Old guard at church moving on

Lutheran members will worship for last time on West Side

North Austin Lutheran Church, which has stood near the border of Chicago and Oak Park for 86 years, is a relic of the West Side's German and Scandinavian past.

Its congregation has shown itself to be a tenacious bunch. After a fire did extensive damage to the church's worship area in 1985, parishioners sifted through the rubble to recover every last shard of stained glass and spent more than a million dollars to restore the building at 1500 N. Mason Ave. to its original splendor.

But as parishioners moved to the suburbs and Austin became a largely African-American neighborhood, what was once one of the nation's largest Lutheran congregations dwindled to just 10 members.

The church offered ministries including a food pantry and after-school program. African-Americans living near the church were invited to attend, but the hymns remained the same ones favored by the old-timers, and few stayed.

On Sunday the remaining members of North Austin, many of whom were baptized and married there, will turn the church over to United Mission of Christ Lutheran Church, an African-American congregation that aims to bring new life to the historic church.

"I'm not so sure our service was the kind that people felt familiar with," said Rev. Thetis Cromie, North Austin's pastor for the last 15 years. "Our hope is that [the new] church will be able to reach out to people in a way that [they]will be responsive to."

The shuttering of North Austin Lutheran points to a challenge facing many Lutheran churches in American cities. While the ethnic makeup of many neighborhoods changed, churches focused on preserving the buildings and traditions of their European forebears rather than altering their liturgy to accommodate new cultures.

That has contributed to an overall decline for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Since forming in 1987, the ELCA has steadily lost members, dropping from 5.3 million to 4.8 million in 2007. Empty churches have closed or consolidated with other congregations.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson has urged congregations to "welcome the new immigrant in our midst."

Rev. Raymond Legania, pastor of Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church, one of 15 African-American Lutheran congregations on the South Side, said Lutheran churches in Chicago have been closing since the 1970s as blacks moved into many South and West Side neighborhoods and joined churches of other denominations. . "The liturgical style [of Lutherans] is not friendly to Africans-Americans and the way they worship," Legania said. Many feel once they walk in the door they're told to "leave your culture at the door and pretend you're someone else."

Although the congregation at North Austin Lutheran was not unfriendly, Legania said, the Sunday service retained its European flavor. African-Americans who came for help at the church were welcomed at the food pantry, but rarely felt at home in the church's pews on Sunday, Legania said.

North Austin's peak was in the 1930s. As people moved to the suburbs after World War II, the congregation lost membership but remained strong. Robert Abson, 81, remembers the exodus of North Austin members that took place in the mid-1960s when blacks began to move into the neighborhood.

"It was our home church. We saw no reason to leave," Abson said. "Those of us who stayed with it never regretted it."

LaVerne Schwartz, 70, one of the youngest parishioners at North Austin, was married in the church. Her children were baptized and confirmed there. And she had her husband's funeral service there too.

"There's a point where I have to move on," she said. "But we're down to so few it's time to go."

After the 1985 fire, which further emptied the church's pews, Schwartz and her daughter sifted through the rubble from the fire for days collecting stained glass. All eight windows were repaired to reveal images from the life of Christ.

While Abson and other parishioners view Sunday's worship service as a funeral, Cromie said she prefers to call it "a death and resurrection."

"I want this to be viewed as a transformation of the ministry that's here and an affirmation of a new direction," Cromie said. "The ritual may be different. Prayer may be different. But the story will still be the same."



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