Photo by Dirk van der Duim
“Fern, I read your article about being the neighbor, and like it very much. It’s been quite a long time. It’s nice to have found you here, I remember you from St. Matthew’s .” — Jose
This was a comment left on one of my LivingLutheran blogs (“God in close-up”). Jose? Is this the skinny teen from New Jersey? But I had to be sure. He left his email address so I wrote to him.
Over 20 years had gone by. Yes, it was really Jose, the teenager who was mature for his age. He came to church with his cousins Gilbert and Angel and made sure the boys were on their best behavior. Jose told me he moved from our New Jersey neighborhood to Puerto Rico where he married and has six children.
There were so many bonds formed in St. Matthew Trinity Lutheran in Hoboken, a one-mile-square city in New Jersey. A product of a merger, St. Matthew was the German United Lutheran Church in America congregation, while Trinity was the Norwegian American Lutheran Church congregation. I think back lovingly on the number of people who touched my life there and how the parish grew into a microcosm of the kingdom of heaven:
Woody was a simple man of Norwegian background. His father was an expert carpenter who crafted the altarpiece moved from Trinity into St. Matthew. After he retired, Woody was a fixture at St. Matthew Trinity. There were not many left in the congregation, but those who were, including Woody, knew that God was calling them to be faithful.
With new leadership and renewed courage, the congregation grew. The community had changed: families of Latin American heritage and single young urban professionals moved into apartments and condominiums in the brick row houses, which were also home to working-class Italians, Germans, Norwegians and African Americans.
The neighborhood caught the Spirit
As God worked through Woody and the welcoming people of this congregation, the neighborhood caught the Spirit. From a few blocks away, Gedia, Lydia and their brother Jorge came to Sunday school. So did Jasmin and her brother Ricardo. Then there was Kim, a textile designer, who became a Sunday school teacher and friend to the growing number of teens.
Sheila was a pre-school teacher and mother who became president of the congregation. She put together inspirational birthday celebrations commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. She invited her mother, a niece and numerous family members to church.
Awilda, the parish secretary and program director, and Luis brought their children to Sunday school and worship. Audrey, an advertising executive, designed a brochure for the congregation. Tom was an actor who dedicated a summer helping the vacation Bible school put on a musical. Patricia helped with weekly Bible study, translating the discussion into Spanish. Virginia was a dancer who led the teenage liturgical dance troupe.
Graduate students from the Stevens University campus up the street were touched by the gospel. Lalitha and Charles walked to church with their children, Vinod and Anita; they invited Sheila and Santosh who brought their children, Nikhil and Dia. Little Peter and Su-sen were baptized before they returned with their parents to Taiwan.
Each Sunday, Artie drove people to worship in the church van. Alice and Ann, and a whole host of helpers, took care of the crowded and bustling Sunday coffee hour. Babies cried and children ran around the parish hall. Pancakes were cooked and served on Fastnacht. Children proudly dressed up for their First Communion and Confirmation.
We played softball on a dry, dusty field on the edge of the city. On Easter Sunday, young and old marched from the top of the hill overlooking the Hudson where we can see the New York skyline down to the church.
Discarded Christmas wrappings, ribbons and bows were recycled and formed into candy-filled piñatas used for the annual El Dia de Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings) celebration.
Our potluck dinners were always a feast of homemade Indian, Chilean, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Argentine, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, German, Norwegian, Chinese, Italian, African American “soul” and American foods.
One way we documented the “Rainbow Church” was through a series of oral history events with panelists made up of congregational members.
One week, the panelists were Latin Americans; the next, Norwegians; and this continued as we featured the Germans, African Americans and other cultural groups represented in the congregation. The community and local media were invited to listen and ask questions.
Working with local churches and community organizations, the congregation helped form an advocacy group for housing justice. Together with community churches, a shelter for homeless people was founded, and the hungry and often hopeless found rest and a hot meal.
Volunteers, seminarians and young pastors assigned to this congregation all brought new ideas and energy.
God had truly empowered God’s people to be disciples of the gospel in this city.
Woody was chauffeur-in-chief, driving children to Sunday school and older parishioners to worship. Woody and his sister, Alice, made weekly runs to the supermarket to buy groceries for the daily lunchtime program. He would drive people to doctor’s appointments, and when Edna asked, he took her to the hairdresser.
His old car was stolen several times despite the lock he placed on the steering wheel. But that didn’t stop Woody from driving — and always with a cheerful heart. What did infuriate Woody were unkind comments which he read between the lines: “The church isn’t what it used to be.” In the strongest words he could muster, Woody declared the love and justice of Jesus.
Woody and many in his generation had a vision that their congregation could be a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven; some lived to see it begin at St. Matthew Trinity. They recognized that the new wine of this community required new wineskins. They saw that the harvest was full and that there were no easy gimmicks for the laborers.
This congregation still thrives today, although the community has experienced even more changes. In part, it’s because Woody — and people like him — allowed God to stir up their passion to be compassionate disciples.
Woody’s birthday was Nov. 1 — All Saints Day. He is now with his Lord. Thanks be to God for this generation of saints and the saints who continue rolling up their sleeves for the kingdom of God.
Fern Lee Hagedorn is the Friday morning voice of WJFF, public radio in northeastern Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York. She is a member of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Narrowsburg, N.Y.