Editor: This is the Daystar Journal’s second article in the Winter Issue, which focuses on “The LCMS in the Public Square.” The first article discussed the current emphasis on “Freedom to be Faithful.” This second article features the personal account of an LCMS pastor and his colleagues during the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement. In those years Thomas Van der Bloemen was a pastor in the inner city of Detroit. His personal story of those events is a graphic illustration of the role LCMS Lutherans have played in “the public square.”
“WE HAVE ONLY DONE WHAT WE OUGHT TO HAVE DONE”
Luke 17: 10 NRSV
Thomas G. Van der Bloemen
It was the spring of 1960 when I received a telephone call from Pastor Stahlke, President of the Minnesota District of the LCMS. I had been serving in the northern part of the state in a subsidized ministry in Walker, Akeley, and a part-time chaplaincy at a nearby tubercular hospital. Now I had been called to carry forward a building program in Fergus Falls and to serve part-time as chaplain at the state mental hospital. The building program was completed and, at the time of the message from St. Paul, I was enjoying the comfort of a new study/office. He told me a call was on the way. The Mission Executive of the Michigan District, Paul Heinecke, had telephoned him and informed him a call was on way to serve St. Philip Lutheran Church & School in Detroit. This was the first Lutheran congregation to welcome African Americans in the Detroit area, going back to the mid-1930s. The congregation was vacant and experiencing internal problems. Apparently my name had been suggested by LHRAA and some pastors who knew me. (Years ago one hardly ever knew about a call until it arrived special delivery). President Stahlke urged me to consider accepting, although he realized I had been in Fergus Falls a short time. He and others knew that I had spent 4 semesters of field work at St. Philip in the Black community of St. Louis.
My wife and I prayed for guidance. We had just settled in. We were looking forward to life in the Fergus Falls community and the new mission congregation. We were surrounded with kind, loving, enthusiastic people, many of whom were our age. I was struggling. So I called an old buddy of mine from days at Concordia-Milwaukee. He thought few pastors would be interested in the call. And he believed I was a good candidate for the position. I talked with Rollie Winterfeldt, the director of the county welfare department. His words of advice were the same, although he hoped my family and I would remain in Fergus Falls. Within a few days the call was accepted. My dear wife was willing but her heart was heavy; she liked Fergus Falls very much. She was then and is now my partner, not only in ministry but in our 60 years of marriage.
Upon arriving in Detroit we were graciously received by our new neighbors in and around the parsonage on Underwood Street and by the members of St. Philip on E. Grand Blvd. Cliff Brueggemann, Wayne State University Camus Pastor, who had served faithfully as interim pastor arranged the installation service and delivered the sermon District President W. Harry Krieger installed me as pastor. An evening social provided us with an opportunity to meet many people. Several pastors also joined in the festivities. The members of the congregation turned out in large numbers and offered a warm welcome.
The next day, Monday, was very busy. My wife, Tom Jr., Carol, Bob and I had to get settled. It did not take too long. First thing, we enrolled Tom and Carol in St. Philip school. Once accomplished my wife and I turned out attention to unpacking.
Within a few days I arranged to meet with the principle, the faculty and the church secretary. Mrs. Inez Foston was the 8th grade teacher and principle. She was a “wonder woman”: dedicated Christian, an outstanding teacher; although she was getting on in years Ms. Foston remained a dynamic educator. We met privately. She poured out her heart .. She asked for my support. The biggest problem was the lack of support in all areas: hand-me-down textbooks, shoddy and limited material. The list was long. The bright spot: dedicated teachers…four in number. The enrollment was down to 87 children. Later I met with Miss Frankie Little, church secretary. Heard same sad story. She was multi-talented, charming, polite but very candid. She had a good understanding of the situation in the congregation, specifically with respect to the church council and board of elders.
