Learning from our history

The history of First Bethlehem Church has much to teach the church at large. Below is a collection of newsletter articles that were written in 2011 in honor of our 140th anniversary.

THE EARLY YEARS OF FIRST BETHLEHEM LUTHERAN CHURCH

First Bethlehem was founded in 1871 in a prime location. At the time it was near the fringes of the city and many people who had lived further downtown had lost everything in the Chicago Fire of 1871. The area was also flooded with German immigrants, the vast majority of whom came from the Lauenburg area of Pomerania. (That region is now in the north of Poland and the town of Lauenburg is now called Lębork.)

A picture of the new church building (1889) before the steeple was removed in the 1920's
A picture of the new church building (1889) before the steeple was removed in the 1920’s

You might think that it was easy for our church to bring in new people in those days, and to some extent it was. The immigrants would have preferred a church that spoke German and would have been ecstatic to find a school that instructed pupils in German. And yet there was no guarantee that our church would grow as quickly as it did. For one thing, many of the German immigrants who came to this country were not particularly religious and it would have hardly occurred to most of them to look for a church. Moreover, the people of Pomerania were, technically speaking, not Lutherans; instead they were part of the Protestant Church of the Prussian Union, a church body that in 1817 had merged Lutherans and the Reformed into one Protestant church. To be sure, Pomerania had pretty much been Lutheran before the merger, but a German immigrant could easily have found the American equivalent of the Prussian Union Church in the neighborhood around First Bethlehem. However, those churches were never as popular as First Bethlehem. That is because the founding pastor, August Reinke, and his parishioners made a conscious effort to welcome the new immigrants—something that their rivals were less eager to do.

There is something we can learn from the first decades of our congregation. We too are in a prime location—not because we are on the fringes of the city but rather near the heart of it. Just as they welcomed people as they came into the community and they made connections with them, so we too should welcome newcomers. As they found commonalities in culture and used them to engage their newfound friends, so should we. And we should do this while not compromising God’s Word in the least, even as that first generation was faithful.

PREPARING THE NEXT GENERATION

The first generation of our church began thinking about the second generation 142 years ago. “Wait a minute!” you say. “Aren’t we celebrating the 140th anniversary of our congregation? How could the first generation begin thinking about the second generation two years before we even began to exist?” The answer is simple. What eventually became First Bethlehem Lutheran School started off as a branch school of First St. John Lutheran Church in the Ukrainian Village area. That congregation was founded in 1869, but already as soon as it was incorporated, it realized that some of its students were coming from further away and that it needed to establish at least one other school in an adjacent neighborhood. It planted one at Milwaukee and Paulina, which eventually migrated up to Le Moyne and Paulina. After existing for a couple of years, the school was ready to become the nucleus of a new church and so First Bethlehem Lutheran Church was founded in June of 1871.

Some of the early students at our school
Some of the early students at our school

From 1869 to 1985 a major focus of our church was the day school. As the neighborhood transitioned from largely German to Polish to Appalachian to Puerto Rican and African-American, the congregation continued to reach out to the community through its school. We showed parents that we were as concerned about their children’s future as they were, and that led parents and children alike to take our church seriously. Indeed, the school was one of the reasons the church had such a good future for a long time.

A classroom in our school sometime in the decade before the school closed
A classroom in our school sometime in the decade before the school closed

Sadly, we were not able to keep the school running when the financial burden became greater than we or the parents could bear, and so the school closed in 1985. But we have not abandoned all concern for the next generation. Our congregation is full of young adults in their 20’s who don’t necessarily need more formal education (since they often have college degrees already), but who continue to need formation in the faith and leadership development. And we would like to see that continue to happen and for you younger members to be a blessing to our congregation and the church at large for many years.

THE LOCAL CHURCH SERVES MORE THAN THE LOCAL CHURCH

Strong congregations care deeply about the ministry that goes on in and through their congregation, but they also care deeply about the church at large. They are as eager to help Christians around the globe or in the greater metropolitan area as they are to help their own members and their own neighborhoods. Thus, we should not be surprised that our congregation has always been concerned with the church at large.

