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Lutheran college, Episcopal cathedral create partnership

Wartburg College’s Denver program begins new chapter

Wartburg College students can spend a semester in Denver thanks to a unique relationship with an Episcopal congregation. Photos provided by Wartburg College.

Wartburg College, an ELCA school in Waverly, Iowa, is one of only a few Lutheran schools of higher learning with a satellite campus. On a campus in the midst of the mostly-flat farmland of northeast Iowa, the 1,800 students at Wartburg sometimes think wistfully about post-college opportunities among the scenic wonders of the American West.

Those who sign on with the school’s unique semester (or summer term) in Denver, Colorado, get a taste of what it would be like to work in a big city with a mountain range on the horizon.

And now, with a recently created partnership with one of the ELCA’s ecumenical partners, Wartburg students in Denver can enjoy some Episcopalian hospitality while they complete their academic internships.

The Wartburg West program was created 28 years ago, when a growing corps of school alumni in the Denver area persuaded then-college president Robert Vogel to start an off-site study opportunity in their city. Vogel had previously served an inner-city congregation in Denver and knew the Colorado metropolis intimately.

After buying an urban apartment complex, the college drew students from the Waverly campus to Denver for alternative learning experiences. Students spending a semester in Colorado were — and still are — required to complete an internship somewhere in the Denver area. Many are in the field of education, social work, and pre-med, but the range is diverse. Some Wartburg West students, for example, are majoring in film production, fitness management, and event planning.

From apartment complex to college dormitory

The college’s Denver program is currently managed by co-directors Nelson and Bonita Bock, both ordained ELCA clergy and both on the Wartburg College religion faculty. There are two adjunct professors who assist them.

Students share space in the Wartburg West apartment complex developed by the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Denver.

Wartburg students in Denver can enjoy some Episcopalian hospitality while they complete their academic internships.

Wartburg’s partnership with the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John, a congregation with 4,000 households located just blocks from the Colorado state capitol building, developed serendipitously. Prior to taking over leadership of the Wartburg West program (in the program’s third year of existence), the Bocks were serving in an ecumenical peace and justice ministry in downtown Denver. They participated in a task force with personnel from St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, whose members have been working for years to create a sustainable ministry presence in Denver’s Capitol Hill Neighborhood.

When leadership at St. John’s began thinking about what to do about a parking lot across the street from their large worship facility and the 60-year-old apartment building they own there, they considered tearing down the structure and constructing something entirely new. But the Bocks suggested they make the unit, with space for 30 students, available to Wartburg West, since the smaller 20-unit apartment building they then owned and occupied was in poor condition.

That led to the new partnership. Beginning last May, Wartburg students moved into studio apartments across the street from the cathedral. The cathedral provides office and classroom space for Wartburg West programs. And the members of St. John’s are taking satisfaction in the fact they are doing something new and significant in their community, in partnership with a college located 1,000 miles away, in the Tall Corn State of Iowa.

“Members of St. John’s are very excited about having the Wartburg students around,” says Bonita Bock.

Nelson Bock explains that the partnership enabled the cathedral congregation to meet a goal they had previously set. “St. John’s is marking 150 years as a congregation. [To highlight that milestone] they wanted to discern what would be a significant and appropriate mission undertaking in and for the neighborhood.”

The cathedral plans to use the rest of the parking lot space for affordable housing and a child-care center.

As a launch for the new partnership, the Wartburg College Choir, which had included Colorado on this spring’s tour schedule, decided to sing at the cathedral. That gave members of St. John’s another exposure to the ELCA school, whose distant campus most of its members will never visit.

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