The Church with Prayer Soaked Walls

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(The following is a modified version of a congregational study that I did for one of my classes at Luther Seminary. Lest this cause any confusion I will add the disclaimer that just because I positively write about another religion does not mean that I agree with its theology. Rather I want to illustrate that good people across religious traditions have similar traits.)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25

The Grace University Lutheran Church is located just inside the premises of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. The congregation has been around since 1903 and has seen a large number of changes in its neighborhood over the course of a century. These changes have shaped the evolution in focus of the Church over the course of the decades. In its earlier decades Grace University Lutheran was close to a residential neighborhood with many congregants living close to the Church but mainly due to the expansion of University of Minnesota and the Fairview Hospital nearby, it now lies next to both these institutions. As a consequence of these changes, the mission of this Church has shifted to reaching out and serving the community on the University campus as well as people who come to the hospital. While Grace University Lutheran is no longer a neighborhood Church but there is still a strong sense of community which can be gauged by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the congregants do not live close to the Church but rather drive long distances to come to the Church. The congregants are said to reside in more than fifty zip codes.

Grace Lutheran takes its context quite seriously: At any given Sunday there are many people visiting from the hospital and many of these visitors join the services. As a consequence, at any given Sunday the church has a large number of people in its services which are not regular members. Grace University Lutheran is thus a source of solace and peace for many hospital visitors who walk through its walls. The other important component of Grace University Lutheran’s context is the student body on campus. The Lutheran Campus ministry is also housed in the same building as the church but it has a different organizational structure. The campus ministry does a good job in reach out to the Lutheran students on campus and fostering a sense of community and fellowship in them. The reach out is not limited to Lutheran students but Grace has opened its doors to other student groups in the past as well. Thus the Muslim Student Organization on campus has used the prayer space at the church for many years for their Friday congregational prayers (Jummah salat/namaz) whenever they are unable to get a place to pray on campus. Pastor Mary’s description of the Church’s openness to other groups and not just Christians of a particular denomination was quite moving. She described the use of the prayer space by multiple groups as enriching the environment and creating the “prayer soaked walls” of the church.

The idea of mission as proselytization is not the main focus of the congregation but there is a strong social component with respect to how the congregation views its mission, in other words mission as Diakonia (service to others). This was a common theme amongst all the congregants that I spoke to. The congregation does sponsor a medical missionary in East Africa but even in this case the focus is on serving the locals rather than the mission for the sake of proselytization. Mission in this congregation is mainly understood in terms of service other people and evangelization is through one’s vocation. In the words of one of the congregations, “We do not go around knocking people’s door or stand at street corners preaching the Bible. One does everything on the behalf of Christ.” It is this sense of serenity that characterizes many of the congregants. Grace Lutheran in general has a friendly and welcoming atmosphere and hospitality is seen as the core of its mission.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. – Psalms 118:24

In terms of ethnicity, the congregation is not very diverse, most members are upper middle class European-Americans. There is however a large variability in age amongst the congregants ranging from people in their nineties to small children. I had the opportunity to meet a congregant who had been member of the congregation for more than fifty years. One interesting observation that came up during my conversation with her was that unlike most other mainline congregations the Grace University Lutheran has actually been experiencing growth. At one point in the 1970s the number of congregants had dwindled to almost fifty, the numbers of congregants are now at least six times as much. This also speaks to the vitality of Grace University Lutheran, the commitment of its members and its leadership.

Justice was another recurring theme in how the congregation sees its role in the wider community. The Grace University Lutheran is involved in a number of social justice causes e.g., civic activities like the ballot initiatives where the members feel that certain underprivileged segments of the society showed not be disenfranchised because of the proposed voter id laws or the proposed amendment to the state constitution regarding the definition of marriage. Grace University Lutheran is also an active participant in Isaiah which is a metro wide organization of Churches which are active in addressing justice related issues. Previously the church was also involved in health care discussion and debates that were going on in Minnesota. The congregation also tries to provide assistance to people who may enter the doors for whatever reason and is active in outreach as well. Some of the members are also involved in serving at soup kitchens and are also involved in other activities with justice related themes in their capacity as individuals and not necessarily as members of the church.

Grace University Lutheran sees its commitment to social issues and justice as the commitment to reconciliation and the world. This is what Christians call reconciling in Christ. While people of different backgrounds have different understandings of reconciliation, Grace University Lutheran’s understanding is informed by a sense of openness to people and groups who may be different but should be embraced regardless. The members do not see the differences as barriers to serving; one can serve others regardless of the background of the person that one is serving. The following quote form one of the members describes this sense of service succinctly, “Every time you draw a circle of who deserves God’s love, God always includes people who are outside of that circle as being worthy of his love. What we as people can do is to enlarge that circle.” While being inclusive the congregation does recognize that it definitely has a liberal political bent and thus people who do not subscribe to this particular Weltanschauung or who are more conservative may not feel welcome coming to the congregation. Thus all the people that I had the opportunity to talk to recognized the need to reach out to people with more conservative views. Parallel to this concern was the concern that was voiced by some members to embrace a more culturally diverse group of people. This limitation may be because of the peculiar setting and the environment, in the middle of a college campus and next to a hospital that Grace finds itself in.

The majority of the members of the congregation do not live close to the church building and thus have to make extra efforts to build a community around the congregation, This is definitely a source of pride and fellowship for them and in the words of one of the members “I don’t have to meld into whatever congregation is close to me. I choose to come here.” The congregants as well as the pastors also feel that Grace University Lutheran is a place which allows people to ask questions and there is no pressure to conform. It allows people to understand the true message of the gospel. The outlook of the congregation is characterized by orthopraxy rather an orthodoxy defined by repetition of a certain set of dogmatic declarations. The sort of orthopraxy that one observes is characterized by a respect for the individual while maintaining a balance with a strong sense of community. Thus the congregants have a deep understanding of the role that community plays in faith and feel that it as congregation members and community carry each other. This is manifested as coming together for services, at times of need, being there for one another etc. In words of one of the congregants “God is not just with personally but God is with me personally through this community that surrounds me through love.”

.. and nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, “We are Christians”: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. – Quran: Al-Mai’dah 5:82

The assignment that resulted in the current essay required the students to write an appraisal of a congregation from their own theology of mission. This puts me in a difficult position since I am not just an outsider but a religious outsider who does not share the beliefs in forms of salvation with the Christian community believes in. I have however come to recognize that there are certain parts of theology that the three great Abrahamic religions do share which can be summarized by a Jewish concept – Tikkun Olam (תיקון עולם) which means repairing or healing the world. Thus my understanding of suffering and healing is different from the traditional Christian view because it is informed by the Islamic ethos. However I do believe that religious and non-religious people can is involved in the process of healing one way or the other. With that in mind one can state that the Grace Lutheran University Church tries its best to live up to its mission of Diakonia, service to the world and people in the world. To summarize, Grace University Lutheran is characterized by a strong mission to integrate outsiders irrespective of their origin or even religion. The success of the congregation can be attributed to a number of factors: the sincerity, commitment God-consciousness, and the leadership of Pastor Dan and Pastor Mary.

May its walls remain prayer soaked. Ame(e)n.

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