The following evening I met first with the Board of Deacons. They were very reserved but cordial. They explained they served at the discretion of the president of the congregation and the church council. One deacon, Mr. William Weekes expressed displeasure with that arrangement. He stated quite firmly that the oversight ought to be provided by the called pastor, working with lay leadership. Mr. Weekes was an elderly gentleman, respected by many as I discovered later. The council meeting was more of the same. At the conclusion of council business the president of the congregation and I talked privately. He explained the protocol. All decisions of the Deacons and Council would be under his authority. He would be the chief spokesman and serve as a kind of go-between of pastor and congregation. He believed the affairs of the congregation were in good, condition, considering it was a Negro congregation. I listened intently. I got the message. It was difficult for me to believe what I was hearing. I suggested we meet soon for more discussion
I began to realize there would be no “honeymoon” period at St. Philip. Within a month we had a meeting of the congregation. It became evident the vast majority of the members present were hoping and looking forward to meaningful changes.
Within two months the president of the congregation became seriously ill. He needed radical surgery. He would be hospitalized and homebound for a long convalescence. During that time I served him and his wife with Word and Sacrament (they did not have much family). His wife was a very charming and gracious woman. This unfortunate event brought us together. The Holy Spirit worked though the Gospel. Love was at work. Some differences would remain but mutual love and respect was evident and growing.
Since the president could no longer serve, the council vice-president decided to call for a voters’ meeting to elect a new president. He also expressed a desire to vacate his position. Deacons William Weekes & Mr. F. McCloud suggested the names for the nominating committee. Soon after the committee met and men for both offices were nominated. An election was held in accordance with the constitution. Mr. Jim Wilkins, a supervisor at the main post office and Clarence Williams, public school teacher, were elected as president and vice-president. The election turned out to be the beginning meaningful change. Many members were waiting and praying for change. The congregation was blessed with an abundance of talent. Among the members: Ms. Phyllis Ponders, President of business college; Ms. Lillian Hatcher, Assistant to Walter Reuther, and many other talented, devoted Christian men and women who were excited about the possibilities for the congregation and its mission to the church and the community.
From that time on the progress was mind-boggling. A minority of the “old school” remained. They were treated with love and respect. They were not ignored. And they were always given an opportunity to serve. Over the next several weeks things began to come together. Church leaders, members and pastor were working together. Of course there were problems, especially a lack of money. However, we applied for special grants from the Michigan District. The district leadership and mission executive were very generous. Together the leadership and the people developed a mission plan. Very soon an application for a vicar was sent to the St. Louis seminary. Within a short Ron Fricke arrived. He grew up in a small Missouri town where “sundown” laws were still enforced. He and his family did not approve of such laws.. Ron was excited to be with us and became my young brother in Christ. He took room and board in the home Mrs. Murphy. This Black, charming widow woman, already in her 80’s, treated Ron as if he were her son. He called her “Mother” Murphy. Vicar Ron soon became popular with the members of the church. More importantly, he demonstrated the love of Christ.
The school Enrollment grew. Day care added many little children, under the direction of Ms . Ethel Hudson. At Mrs. Foston’s request, plans were made to call a non-teaching principal. Soon Mr. Ray Jagels and his wife Lorene were part of our staff. He was an experienced teacher, an outstanding athlete during his years at Concordia-Seward. He became coach, played the organ and directed the choirs. Ray and I grew close as brothers in Christ and pastor and principle. He a won the love, respect and support of the school teachers, Board of Education and the members of the congregation. Soon we added additional teachers and Prince of Peace Volunteers who were anxious to be with us. Grant money enabled us to hire a social worker…a young woman who also wanted to become part of our integrated staff. Eventually Lorene Jagels became school secretary to take a big load off the shoulders of Ms. Little. We were able to enlist the services of a retired nurse. The lunch program flourished with acquisition of government subsidies. Ms. Lillian Russell and Mr. Aubrey Gully (he’d been a cook in the USN, now retired) provided delicious meals for all the children, some of whom came from very poor circumstances. Most of the staff ate with the kids. And there was a chief custodian, a longtime member, who was a happy man as he saw what was happening. Attendance at worship increased. The budget grew. Eventually several adult information classes, some numbered in the 40s, were received into membership, a large number of whom were young adults. Mid-week Lenten services were held and the community was invited, workers from the GM building, Henry Ford Hospital. The Lord blessed in so many ways! Eventually it was necessary to rent classrooms from a nearby Lutheran church; their classroom were empty. We need to get a bus so we could transport the upper grades; Ray and the board of education found a way.….The vicar and I were busy with chapel services, teaching confirmation classes, visiting, leading worship…and Mr. Jagels, Mrs. Marceta Marshall (11:00 a.m) Mrs. Smith (8:00 a.m.) at the organ. One area of ministry involving Ray, Ron myself and young adults was working with high school youth. Many were graduates of St. Philip school and had moved on to magnet schools. Several eventually entered synodical schools and became teachers and pastors.
