Hardly anyone goes to Greenpoint’s Lutheran churches. You’d think they’d join forces. Think again.
By Colin Marston
St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Park Church Co-op are a mere 20-minute walk from each other in Greenpoint, and despite both belonging to the same Lutheran denomination could not be further apart.
Each has seen its congregation dwindle for decades. St. John’s has perhaps 30 Sunday worshipers; Park Church has 15. They have been forced to live with the fact of one another, and have even had to share pastors. They have never gotten along, and though logic would call for their banding together, they cling their differences, and their historical resentments.
The animosities are so old, in fact, that no one can explain them, and their endurance.
This is a story about the history, lives, ministry, and struggle of two churches reacting to the tidewaters of spiritual life unleashed from the pews. From the zenith of their founding in the midst of America’s 19th and early 20th century immigrant epoch, to the legacy of post-World War II white flight — as well as the ecumenical experiments of today — the tiny Lutheran ministry in Greenpoint stands as a “canary in a coal mine” says former Park Church pastor Griffin Thomas.
Even churches whose pews were once filled find themselves like St. John’s and Park — once popular houses of worship barely holding on as the world, and in their cases Greenpoint, changes around them.
Milton Street and its surrounding blocks are crowded with churches and small synagogues, some of them a century old. At the head of Milton on the corner of Manhattan Avenue stands Saint Anthony of Padua Church, built originally for Italian immigrants but now filled with a mostly Latino flock. On Kent Street sits the empty Saint Elias Greek Rite Catholic Church and the Episcopalian Church of the Ascension. On Noble Street is the Greenpoint Shul, and directly across on Milton is the Greenpoint Reformed Church. The street, considered by architectural historian Francis Morrone as “one of the most charming in all of New York,” gravitates around the imposing brick structure of Die Evangelische-Lutherische St. Johannes, known today as St. John’s.
The church’s towering grey steeple rises above all else on the block, visible from the East Side of Manhattan if you know where to look. When the sanctuary was dedicated on May 8, 1892, it was the crown jewel of Brooklyn’s increasingly affluent German immigrant community, a sign of a people’s prosperity in the New World, and a symbol that they were here to stay. That year, in 1892, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle characterized the church as, “a handsome and graceful Gothic structure of Philadelphia pressed brick and rugged granite.” While such praise might have been obvious on its Jubilate Sunday, these days it’s hard to see the exterior of the church through the thick black tarps of scaffolding surrounding it.
To understand St. John’s, you have to talk with Ruth Haupert-Lengemann. At 91, she is the congregation’s oldest member and also its de facto historian and archivist. I walked through the imposing doors one early fall afternoon to be welcomed by the faint sound of traditional Christian hymns in the sanctuary’s far corner; there were deep water marks etched next to the piano player, cracks of paint lining the walls above, and the shuffle of maintenance workers outside. After a few minutes peering into dusty cabinets containing old Bibles in German, Haupert came ambling up the stairs, carrying several photographs of herself as a little girl.
“Huge German attendance here,” she said of St. John’s past. “Everything was German. The old church on Leonard Street was built in 1867. This was a very affluent community. You walk down the street and look at some of these houses.”
Haupert’s grandparents had been a staple of this community. They had emigrated from Stuttgart to open the Bloomfield Bakery right next to Newtown Creek, which separates Brooklyn from Queens. “They would bake until about 3 in the morning. They had a wagon pulled by a horse named Charlie and all the children would take turns to distribute the baked goods. It was open all through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.” It took me several moments to realize that Haupert wasn’t talking about the 1970s, but the 1870s. “There was no way to get there. There was no bridge, no nothing. So she and my grandfather bought a rowboat. And they took the seven children every Sunday in a rowboat to church,” Haupert sighed, squinting in concentration as if to remember if she was on that boat, mumbling a few breaths later an old German prayer, Ich bin klein. Mein Herz ist rein. Darf niemand drin wohnen als Jesus allein.
But by 1899 St. John’s would have a competitor for all those German immigrants — Church of the Messiah, which would later be renamed the Park Church Co-op. While worship at St. John’s was in German, Messiah’s pastor, Samuel Trexler, believed that the word of God would best be worshipped in the language of their new country, English.