Founding pastor of First Bethlehem and the first Lutheran pastor to preach in sign language
Founding pastor of First Bethlehem and the first Lutheran pastor to preach in sign language

Sometimes a ministry that began here spread elsewhere. That was the case with our deaf ministry. First Bethlehem Lutheran Church was the first Lutheran church in the United States to have a worship service in sign language. Although Pastor August Reinke was incredibly busy helping his church to grow into the thousands of members, he was concerned about a member of his who couldn’t hear the service and had stopped coming to church as a result. After spending some weeks learning sign language, he preached his first sermon in sign language; the text was “God is love.” Soon he was not only preaching regularly in sign language at First Bethlehem, he was also preaching at deaf missions in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana. He is the father of deaf missions in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Other times it was a matter of joining with other congregations to form a partnership that no individual congregation could do all by themselves. First Bethlehem joined several other congregations in northern Illinois to establish an orphanage in Addison. Eventually, other services were added to the orphanage and the organization is now known as Lutheran Child and Family Services, which helps individuals and families throughout the entire state of Illinois. Pastor August Reinke also urged his fellow pastors to establish a home for the elderly. From his pocket he plucked out a dollar that had been donated by a parishioner of his and it became the first dollar raised for what eventually became Lutheran Home and Services, mainly centered in Arlington Heights. First Bethlehem was also one of seven churches that began Concordia Cemetery. Through these partnerships, Lutherans were able to provide people with services literally from the womb to the tomb.

This is not to mention other ways in which our congregation has contributed to the church at large—from raising funds through mission festivals to raising up pastors and teachers to serve in the church at large. In the first fifty years alone, twenty-one men from the congregation became pastors; nine people became parochial school teachers; several entered church service in the ninety years that followed, although an exact tally is not available at this time. The congregation also hosted district conventions and other gatherings.

Without a doubt a strong congregation has to focus on its own ministry. But as we do so, we shouldn’t forget the needs of the church at large. It will only strengthen our own ministry to think of fellow believers outside of our local ministry.

THE LANGUAGE QUESTION

Our congregation had a vibrant ministry in the last quarter of the 19th century as it welcomed new immigrants from Germany. Chicago had a large number of German immigrants, who in part were making the city the booming center that it was. Not everyone who came from Germany was interested in becoming part of a Lutheran church that taught sound doctrine, but there were enough who did so that our congregation had grown to 3,600 communicant members by 1905.

Around that time immigration from Germany began to decline. It is not that Germans ceased to emigrate, but the conditions had improved in Germany to such a degree that people there no longer felt obligated to leave in quite the same numbers as before. Meanwhile, the older immigrants and especially their children and grandchildren were acclimating themselves to their new country. Fewer people from the younger generation spoke German as their primarily language, and for some it was quite a challenge even to speak it at all.

This newspaper clipping from shortly after the U.S. entered World War I emphasizes that First Bethlehem's members could be patriotic Americans, despite their German heritage
This newspaper clipping from shortly after the U.S. entered World War I emphasizes that First Bethlehem’s members could be patriotic Americans, despite their German heritage. The caption reads, “Little Frieda Pack, of German descent, raises the American flag at [First] Bethlehem Lutheran School, McReynolds [now Le Moyne] and Paulina streets, as 150 of her school mates, also of German descent sing ‘America.’ “

However, the congregation continued to worship exclusively in German until 1919. At that time they began to worship once a month in English, twice a month starting in 1922, and every week since 1929. German also remained the official language of business meetings until April 8, 1934, when the minutes began to be published in German and English. Only on December 13, 1943, did the minutes begin to be recorded exclusively in English. Our 1946 (75th anniversary) booklet notes, “It is possible that many young people drifted from the church and did not make their religion an active principle in their life because they were held too long to the language of their parents while it was becoming obsolete to them.” By the time English services began to be held weekly, the congregation had declined to approximately 1,300 communicant members, one-third of its size just a quarter century earlier. There were other factors that caused decline in the first three decades of the century (which we will explore in another article), but the unwillingness to adopt English has to be considered a major factor.

It is common for people today to shake their heads and wonder what the older generation was thinking when it dragged its feet on the switch over to English. But we have to remember that there were few theologically sound resources in English at that time. There had been other Lutheran synods in America that had switched over exclusively to the use of English—and had lost their theological moorings in the process. Our church (and the Missouri Synod to which it belonged) didn’t want to follow that poor example. And thus it tried to make the transition over from German to English in as thoughtful a manner as possible, albeit often a bit too slowly.

The change from German to English was the first major challenge that faced our congregation, but it would not be the only one. In every era there would be a need to speak the language of the new generation. Whenever the congregation found itself transitioning to that new idiom, it often meant going into unchartered waters, all the while trying to remain true to its confessions. It remains a challenge for us today and always will.