There is much more to the story. It was an exciting time. The congregation eventually grew to 800+ members. The school enrollment reach 350. The staff about 25.
But the situation in the circuit and in the city were troubled. Eventually the East Detroit Circuit divided into to East Detroit and Inner City Circuit (soon nicknamed “the dog house” Circuit).
The troubles in the city are well-known and documented . There is no need to recall them except to say, they were huge and complex.In the midst of all that was going on, the good and the bad, the staff and leadership of S. Philip were involved in the community. Some were employed in important positions in the city and federal government; many in organizations such as NAACP and Urban League. They were striving to make a positive contribution, ”lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.”
The problems within mainline churches in Detroit, across denominational lines, were great. Many congregations, including Lutheran, either were “closed” to people of color or had fled the inner city. Some of them eventually saw the Light and changed their minds. In many cases it was too little, too late.
However, there were a number of coworkers within the Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Black congregations, large and small. Some of us were shunned by the white church members and clergy. We were regarded as troubled-makers. However, many leaders of the church and the government were a source of strength and encouragement: Roman Catholic Bishop Deardon (eventually Cardinal), Episcopal Bishop Emerich, Michigan Governor Romney, former Governor “Soapy” Williams, several city leaders, and included in an important way Dr. W. Harry Krieger, Michigan District President and Mission Executive Paul Heinecke ..
We may have been a small circuit but we were blessed with gifted, Christians people within the city of Detroit, among them: Cliff Brueggemann , “Uncle” Wally Heyne, Carl Nelson, Don Larsen, Jim Heinemeir, Percy Dumas, Albert “Pete” Pero, Dave Eberhard, “Daddy” Buchheimer (in East Detroit),Carl Bornmann, Ken Lindsay Director of the Detroit Lutheran Center, some members of the Wayne State University staff and many other supportive Christians, male and female, young and old. Other encouragement came from LHRAA, led by Andy Schulze and Karl Lutze and members of the LHRAA board, people such as Pastor Will Herzfeld and Pastor Clem Sabourin. I know I’ve omitted the names of many of the laity…their number is legion, they were a source of strength for those of us who lived and served in the inner city of Detroit. While living in Detroit my dear wife wife gave birth to our fourth child, Christine Louise, born in Deaconess Hospital February 22, 1966, baptized in St. Philp Church a few weeks later. Years after moving from Detroit while at one of our family gathering our two sons and two daughters shared they have been blessed by the experience.
One large event occurred before I left Detroit. The Lutheran Michigan Lutheran Districts, i.e. Di LCMS, ALC, & LCA sponsored a rally in Cobo Hall, downtown Detroit. The theme was “The Church’s Concern For A Diverse Society.” It was a great time. District Presdent W. Harry Krieger and Mission Executive Pastor Paul Heinecke and the other synodical leaders were most enthusiastic in their support. The event was well attended.
