"Miracle merger" brings Anglo, Hispanic congregations together
St. Luke, todos Los Santos combine resources, become “The Miracle”
Two south Minneapolis Lutheran congregations with vastly different backgrounds have merged, hoping that the consolidation will solve serious challenges facing both.
St. Luke Lutheran, a 110-year-old parish located at 38th St. and 17th Ave. S. in the Powderhorn neighborhood, and Todos Los Santos, an Hispanic mission congregation launched 10 years ago, joined formally under the new name “El Milagro/The Miracle” on Au-gust 26. The former St. Luke building is home to the new congregation.
The Rev. Jim Gullickson, who was interim pastor at St. Luke, a once-vital church founded to serve Norwegian immigrants, and the Rev. Tony Machado, pastor-developer of the Hispanic congregation, which had been meeting in rented space in church buildings several miles to the west, played key roles in the merger process.
To them, the linking of parishes founded to meet the needs of two very different ethnic groups, whose coming to the United States occurred a century apart, is a unique and even miraculous happening.
The Rev. Richard Mork, mission director for the ELCA’s Division for Outreach in the Minneapolis, St. Paul and southern Minnesota areas, is not ready to call the consolidation something unprecedented in the annals of the synod.
But he does say, “The coming together of an older congregation with a Scandinavian tradition and a new one serving Hispanic people is something we don’t see often. It’s an exciting thing that will increase the mission and ministry potential of both congregations.”
It was in the late 1880s that students from Augsburg Semi-nary began holding Sunday School classes and worship services for new immigrants from Norway in homes and business places in the Bloom-ington Ave.-E. Lake Street area, then near the south edge of settlement in Minneapolis.
Fifteen of these immigrant families formally organized St. Luke Church in 1891 and that same year built the congregation’s first sanctuary on land acquired at 17th Avenue and 31st Street. Growth was rapid, and a new worship facility — the congregation’s current sanctuary — was completed seven blocks to the south in 1918.
The size of St. Luke congregation peaked at 1,000 members in 1958. With a large number of young families on its rolls, its Sunday School was packed with children, and the congregation added an education wing in 1959.
In the 1960s, however, the exodus to the suburbs began to accelerate, and St. Luke, like many other congregations in south Minneapolis, entered a steady decline. Prior to this year’s merger it counted only 250 baptized members, enrollment in its Sunday School had dropped to a dozen, and there hadn’t been a confirmation class in two years.
In an effort to retain the vital role it had played in the surrounding community, St. Luke leased space in its increasingly unused education wing to a number of groups. These in-cluded the Cooperative Older Adult Ministry (COAM), an ecumenical effort with 22 south Minneapolis congregations; the Powderhorn Activities Council; Christ Latvian Lutheran Church; and the African-Amer-ican Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.
But by the late 1990s, St. Luke’s members, realizing their future existence was at stake, established a call committee to seek a part-time pastoral assistant who would concentrate on outreach to the greatly changed neighborhood around it.
When this search produced no results, and St. Luke’s pastor of 22 years, Carl Jensen, announced his retirement, the call committee had to switch its mission to finding a new full-time minister. In 1999 Gullick-son, whose 28 years in the Lutheran ministry had included calls at four churches in the Twin Cities metro area, stepped in as interim pastor.
In April 2000, Gullickson met Machado at a gathering of area ministers and learned that the latter, frustrated in his attempts to develop a stable congregation while using rented quarters, wanted to find a new home for Todos Los Santos within a year.
The possibility of bringing the Hispanic congregation, then worshipping at Salem Lutheran, 28th Street and Lyndale Ave. S., together with St. Luke Church, occurred to Gullickson. He mentioned the idea to Machado and also brought it up with leaders of St. Luke congregation.
Machado was invited to preach at St. Luke when Gul-lickson was gone during the summer of 2000, and he also spoke at adult forums there during the fall.
The result was that leaders at St. Luke wanted to call Machado as their full-time pastor, but he was reluctant to leave behind his Todos Los Santos congregation, which had grown to as many as 300 Spanish-speaking worshippers.
