent to him that the once closely knit southeast Minneapolis community was heading into trouble.

Single-family housing was disappearing as the University expanded and developers acquired property for cheap apartment buildings. Highway Depart-ment plans indicated both I-35W and I-94 would slash through the area, dividing it and eliminating more family housing; and the community’s high school, Marshall, and several elementary schools were threatened with closing.

These tough problems “just had to be met by the congregation if it was to stay alive,” Preus said recently. He also declared, “I understood it, and continue to understand it, as being a matter of Christian responsibility to help create healthy communities. Undergirding it all is the charge we have to love our neighbors and do justice.”

Churches, businesses, la-bor unions and citizen groups in southeast Minne-apolis banded together to deal with the challenges, forming the Southeast Minneapolis Planning & Coordinating Committee (SEMPACC), with Preus as its chairman. He later was elected to the Minneapolis School Board, where he became a leading advocate of a controversial plan to use busing to end de facto racial segregation in the city’s schools.

During his 10 years as senior pastor, Erdahl expanded on the concern for social issues, adding a global reach. He believed that Christians needed to exercise “moral stewardship” in all aspects of life, from care for the environment to peacemaking.

Hanson, who had de-monstrated a deep concern for peace and justice issues as senior pastor at Edina Community Lutheran, continued on that path at Hope, building on the legacy of Preus and Erdahl.

But all three of these men, along with Hope’s current senior pastor, Craig Shirley, stress that none of what the trio accomplished at Hope and the prominence they later attained would have been possible without a long-standing characteristic of the congregation. That is strong lay leadership, and it offers some support for the notion that Hope serves uniquely as an incubator for Lutheran leaders at higher levels.

“When you talk about what makes these people (Preus, Erdahl, Hanson and others) who they are, it’s some of the members who really push these folks,” Shirley asserted.

That’s a reference to the faculty, staff and students from the University who have been part of the membership base from the start, but also to laypersons from all sectors of the community. They have vigorously supported the stands taken by the pastors and, having been leaders in their own fields in some cases, know the importance of letting the pastor they have called be the leader of the congregation.
“It’s a congregation of great expectations,” Preus said. “They look for leadership and recognize it when they get it.”

Prior to coming to Hope, Erdahl said, he became aware that a stream of resolutions on local and global issues, originating in commissions that play a key role in Hope’s governance structure, were consistently on the agenda at local and district conventions.

“None of the three of us came in with the idea that we were going to change the world through this congregation,” Erdahl said. “We established a bond with the congregation, and they get as much credit as the pastors for this relationship.”
Hanson feels his major contribution during his seven years at Hope was “a centering on what has always been central to Hope: the congregation gathered in worship around the means of grace. It would be wrong to create an identity of Hope only as a congregation engaged in the world and not a community of faith gathered around Word and Sacrament.”
Said Mark Hanson, “Hope didn’t succumb to a lot of the liturgical trends [of the time] … and that sustained the congregation through challenges in the immediate neighborhood, changes at the University and the global crises we sought to address.”

The bishop added, “Hope is a congregation that has always held in tension the wonderful Lutheran dialectic of faith and reason. So it has encouraged curiosity about the faith and the world without at all diminishing its clear proclamation of the Gospel.”

All has not been sweetness, light and unity in recent years as Hope deals with peace and justice issues. One issue — gay and lesbian rights — has sharply divided the congregation.

Members on both sides of the issue withdrew from the congregation, but people with views at both extremes remain active, Shirley said. That’s despite a congregation vote in 1998 to become a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation — a step built around an Affirmation of Welcome that specifically includes people who have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

Shirley, who was called to Hope three years ago to try to restore unity, says the congregation, which does not hesitate to call itself liberal on other political and social issues, works to follow through on the RIC decision and its implications in the best way it can. That means everything from participating in GLBT marches to hosting monthly meetings of Caring Families and Friends — a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) persons, their parents and friends.

The Hope Lutheran of today is a congregation of 800-850, with a “fairly young” median age of 47 or 48, according to Shirley. The congregation includes many single persons of all ages and has fairly equal numbers in the under-30, 30-50 and over-50 age brackets. The largest single group is persons of the Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964.

Most older members have been at Hope all their lives, the pastor said. Some continue to live in the smaller residential neighborhood around the church, while others have moved to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.
The younger members tend to have picked the church intentionally because of their views on social justice issues, Shirley said.

Most members live in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul (the Hamline and Macalester neighborhoods of the latter), but some come from Shoreview and western Minneapolis suburbs such as Hopkins.

Hope’s personality has changed over the last 50 years, from its conservative Norwegian-immigrant be-ginnings, Shirley said. That’s because the older members “were perceptive enough to see in its new leaders people who were speaking the truth out of the Gospel,” he declared.

“They allowed these leaders to be who they were and allowed them to lead. In that process the congregation changed and became far more aggressive.”

“We’re a very, very liberal congregation now politically,” Shirley concluded, “but in our worship we’re very traditional. We’re very or-thodox Lutheran in style.
“Worship is what brings this very diverse congregation together. First and foremost, people come back to Hope because of the worship.”