At the conclusion of the rally the press interviewed the various synodical leaders. They requested written statements from each of the synodical leaders. As we were leaving W. Harry put his hand on my shoulder and said: “I’d like you to write the statement . Just give it to the press. I’m confident you will know what to say. I do not have to approve it.” The next morning as I was leaving for early service I had a call from Krieger in Ann Arbor. “I saw the early editions of the Detroit papers. You did great! And to top it all, the article you wrote for me made the front page.” All I could think was “WHEW!”
“If one member suffers, all suffer together…you are
the body of Christ…” 1 Corinthians 12:26, 27 RSV
In the late winter, early spring of 1963 Pastor Ken Lindsay, Director of the Detroit Lutheran Center visited me at the parish house of St. Philip Lutheran Church on East Grand Boulevard. He was more than a little distressed. He shared information he had received concerning Pastor Joe Ellwanger. Joe had been in some of my classes at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Although we were not close friends I remembered him as a thoughtful fellow, a good and likeable person. The news Ken shared was troubling. It had been reported that Pastor Joe and members of his congregation as well as some people of the community (as I recall, a coalition of black and white folks) were peacefully demonstrating in support for equal rights for all people. Unfortunately, the District President had gone on public record stating Joe did not represent the position of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
No wonder Ken was upset. I was too, as well as Carl Bornmann, pastor of an African American congregation in Inkster, a suburb of Detroit. Ken planned to gather an offering in support of Joe’s ministry and Concordia College in Selma. He invited us to accompany him to Birmingham and Selma. He said he would drive his car and the cost was on him. We agreed provided we share the expenses.
Before I made a final decision concerning this venture I talked with my wife. She had concerns, of course. It was an adventure that was not without danger. People were being beaten and killed. But she gave me her blessing. I also consulted with the members of St. Phillip. The membership was African American, many had moved from the deep south: Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Many warned about going south. They shared their experiences while traveling back “home” to visit family even in “better” times. But, reluctantly they gave their blessing. Mr. Jim Wilkens, president of the congregation, the first American to serve on the Michigan District Board, moved that the congregation take a special offering in support of the Detroit Lutheran effort.
We enjoyed pleasant weather for the trip, almost spring like. But the “climate” changed once we entered Alabama. We saw the flag of Dixie more often than the Stars and Stripes. When we stopped to eat and purchase gasoline the reception was coolly civil. Our Michigan plates, attire and dialect raised suspicion for our being there.
When we arrived at the Ellwanger’s home we sensed the tension. Joe’s wife was pregnant. They had received threats. They were in danger. They were not provided police protection. Members of the group were patrolling the property.
As I recall, we gathered in the church basement for our welcome, discussion and worship. Being from Detroit we were experiencing difficult circumstances too. But not like this, at least not at the time. Before we left for Selma Joe suggested we park the car with Michigan plates in his garage. We were welcome to drive his vehicle. He also offered us some good advice. Remove the clerical collars. Be careful driving. Traveling through small towns: if the speed limit is 25 go 20. If stopped by police, cooperate. If arrested, go quietly.
Upon arriving at Concordia-Selma we found the people were keeping a low profile. They may be in harm’s way but for now they were safe. We met with staff and some of the student body. We were impressed with their faith and courage in the face of adversity. We kept our visit short. We shared greetings from the Lutheran community in Detroit. Before leaving we took time for prayer. Our time was running out. Soon we had to get back to the “Motor City.” We had been on a brief mission. Now we had to return to ours. It too, involved being an active part of striving for integration in our churches and support of civil rights for all. Different place. Same problems.
As we were on our way Ken said he’d like to stop in Cullman to visit with District President Homrighausen. He said he realized our time was running out. But they had been classmates at the St. Louis seminary. He wanted to talk with him. He requested that Carl and I let him do the talking. They were old friends. Talk they did. Ken did most of the talking. We left with the promise that a public statement would be issued to the effect that Pastor Ellwanger and his group did indeed represent the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He kept his word.
Joe and his wife went on to serve our Lord in many ways, for the good of many people and, although retired he continues in ministry and was recently featured in an article of The Lutheran.