In January of this year, committees of the two congregations began studying and working on the details that would be involved in a merger. Arriving at a name for the integrated congregation proved to be difficult, Gullickson said. Many Hispanic immigrants come out of Roman Catholic backgrounds in Latin America, where people go to church on Sunday with the expectation that a “miracle” will occur. Members of St. Luke believe that by God’s grace something special is going to happen as a result of a merger. Because of this, the two sides agreed on the simple phrase “The Miracle,” in both Spanish and English, as the name for the new congregation.
As work on the merger details moved along, the two congregations held joint midweek Lenten services at St. Luke last spring, and on May 13 the Todos Los Santos congregation left Salem and began holding their Sunday worship at 11:00 a.m. at St. Luke. St. Luke parishioners met for their services at 9:30.
During the summer, Eng-lish-language and computer-skills courses were offered at St. Luke, open to the community. The neighborhood around St. Luke Church has witnessed a growing Hispanic population as immigrants from Latin America expand in the communities along East Lake Street. These classes are continuing in the fall, along with high-school-equivalency courses; and the Minneapolis Public Schools are launching an after-school program for youths at the church facility.
Following a joint worship service employing both English and Spanish languages on August 26, members of the merging congregations met separately to dissolve their old parishes and then came together again to formally incorporate as the new El Milagro/The Miracle.
With the grand opening of the new church entity on September 16, during which Machado was installed as senior pastor, the congregation em-barked on a fall schedule calculated to gradually bridge the language and cultural gap.
A 9 a.m. worship service is basically an English-language one, with a few Hispanic touches added, said Gullickson, who does the preaching. At 11:00 a.m. Machado conducts a Spanish-language service, with a few elements in English.
Gullickson handles the children’s sermonette at the 11:00 a.m. service, since most of the children of the Hispanic immigrants now are fluent in English. He also gives prayers in English and plans to preach periodically, with Machado translating into Spanish.
All members of the congregation take part in the education hour at 10:00 a.m., including an anticipated large increase in Sunday School enrollment. Plans call for occasional joint worship services in which a blend of English and Spanish elements is used.
That would be similar to the service on August 26, when the merger was formalized. On that day 150 persons attended, compared with St. Luke’s usual 60. The gathering included many young families with children, and a rare baptism was held. “You got the chills,” Gullickson said, recalling the changed milieu.
The key to the success of the new venture, Gullick-son said, will be to make sure that members of the former St. Luke Church feel they are part of the new ministry. “We don’t want to end up with two congregations,” he said. “We want to have this wonderful blend of Christians of different nationalities coming together to say that we are one in Christ. As we get used to it, the excitement will be there.”
The Hispanics are hard-working, solid family people who bring a warmth that breaks through the reserved atmosphere that Scandinavian and German members are used to, the pastor said. “That warmth will carry us through.”
Gullickson said it was his hope that the new parish will be a firmly established congregation in 10 years, and predicted that in 20 years English will be used in all services, with only elements of Spanish. This would be similar to the way English gradually replaced Norwegian in the early decades of St. Luke Church.
Machado, a native of Puerto Rico, was raised as a Roman Catholic in New York City and knew nothing of the Lutheran church until his post-college years.
Then, while working as a rural educator for Florida Inter-national University in Miami, he met members of the Division for Service and Mission in America of the old American Lutheran Church. They and the ALC called him to work as a licensed pastor, serving the Florida migrant-farmer community from a base at a Lutheran church in Miami. He subsequently came to St. Paul to enroll at Luther Seminary, and since graduating in 1988, has worked as a pastor-developer for the ELCA.
“We’ve divided the church into segments, and I hope that here on 38th Street we can begin to reclaim the power, the healing, the reconciliation, the oneness of baptism, the oneness that Jesus brings to the world,” Machado declared.
“And I hope that I don’t — or anyone else serving here doesn’t — get in the way.”