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500 years after Luther, Lutherans embrace growing diversity

Pastor Roy Coats of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Irvington discusses how the congregation of his church has become more diverse as the church has embraced immigrants from Africa. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

When the Rev. Martin Schultheis gazed out over the pews at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville on a Sunday 10 years ago, he saw about 200 faces. More than 95 percent, he estimates, were white.

Attendance has dropped since then — these days, about 150 people attend Sunday services. But those who do go have a different look.

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About one-fourth of the worshippers in the congregation are people of color — a development that stands out in a branch of Christianity that has historically been slow to change.

On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation — it was half a millennium ago this Tuesday that the theologian Martin Luther is said to have nailed his revolutionary Ninety-Five Theses to a church door, sparking a historic split with the Catholic church — Schultheis says Emmanuel and other area congregations appear to be in the early stages of a reformation of their own.

"For some [longtime churchgoers] this is a frustrating time, one that brings a loss of a sense of identity," he says. "For others it's an incredibly exciting period. Things are changing in a way that's bringing us back to who we really are."

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center found that the two major branches of Lutheranism in the United States — the traditionalist Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and its more culturally progressive cousin, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — ranked among the least ethnically diverse of the 30 religious groups it studied.

Both were more than 95 percent Caucasian. They came in 28th and 29th on the list. (The National Baptist Convention, at 99 percent African-American, finished last).

With its roots in longstanding German and Scandinavian immigrant communities, Lutheranism is still probably the most uniformly white denomination in America. But Emmanuel Lutheran and other area congregations are in the vanguard of what some inside and outside the church see as a coming transformation.

The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Irvington, founded in 1898, had dwindled to five members when a Liberian immigrant visited the property one Reformation Sunday, met the pastor and joined. It now boasts 50 members, most of them Liberian or Liberian-American.

Nazareth Lutheran Church in Highlandtown added a onetime Venezuelan missionary to its staff last year, and now holds a weekly service in Spanish. It has quickly become the church's most popular service.

Ethiopian immigrants have set up several small Lutheran congregations in greater Baltimore, including one that meets at Emmanuel, and Schultheis has hired an Urdu-speaking assistant pastor to work with the 30 or so Pakistanis in his congregation.

The changes, leaders say, are far from superficial. They reflect the stance the early church on race, class and gender — "There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither man nor woman, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," the apostle Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians — as well as the demographics of a nation becoming more ethnically diverse.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the African-American preacher named for the German church reformer, said the "most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."

His observation still resounds. A recent study of Protestant churches by LifeWay Research in Nashville found that more than 80 percent of congregations are dominated by one racial group.

Lutheranism in the United States has been that idea writ large.

Racial diversity is unlikely to have concerned Martin Luther himself when he gave birth to his namesake denomination in his hometown of Wittenberg, Saxony, 500 years ago.

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Roman Catholicism was the official faith of the Holy Roman Empire, with its doctrines that believers must perform good works, take part in holy sacraments, and submit to the authority of priests and the pope in order to gain salvation.

Luther, a professor and monk, believed all Christians shared a common priesthood, ordinary men and women had direct access to God through prayer, and one had only to accept Christ's divinity to be saved.

Whether or not he actually nailed his Theses to a church door — historians debate the point — the treatise he published on or around Oct. 31, 1517, had a deep impact, sparking a religious and political movement that swept through Europe and beyond.

Lutherans and other Protestants have celebrated the last Sunday in October as Reformation Day ever since.

Lutheranism would eventually spread to Africa, where it claims more than 24 million adherents, second most in the world after Europe, and to Asia, third with 12 million, thanks largely to missionaries in the 20th Century.

But when immigrants from Germany and the Nordic countries brought the faith to America, it remained culturally monolithic, in part because so many settled in regions that were predominantly white, and would remain that way for generations.

Human nature prolonged the segregation.

"It's a matter of like people gathering together with like people, and individuals of white European nationality are like any other group — they tend to congregate together religiously and other ways," says Mark A. Granquist, a professor of church history at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. "It might help to remember that as recently as 100 years ago, these groups weren't even speaking English. They were speaking Swedish, Finnish and German."

With Baltimore a magnet for European immigrants, particularly Germans, at the time, Lutheran congregations cropped up in this area as well. Their histories tell a story of a slow and in some ways reluctant transformation.

Vestiges of the early days remain. Zion Lutheran Church, for instance, remains in the city after more than 260 years, and still holds a weekly service in German.