“Messiah was founded as a English speaking church, and it carried on a little bit of a newer, fresher voice in the church,” said Griffin Thomas. “That was the thread of Messiah, kind of being a little bit more renegade, a little bit different than a culturally defined church.” But there was another reason for the growing acrimony: Pastor Trexler was known for living with his long-term partner, Dr. Edmund Devol.
“The old German pastor of St. Johns and Trexler had a very contentious relationship,” said Thomas. “The pastor of St. John’s would not talk with him, probably because of Trexler being gay.”
In its own way, the Park Church is still experimenting with the limits of what church can be. The congregation invites AdHoc, an underground music publication and concert series, to bring indie rock, electronic, and jazz musicians for performances. I attended one earlier in September. A wizened woman stood outside, smoking a cigarette, dressed in tight black jeans and a bomber jacket with patches of different 1970s No Wave bands. Walking past her and up the stairs into the inner sanctuary, I noticed the projected lights against the backdrop of the altar, casting the crucifixion of Jesus into a trippy aquarium constellation. A tall man wearing tiny tinted reflector glasses and a ripped tee-shirt, tells me that the color is “shades of a Russian wedding blue.” I open the program, and jumping out in capital letters reads “ZEMIA.”
It’s Polish for “home,” and the name of Martynka Wawrzyniak’s latest art project. A member of the Park Church, Wawrzyniak, 38, is collecting cups of soil from different residents in Greenpoint and then baking each into a giant ball that will be featured in the park across from the church. She needs $20,000 for the endeavor and she’s throwing this fundraising concert to help. On the ticket there’s Jesse Lynch, Mostly Other People Do The Killing, and Lydia Lunch, all staples of New York’s experimental jazz and spoken word scene. The evening progresses in ricochets of discord. A saxophonist improvises for 20 minutes directly beneath an enormous crucifix. Lydia Lunch leeringly stumbles down the main walkway towards the altar and begins screaming with her saxophonist behind her, “Good evening! Welcome to MY church, where the only virtue is rebellion, created by pleasure at the brink of the apocalypse!” She goes on to say, amid clanking cooking pots and clarinets shoved into microphones, “Man was not created in the image of God, God was created in the image of man so man could have something to blame his infantile rage on! In the beginning before they invented God, there was simply women! WOMMANNNN!”
Such provocations aren’t new to the Park Church. Several years ago the church hosted a feminist art symposium where at one point several women who were part of a performance art piece on sexual violence, took off their tops in the middle of the sanctuary. “When those people started running around naked, I thought, oh God I’m going to be fired tomorrow,” said Park’s pastor, Amy Kienzle. After a video leaked showing the incident, there was consternation and hand-wringing from older members in the congregation. Kienzle admitted that the group had perhaps pushed too far, but that she was more than willing to engage with issues long-neglected by Christian churches. “Sometimes you have to be provocative. That’s what that piece was about. And I think that’s the gift of being free to experiment, too. It does raise these questions, and it gets the larger church talking.”
When Pastor Kienzle arrived in Greenpoint in 2013 she understood her priority to be towards the larger church, rather than a specific building. “What are we going to do as people of God in Greenpoint? They didn’t really want to work together, and St. John’s often wouldn’t come to the table.” Griffin Thomas agrees.
After St. John’s received a $1.5 million bequeathal from a former pastor, John Huneke, talks broke down between Pastor Kienzle and the St. John church council, leading to Pastor Katrina Foster’s arrival in 2015. The Park Church, coming to the end of its three-year grant cycle from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) faces its own financial difficulties, with little chance of renewal. “If we could have that money [the $1.5 million bequeathal] for a mission in Greenpoint and sold their building, there are resources there that could be used in whatever way,” Pastor Kienzle said. “But the reality is that if you have $1.5 million and you call lawyers, nobody wants an extra lawsuit.”
Many of the Park Church’s newer congregants share this same vision of tinkering with — and sometimes upending — the old forms of worship to make the church relevant, and more importantly a force in people’s lives.
“Pastor Amy is willing to invite weirdos into her church, people who have controversial and colorful things to say,” said Yazan Fahmawi, a 38-year-old Greenpoint musician. “I have a vision of utopia and its people singing and dancing all day. Church should be where this starts. I want to push the pews aside and cut loose. If she really cut loose, the church would turn their back on her. She needs to radicalize church top to bottom.” Although Fahmawi doesn’t attend the Park Church’s Sunday service, he is a staple of the church’s broader community, attending events held at the space, quarterly meetings, and spending time with Pastor Kienzle.
