Above the aquamarine-colored doors, the brick face of Hartford’s Grace Lutheran Church rises tall to a bell tower and steeple topped with a cross, but the side door is the gateway to this community church. It first leads to stairs and an elevator for handicap access to the sanctuary, but a few steps to the right descends to the lower ground floor, where the community work happens.
The sign over the door proudly proclaims support for immigrants. I walk down a long hallway of carefully hung clothing and accessories ready for distribution in Janet’s Closet, a clothing exchange. This hallway opens up to the multipurpose gathering room. It is here that the gathering committee meets for Friday Meditation, and later serves a warm meal. The gathering room is a large, open space with tables. The walls are covered with pictures of those that have been served here. Three long tables filled with groceries line the left side of the entrance. Every Friday, between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., they open their doors to anyone who would like to enjoy a healthy hearty meal—with neither prayer nor membership required. Church members and volunteers from all walks of life come early to prepare food for distribution to the community and anyone who needs it.
Emmanuella Heart, an African Catholic nun, wearing a muted multicolored belted kaftan and a headscarf, stands in front of a table of groceries. She is a social worker from Catholic Charities who coordinates Grace’s community outreach programs. Everybody pitches in. The hands-on work is done by the congregation under the guidance of the pastor and church council.
On a Sunday after service in March, Pastor Richard Kremer stood beside a leather chair tucked behind his office desk. The space seems small, with walls covered in books, but is the size of the average family room. His office door opens into the narthex, the hallway leading to the sanctuary, offering a clear view of a life-sized angel that holds a baptismal fountain in its open arms. Pastor Rick wears his customary black suit and collar. He has removed his glasses and placed them on his desk. He paces the room as I ask how this small church does megachurch things.
“The thing that I deeply believe is that this is what God wants us to do: to be together, to work together, to care about others and not about ourselves. So what else can we do?” He walks behind the desk. “We’re right in the middle of the community of people that are suffering and the numbers of immigrants and refugees that we’re dealing with, and the numbers of homeless are growing, and growing, and growing. All the things we read about in the paper about what’s happening, it’s happening here. We’re working as much as we can to make a difference. That’s what we believe church is. Grace is a gift from God. God gives us grace; one of the ways that we experience that joy of grace is by trying to share it; and we do it with great sincerity and great seriousness and have for many many years.”
Pastor Rick entered seminary after college, but family demands steered him to a successful career in the insurance business. He managed his work and dedicated his time to philanthropy, then became a community organizer. But God told him he wasn’t finished yet. “I dropped everything and went to seminary at sixty. I’ve been here for eighteen years. And this was the logical place for me to be.”
Several churches and nonprofits help support Grace’s community programs and are looking forward to involving nonprofits such as Urban Alliance. Grace has been able to help put clothes on backs, and warm meals in bellies. Fresh Start Pallet Products is a nonprofit started by Grace to help those without work. It assists those who have served time in prison, returning vets, and those down on their luck. Fresh Start recycles used pallets to make furniture. It provides people the opportunity to rebuild themselves and their lives.
Pastor Rick says, “We do have a lot more than what you would expect a Church of our size to do.” He’s being modest. They do a heck of a lot more. But philanthropy isn’t cheap. “Because I was in business for thirty-seven years, some of the people that I worked with have been supporting my ministry. So, that’s another source of money. We’re blessed with that. And it enables us to do more.”
For a modest amount, Grace rents space to two other churches. It has partnerships with other Lutheran churches and community organizations like its neighbor, the Wheeler Clinic, a family health and wellness center. “Wheeler asked us if we would participate with them on a grant that they received that would allow us to bring people to them for services. So, they gave us a grant of $12,000 last year and $15,000 this year.”
“Grace is a gift from God,” Pastor Rick says. He bends his nearly six-foot-tall frame over slightly to emphasize his point. Smiling broadly, “God gives us grace; one of the ways that we experience that joy of grace is by trying to share it, and we do it with great sincerity and great seriousness and have for many, many years. We’re an immigrant Church.”
Grace has long served as a community outreach church in Hartford. Started by German immigrants, Grace is a church of immigrants. German churches in the city go back to the 19th century. Grace is the descendant of three Lutheran churches that once existed in the city. The German Lutheran Church of the Reformation (founded in 1880), the German Evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church (established in 1894), and St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (began in 1906).
Pastor Rick recounts, “It was the German Lutheran Church that in 1951 decided to build one building for one church. They decided they would select a new pastor; so since 1951, this church has been involved with immigrants and people from all different walks of life. People of any color walked in here many years ago and were welcome.”
During the last century, Grace has stood for civil rights and served the disenfranchised. Pastor Rick continues, “And so, we’re trying to extend and explain that—and in a time where churches are closing. This is happening. We believe what we believe. We accept all people. We welcome all people with same-gender marriages or same-gender people as acceptable people and welcome people, all people. We have virtually everybody you can imagine on this Earth in this church, at one time or another.”
Grace is a melting pot where everyone is welcome. Church members believe “that God’s grace is a gift to us all. We do not have to earn it. We believe that we are to welcome, love, and embrace our neighbors.”
I asked a young member of the LGBTQ+ community, “If you found a church that was accepting and an openly welcoming haven, how would you feel?”
“I would feel like I matter,” she said. “Church should be a place for everyone. No one should feel attacked. It’s always in my mind all the time, because there are churches that condemn homosexuality.”
The question comes down to a Christian definition of grace. Francis DeBernardo, executive director of the LGBTQ+-affirming New Ways Ministry told NBC Connecticut, “The reason there has been such tension between LGBTQ+ people and institutional religious groups has not been because LGBTQ+ people are not religious, but because faith groups have vilified them and excluded them.” The Pew Research Center reports over seventy-five percent of religious LGBTQ+ Americans identify as Christian. “Their faith is strong.” DeBernardo notes, “They continue to push for acceptance even against mammoth walls of opposition.”
For centuries Abrahamic religions have condemned homosexual behavior. This is noted in both the Old and New Testaments, beginning in the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is also noted in the Quran. In Deuteronomy 23:17, God forbids it and calls such behavior an abomination. In some Islamic theocracies, the sentence for homosexuality is death.
Grace is a haven for the LGBTQ+ community. Grace is an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation. ELCA is the one of three major denominations in the United States that has been welcoming LGBTQ+ members since 1991 and has ordained gay and lesbian pastors since 2009. With more than three million members in 2020, ELCA is considered one of the most accepting large denominations in the United States. Grace Lutheran Church, despite the old social norms, is the place that welcomes everybody regardless of gender, race, or denomination.
Back in his office, Pastor Rick said: “I will tell you this. I think the sadness about faith in the world we are living in is that many people are running away from it, and partly because of it and the way it was done, partly because they’re afraid.” Pastor Rick raises his arms. “The church is Jesus, Christ is in the community, right? It’s not within these four walls, but the reality is we believe Jesus is in the streets.”
Kim Towler is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header image courtesy of HistoricBuildingsCT.com