ON THE MOVE

Last month I mentioned that the congregation grew quickly from zero to 5,600 baptized members in the span of 35 years from its founding. However, during the next quarter of a century it lost two thirds of its membership, in part because the congregation was slow to make the transition from German to English. But there is another part of the story. Not only were members of the church moving from German to English in their daily lives, they were also physically moving away from the church’s neighborhood.

German immigrants may have settled in the Wicker Park and Bucktown areas as their first destination in Chicago, but it would be unusual to expect people to cross thousands of miles only to stay put in one place for the rest of their lives. Although most of them would stay in Chicago, they were constantly looking for less densely populated areas or better housing and so they often turned to the newer construction further northwest. You can see the progression by looking at the churches that trace their ancestry back to First Bethlehem Lutheran Church. In 1885 First Bethlehem started Christ Lutheran Church in Logan Square. That church in turn founded two congregations: one more towards the north, Concordia Lutheran Church (in Avondale) in 1891, and one more towards the west, Jehovah Lutheran Church (in the western part of Logan Square) in 1904. Concordia Lutheran Church in turn founded Tabor Lutheran Church in 1906, in the Albany Park neighborhood. Thus, many of the earliest members of First Bethlehem left our church to settle in further outlying neighborhoods and established new congregations. Thus, a good portion of the nearly 4,000 members who disappeared between 1905 and 1930 showed up in sister churches.

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As transportation became easier, people discovered they could move further away from First Bethlehem while still remaining active members of it. The congregation still maintained the core of its membership in the neighborhood, but more and more of its parishioners lived in the farther northwestern reaches of the city or even in the suburbs. In 1960, 23% of the parishioners lived inside the “Triangle” bounded by Ashland, North, and Milwaukee, while another 27% lived within a one mile radius of the church. But already by then, more than 11% of the congregation lived more than five miles from the church, including 3.4% living in suburbs as far away as Roselle. In 1970 the core of the congregation still remained in the immediate neighborhood, but by then the Triangle accounted for only 17% of the church and the entire communities of West Town, Logan Square and Humboldt Park accounted for only 47.5% of the membership. Another 40% lived in farther areas of the city and 12% lived in the suburbs, some as far away as Antioch.

This was not just a phenomenon of the post-World War II era when urbanites migrated to the suburbs and when the expressway was built in our neighborhood in the mid-1950’s. There has been a tendency for people in every decade since the invention of the automobile to get attached to our church when they first settle in the neighborhood and then maintain that connection even when they migrate elsewhere.

This has been both a challenge and a blessing. It has been a challenge to keep people who moved away from the immediate neighborhood to participate actively in the church and to help the church reach out to a neighborhood that they may know increasingly little about. But it has also a blessing in that it allows members of long standing to provide continuity and leadership to an ever changing church and its community. And thus we will always have to face the struggle of how to be a church that serves the whole metropolitan area while still being strongly rooted in a local community.

NEW NEIGHBORS

In last month’s newsletter we saw that there was a tendency of many members of First Bethlehem to settle in the neighborhood for several years or even a generation or two and then move further northwest once they had the means to do so. Sometimes the neighborhood was fairly stable and entire blocks were made up of members of First Bethlehem who had been there for generations. (I have heard of Homer Street near Armitage Avenue described as one such block.) Other times events accelerated members’ departure from the area, as when the government bought out the homes left and right in the neighborhood in order to build the Kennedy Expressway, which prompted half of the congregation in 1955 to transfer their membership closer to where they settled.

A VBS program reaches out to the many children in the community in the 1980's; note the advdertizement for the bilingual Sunday service

A VBS program reaches out to the many children in the community in the 1980's; note the advertisement for the bilingual Sunday service

Except for when the expressway was being built, most of the time when members left there were new people coming into the neighborhood. About the same time that Germans were settling in Wicker Park and Bucktown, the Polish began coming too, at first more in the Pulaski Park area to the east of the church and then later into Bucktown. Eventually, fewer Germans would stay in Wicker Park and Bucktown while the number of Poles would swell. Until not too many years ago Division Street near Milwaukee Avenue would be called “Polish Broadway,” and political figures such as Dan Rostenkowski were fixtures in the community. Many older readers will remember Sophie’s Busy Bee (where Penny’s Noodle Shop is today), where cops and important Chicago politicians ate pierogi next to people one step above homelessness.