“Pastor Amy needs to be even more radical in her approach if she wants artists to feel ownership of the space,” he said. “She’s trying to please two entities that are at odds with one another. If she was going to demonstrate spirit as the freest artist might, she would probably get in trouble. That said, she’s letting other people help with that.”
Colleen Dockery, a 67-year-old retired first grade teacher, began attending the church at the age of seven in the summer of 1957. “When my father taught Sunday school at Messiah, there was a lot of people,” she said. “You had your job, your family, and Sunday was family day and church day. Stores were not open. It was a day to go to church, and that’s where you were. People believed in giving money and supporting the church.”
Among the other children who came to church in those years was Louise Dodenhoff Hauser, who is now 64. “The first memory I have of my whole life is my Sunday School teacher from when I was three years old. She had bright red hair and it scared me to death,” Hauser said, remembering the teacher was Dockery’s mother. Both reminisce about the enclosed world of childhood, where Messiah and St. John’s would each make floats for Brooklyn-Queens Day, organize picnics at Hempstead Park, and leave every Wednesday afternoon from P.S. 144 for “release day” religious instruction.
Hauser moved from Greenpoint in 1985, and describes a very different picture from that of her childhood. “By the end when I left, there was probably 30 to 40 people,” she said. “It was really the same people again and again. There were no more parades with the floats.”
There were notable individuals who kept afloat through the 1980s and 1990s, like Deacon Karl Doddenhoff at Messiah or Ruth Haupert at St. John’s, but the tide of decline seemed to be heading on an irreversible course. Change at Messiah came in the form of Pastor Griffin Thomas, who in 2004 began new programs to open up the church in a rapidly changing neighborhood.
“Things were changing,” he said. “I think I kind of set the stage for Pastor Amy to do some of things that she has definitely taken to the next level. Many of the things going on there were started when I was there. Yoga, No Lights No Lyrca, the outdoor farmer’s market.”
Yet Dockery sometimes wonders if the church she knew as Messiah has gone a little too far: “I need to go to church. I’m of the old school where you want to go to church and feel better,” she said. “But sometimes I feel the message has gotten away. I’m hoping for the best, but I don’t see it. For 40 years, it’s been a problem trying to get people to come.”
When Pastor Kienzle arrived from Dearborn Heights, Michigan to Brooklyn in August 2013 as a mission developer for the two shrinking churches, St. John’s had a regular Sunday attendance of 20 and Messiah had only seven. She had joined a long line of pastors sent by the synod to figure out how to save each church from dereliction and closure.
“These two churches have talked for 50 years prior to me, and the decline happened pretty quickly,” she said. “The Germans moved out of the neighborhood over the twentieth century, and the Lutheran church in particular is ethnically tied” meaning they are tied to their immigrant communities. “When they leave, the church doesn’t know how to administer to the Latino or the Arab community,” Kienzle said.
Katrina Foster, pastor of St. John’s since 2015, argues the shifting demographics are also influenced by larger historical trends of how Americans relate to organized religion. “Christianity is no longer the agreed to expectation,” said Pastor Foster. “The privileged position that we had, especially after the Second World War and leading into the social movements of the 1960s, we don’t have that place of prominence anymore.” In the wake of these changes, beginning in 1973 both churches began sharing one pastor. Before this, pastors at St. John’s and Messiah would stay for 30 or 40 years of service, and now two to three years is the norm. Their respective parish houses were sold off, and a spirit of tribalism was introduced at the fear of closing.
“As the congregations dwindled, I think that they became self-selecting,” said Griffin Thomas, who was pastor at Messiah from 2004 to 2012. “They became kind of clannish. Their families had been going there, and they were attached to the building. There was really no solid cultural or theological differences between the two of them, except for personalities.”
Ben Colahan, interim minister at Messiah in 2012 agrees. “Each congregation had different types of people attending. There was a difference of personality in each of the churches. They had self-segregated into two different groups and ways of community. Part of the reason Thomas left was a failure to merge the two congregations together,” Colahan said. The same could be said of Pastor Kienzle, severing her pastoral ties at St. John’s after a confrontation with its church council that resisted any attempt at consolidation, for fear that it might mean abandoning their building.
