Lutherans in Minnesota

Civil rights leader preaches at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church

The Rev. Dr. Clifford Nelson hosted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in late 1950s

Forty years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the
African-American preacher who challenged U.S. Christians at the moral roots
of their faith, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was elected president of the
United States of America. Although the intervening years between King and
Obama may have felt like wandering in the wilderness to many, clearly a
majority of U.S. citizens had been on a journey of many steps.

One step along that path occurred in a Lutheran congregation in Minnesota.
The Rev. Dr. Clifford Nelson, legendary pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
(now ELCA) in St. Paul, had invited a young and upcoming pastor from a
moderately-sized congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, to preach at the
1957 annual meeting of the Minnesota State Pastors Conference. “Dr. Clifford
Nelson was a person who could see the future coming” said Elizabeth
Eckholm, laughing, remembering the pastor who had confirmed her many
years earlier. She said, “He would recognize the value of King coming to
Minnesota” for a special event.

The Minnesota State Pastors Conference was meeting in January 1957 at
Gloria Dei for what would turn out to be an historic gathering. “In walked a
man, noticeably not tall, alongside Dr. Nelson, our pastor. This man climbed
the steps into the pulpit and started to preach,” says Eckholm, who was
singing in the Gloria Dei high school choir that day.

“King’s name was familiar to many of us, but we hadn’t heard him preach,”
Eckholm told Metro Lutheran, “But he had a booming voice that mesmerized
everybody.”

Eckholm remembers King stretching his body out from that high pulpit,
swinging his hand in a circle, pulling congregants in. “I thought he would fall
out,” Eckholm recalls. “But everyone was listening. He was very charismatic,
very dynamic.”

The sermon King preached that day is a famous one. He had shared it a
couple months earlier at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, one
of the home churches of the modern civil rights movement. Titled “Paul’s
Letter to American Christians,” King’s sermon that morning in St. Paul offered
a fundamental challenge to Christians of the day, especially those who asked
for patience for the slow, steady movement of change.

King began, “I would like to share with you an imaginary letter form the pen
of Apostle Paul. The postmark reveals that it comes from the city of Ephesus.”
King then explained that he was translating it from the original Greek for a
modern audience, taking seriously the opening admonition to “[p]lease read
to your congregation as soon as possible, and then pass it along to the other
churches.”

After a famous description of “Paul’s” sense of being impressed by modern
scientific improvements, including “sky- scraping buildings with their
prodigious towers,” King won- dered if “your moral and spiritual progress
has been commensurate with your scientific progress.” 

Several minutes later he said, “The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to
tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me
that one-tenth of one percent of the population controls more than 40
percent of the wealth. Oh, America, how often have you taken necessities
from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly
Christian nation you must solve this problem.” And then he cautions against
turning to the ethical relativism of communism as well.

Imagine the Gloria Dei high school choir, in the sanctuary to provide some
inspirational music to a room full of preachers. But these teens, in hearing
these words, were challenged in ways that would mean they’d never be the
same. With a long life ahead of them, they were told that the way they lived
their lives and made their choices really mattered.

“It changed my way of thinking about other people,” Eckholm says. “I became
much more thoughtful and respectful when reading about the struggles of
other people. And my parents talked about what impact it would have on our
community.”

The impact was immediate in one way. The Rev. Floyd Massey, the pastor
who grew Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul into the primary African-
American congregation in the state, was elected the first African-American
pastor of the Minnesota State Pastors Conference. Massey went on to became
the national leader of both the National Baptist Convention (an historic black
denomination) and the American Baptist Church (a primarily white
denomination at the time).

King addressed these separations: “There is another thing that disturbs me to
no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a
Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the
church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must
face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing
‘All Hail the Power of Jesus Name’ and ‘Dear Lord and Father of All Mankind,’
you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America.”

But the hour has changed. Still there is separation to be addressed. But a
majority of Americans have now voted for a presidential candidate who
identifies himself as African American. The journey continues, but a corner
has been turned.