But Emmanuel and Redeemer Lutheran churches, both founded in the 1800s, moved westward as the neighborhoods around them changed.

Schultheis became lead pastor of Emmanuel, a Missouri Synod church, in 2004. He says the church might have made a mistake many congregations do — favoring its cultural identity over its spiritual one — when it chose in 1954 to move from West Baltimore to Catonsville, rather than stay in place and continue to tend to its surrounding community.

Two decades ago, the congregation weighed moving again as the neighborhoods around it grew more diverse, this time to a property it owned in Howard County. That time, the group voted to sell that property, stay in place, and make an effort to minister to the community as it was, a decision that continues bearing fruit today.

All nations

Sometimes a congregation diversifies in an unplanned way. Sometimes it does so by design.

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Local churches have followed both paths.

The Rev. Roy Axel Coats was in his final year of seminary studies in 2010 when a representative of the Missouri Synod asked him to serve at Redeemer in Irvington.

The congregation, then 112 years old, had dwindled to five members. It was on the verge of closing.

On Reformation Sunday that year, an immigrant named Augustine Tarley was driving through the neighborhood when his car broke down. He wandered onto the property in search of help and spotted Redeemer's sign.

Years before, Tarley had been forced to leave his native Liberia during a period of civil unrest. He'd become a Missouri Synod Lutheran while living at a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast.

He met Coats that day, felt a bond and announced he'd join. Seven years later, Redeemer is a hub for the hundreds of Liberians who live around West Baltimore, and home to a growing congregation of 50.

Coats, who grew up in a Swedish-speaking Lutheran church in California, spends much of his time helping Liberian immigrants adjust to life in the United States, in many cases driving to their homes to pick them up for services and other events. In his view, Tarley's story was no coincidence.

"It has been a wonderful, beautiful, otherwise unexplainable divine providence," Coats says.

It has been natural for immigrants from Ethiopia to form their own congregations in the United States. The African nation is home to nearly 8 million Lutherans, according to the Lutheran World Federation, second most in the world after Germany. One such group, the Oromo Congregation, meets regularly at Emmanuel and became chartered through the MIssouri Synod this year.

And in Highlandtown, a dwindling membership at Nazareth decided last year to hire a Spanish-speaking pastor as the surrounding neighborhood continued to welcome more Hispanic residents.

The weekly Spanish service now outdraws its English counterpart.

Few, though, can claim to have done as much in this area as Schultheis, 45, who developed a love of urban life while growing up in Baltimore — and realized that few in his church seemed to feel the same way.

"There isn't much Lutheran presence in our cities," he says. "But there's no reason why there shouldn't be."

One longtime congregant says Schultheis has changed Emmanuel with that spirit.

Brenda Young, who is African-American, joined the church 25 years ago. She wanted her children to attend its Bible-centric school.

She fell in love with its welcoming personality and traditional German hymnody, but noticed that few others looked like her.

Schultheis, she says, has made it a mission to engage the surrounding community. He has consistently taught that church is about reaching across boundaries, not staying inside walls.

One day, she recalls, he asked the congregation go outside, stand in the parking lot and look around. That, he told them, is where the church really is.

The members now sing African-, Indian-, gospel- and Spanish-tinged hymns. Young says its growing diversity feels closer to Jesus' directive to "go and make disciples of all nations."

"I believe the church has a responsibility to break down the barriers that separate people," Young says. "Everybody needs God. I credit Pastor Schultheis for working really really hard to make that a reality."

After the Freddie Gray riots, Schultheis asked himself how Emmanuel Lutheran could reach out and help.

The congregation rented the first floor of a building on Pennsylvania Avenue. It helped establish a nonprofit organization aimed at starting businesses that will employ local residents.

Once the site is renovated, Schultheis says, the nonprofit, Faith and Work Enterprises, is ready to open a candy factory, and Emmanuel plans to plant a new church there.

Emmanuel hosted the Missouri Synod's Baltimore-area service in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation Sunday.

More than 30 area churches sent congregants. A joint choir and orchestra performed hymns, a guest speaker talked of Luther's love of music, and Emmanuel hosted a feast of ethnic foods.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have lost a total of about 2 million members in the past three decades, according to Pew, a trend that mirrors the general decline across most faith traditions in the nation.

Granquist, the church historian, says efforts to diversify haven't moved the needle yet, and it's unclear whether they'll reverse the slide.

Schultheis, for his part, has faith they will.

"These new members are adding new life to our congregations," he says. "They're changing the shape and feel of what it means to be Lutheran,".

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