“For years the synod had been trying to get St. John’s and Messiah to merge. And that made sense on paper,” Pastor Foster said. “The congregation was fighting the bishop on that. He asked them to voluntarily close, and they said no. A small group of people were doing everything they could to keep this place going.”
This question of mission, and what the church stands for cuts to the heart of the failure of St. John’s and the Park Church to face their problems together.
“In places like St. John’s, the ongoing problem always is: is there enough sense of mission here to remain present in this place?” says Deacon Margy Schmitt Ajer, 62, assistant to the bishop for congregations in the New York ELCA synod. “Nobody wants to give up their church and that’s hard. But it gets to a point because neighborhoods change, and it’s really hard for people because they love their congregation, they love Jesus, but they love finding Jesus in this particular place.”
For someone like Ruth Haupert of St. John’s, that allure is strong. “From the very beginning this little girl here has never not wanted to come to this church,” she said. “I’ve had every conceivable role that there is here. I walk into this building and I’m home. I just wish I could pass that on to people.”
In many ways, St. John’s under Pastor Foster’s leadership has expanded to reach new communities, facilitating a weekly community meal and hosting meetings of the NYPD’s 94th precinct. Foster was an integral part of a national campaign to move towards ordaining married LGBT pastors, a position ratified by the ELCA in a 2009 statement on human sexuality. Caroline D’Angelo, 24, started coming to the church after producing an indie-rock musical in the church last winter.
“When I met Pastor Foster for the first time, she shook my hand and said, ‘I’m Pastor Foster and I’m a big ole Southern Jesus-loving dyke,” she said. “Meeting her for the first time I thought, ‘oh you can be gay and religious.’ It planted a seed.” Pastor Foster insists that, “Jesus has a future for this church. When I got here, the congregation was very small. Average attendance was less than ten. Now we’re averaging close to 30 on any given Sunday.”
Yet Pastor Kienzle at the Park Church sees two churches reaching very different types of people. “There’s a missional question: if your church closes tomorrow would anyone notice?” she said. “Maybe it’s a little strong, but I can tell you that if St. John’s closed very few people would know. We do have two different ways of ministering.”
The stakes run high as the clock runs out on which church will survive in the coming years. “There are two ELCA Lutheran congregations in Greenpoint,” said Lamont Wells, director of evangelic mission at the New York synod’s office. “The demographics suggest that there needs to be one. Our focus and target area is better served by one congregation than multiple congregations.”
Still the question of who stays and who goes remains contentious. “In a liberal place like Brooklyn you don’t think of the church in your neighborhood as the place where you go for art and culture and friendship,” said Martynka Wawrzyniak. “The fact that they’re opening the [Park] Church to art and farming makes people less scared to enter church.”
As St. John’s presides over its 150th anniversary and the Park Church enters a year of uncertainty, Hauser emphasized the necessity of change. “If the church does not reform RE-form, to stay true to the gospel’s message, then it’s lost something in its character. You want to be true to history. You want to be true to tradition, but if the church does not reform itself, then it’s missing a lot of the point.”
As the Park Church confronts its uncertain future, many have begun to voice frustration. “If it’s just about income, and the parent church organization is saying you’re not bringing in enough money, that’s really sad,” Yazan Fahmawi said. “It shows that they’re not a real spiritual organization.” A community meeting last month was devoted to figuring out ways to raise the necessary revenue to make the church self-sufficient. A motley crew of yoga instructors, musicians, and activists all convened, some suggesting a “PBR fundraiser” (quickly corrected to a “PBS fundraiser”) or a fundraising dinner attended by members of the indie rock band Grizzly Bear.
Yet Pastor Kienzle remains optimistic about her church’s impact on Greenpoint. “I see our mission as changing people’s minds and healing them, and their relationship with the church,” she said. “Either way we’ve already been successful. I’m hopeful that it goes forward and that we can touch more lives and impact people for two more years.”
Deacon Ajer of the synod stresses that, “Whether that ministry closes tomorrow or goes on for 50 years, doesn’t invalidate the ministry. Not everything that has value is going to last forever.”
Follow Colin Marton @homotexuality