By the middle of the twentieth century the housing stock was getting old and lacked many of the conveniences Americans (at least those of some means) were beginning to demand. As former residents moved out, they were replaced by those for whom the dilapidated buildings were the best they could afford. The first to move in were people from Appalachia, drawn to the city during World War II and shortly thereafter by the prospect of better jobs. In the 1960’s Puerto Ricans arrived in large numbers, chiefly coming from the Old Town and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. Eventually they would be joined by Mexican-Americans, and the area around the church would be one of the few communities where a sizable number of both Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans would live. At about the same time there was a significant influx of African-Americans, although their numbers would not swell to rival those of the Latino community.

In the 1980’s a number of artists moved into the area, attracted by the low rents for spacious lofts that doubled as studios. Shortly thereafter it became a hotspot for hipsters and affluent art lovers (who began renovating old houses or tearing them down and building new ones). As gentrification proceeded and the number of condominiums increased, the neighborhood began to draw a large crowd of young, single college-educated professionals, who enjoyed a community that had all the amenities and just a trace of its former edginess.

What does this have to do with First Bethlehem? Our church has had to work hard through the years to welcome newcomers to the community. To German surnames such as Greinke and Schiefelbein were added such Polish names as Rudzinski and Moncznik, followed by Spanish names like Rodriguez and Guevara. The congregation today shows a blending of all the changes that the neighborhood has seen over the years. What had been a monolithic German church is now quite a diverse congregation.

How exactly did we do this? We’ll answer that in our next installment.

REACHING THE NEW NEIGHBORS

As noted in last month’s newsletter, our church has had to work hard through the years to welcome newcomers to the community. To names such as Greinke and Bohl were added such names as Rudzinski and Moncznik, followed by names like Rodriguez and Guevara. The congregation today shows a blending of all the changes that the neighborhood has seen over the years. What had been a monolithic German church is now quite a diverse congregation. How exactly did we do this?

Usually the newcomers to a community have had a lot in common with the previous residents. The Germans who settled here originally came from a part of Germany (Pomerania and East Prussia) very close to Poland and where there was a great degree of Slavic influence. (Many of the names of the early German members of First Bethlehem ended in –(s)ke and –ow, which are Slavic suffixes.) The Appalachians, Puerto-Ricans, and African-Americans shared the working class roots of the older Polish and German residents. The artists who came in the 80’s were as impoverished as their older neighbors. The gentrifiers who came thereafter loved the work of the artists and the edgy nature of the community. And so it will continue. There is always something to link newcomers with the older residents, or else the newcomers wouldn’t have settled there.

The challenge always is to find those commonalities and use them to build bridges. This does not have to be difficult because we know that ultimately people of every culture share the deepest needs of all. All people need God’s Word. All people need to know Jesus Christ as their Savior. All people need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. Those needs transcend cultures. And thus the gospel will be relevant to everyone who lives in or visits our neighborhood.

Pastor Edwin A. Reinke, seated right, and his wife Edith, seated left

Pastor Edwin A. Reinke, seated right, and his wife Edith, seated left

Through the many changes our neighborhood has seen, First Bethlehem Lutheran Church has kept this in mind. This became especially obvious in the early 1960’s, when many churches in Chicago didn’t welcome integrating neighborhoods, let alone integrated congregations. Pastor Edwin A. Reinke had the foresight to see that within a few years the neighborhood would no longer be exclusively white. He prepared the congregation for that reality and got them to adopt an “Open Door” policy, which said that anyone who agreed to our confession of faith was welcome regardless of color or ethnic background. Pastor Reinke also welcomed a proposal by Pastor Don Becker of First Immanuel Lutheran Church, a largely African-American congregation, to send their children to our school. Pastor Becker has remarked more than once that he had thought that Pastor Reinke would have been opposed to such an idea since he was a bit older, especially since many of the younger clergymen had resisted sharing their schools with First Immanuel. But Pastor Becker was pleasantly surprised to find that sort of openness on the part of our church. Later Pastor Reinke would learn Spanish at his own expense because the district ruled him “too old” to receive a grant to learn that language.

Pastor Reinke illustrates well the attitude that is behind this congregation. He had a firm commitment to the Scriptures and sound theology. He wasn’t going to change his teachings to suit the times. However, that very commitment led him to welcome everyone, for he knew that all people are sinners for whom Jesus died and who need to know God’s truth. And thus our congregation has always welcomed new arrivals and invited them to join us in hearing God’s Word and repenting and believing the gospel.