Open the Damn Doors!
by John Steinbruck
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from LF Summer 2011
When my wife Erna and I arrived at Luther Place in the the winter of 1970, the 14th Street situation was chaotic: drug pushers, pimps, hundreds of prostitutes, homeless ill. It was difficult to get to the front door of the church. The fragrance of tear gas from anti-Vietnam War demonstrations hung over Thomas Circle. Every morning I’d pick up empty bottles of Richard’s Wild Irish Rose and heroin needles, just to clean up the area before services. In the midst of this Washington, DC, asphalt desert was Luther Place, a church that was threatened. Yet it was exactly the place of greatest promise. It was where Jesus would most likely appear, in and among the sick, hungry, frightened, wandering urban nomads seeking a place.
I remember walking a circle around the church, then around Thomas Circle, then successively larger circles, absorbing all the time, trying to capture all the elements of this White House neighborhood that changed every two blocks. It was a mixed bag of the richest of the rich to the poorest of the poor, the powerful and the weak, the healthy and the sick, the satisfied and the hungry, posh hotels on one side of Thomas Circle and the shelters of Luther Place—the church proper and its deteriorating houses—on the other. A stark study in contrast and contradictions.
I would stand on the roof, where I could see the White House and the progression from power to powerlessness, and began to gain some understanding. And to puzzle it out. Who are we? Why are we here? What is our justification to be on these 23,000 square feet at Thomas Circle? If all we’re going to do is sing hymns to Jesus, it might as well be used for a gas station. God said through Isaiah, “I don’t need your prayers and rituals. Get to work and do what I have asked you to do and then I’ll be impressed.” So we began to struggle with the question: what is Jesus to be about in this place? What are we about? It’s the process of wrestling with God. Every congregation, every denomination must do so. It can be agonizing, involving pain, even the risk of getting bent out of joint, like Jacob at the Jabbok. At some point, dawn breaks and you begin to see the light, where you need to go. Your mission becomes clear.
In our case, the demand of doing the gospel was staring us in the face. Thomas Circle back then in early 1970s was a vision of “Jerusalem Revisited.” We had the whole cast of characters: King Herod at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Sanhedrin on Capitol Hill, Caiaphas the high priest in Luther Place, and all about us the wandering tribes of homeless, the deinstitutionalized “lepers.” We may not have made the homeless cry out “unclean!” wherever they went, but still they were systematically forced downwind and out of sight of society, eating out of dumpsters, standing and sleeping in dangerous alleyways. So in preaching and teaching, at every opportunity, questions needed to be posed. And the congregation thought about them and prayed about them, and we struggled. Praise God, we were always blessed with wise and compassionate heads and hearts in our congregation. The decision was finally made to open the doors of Luther Place, risks notwithstanding, and extend the biblical invitation, “Come unto me.” Within twenty-four hours we were filled wall to wall with the holy family of the homeless thawing out in the social hall.
It was challenging in that time period for all pastors with a gospel conscience. Many pastors’ callings were terminated because of their honest and compellingly prophetic stands on civil and human rights—what I’d simply call gospel justice issues—in firm opposition to our nation’s wars without end and exclusion of minorities. Pastors and laity trying to follow Jesus would often face vicious criticism or worse. Challenging the “powers,” whether in Jerusalem or elsewhere, always has its consequences.
Of course, racism was not just limited to DC and the South. The big cities, including my hometown of Philadelphia, were sectored off into white and black and ethnic neighborhoods. Before coming to Luther Place, in the 1960s, Erna and I had served for ten years at Zion and St. John’s, congregations with centuries of history in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was not an easy time in a declining central city area, but it turned out to be a valuable prelude to Luther Place. Easton is on the Delaware River, across from New Jersey, a microcosm of New York or Philadelphia. A historical congregation, a beautiful example of colonial church architecture, but suffering because inner cities were being “redeveloped,” often mindlessly, terminating whole residential areas, replacing them with bland architecture, abandoning them to darkness and emptiness at night. The suburbs offered a far more antiseptic option to young families than deteriorating downtowns. It was a sad situation that was popularly called “progress.”
Erna and I reached out to our neighbors. We invited the neighboring priest and rabbi and their member representatives to come to Sunday afternoon dinner in our home. While our congregations had been in dialogue before, we wondered if we could consider going beyond dialogue and form an activistic, no-nonsense organization to do the things that needed to be done in the city. Our solution was not to work unilaterally but through an interfaith, “synergistic” coalition of strength. Thus was formed a diverse but united organization called ProJeCt—Protestant, Jewish, Catholic. It brought a fresh breeze that the city inhaled eagerly. People were tired of the hatreds and suspicions across denominational lines, and the spirit of collaboration and coalition caught wind and sailed on a sea of tremendous public support in an old and tired city.
ProJeCt raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and developed a baby clinic, food bank, youth center, summer programs, dental clinic, prison ministry, and summer youth programs (t-shirts and all). Many of the youth joined in the renovation of a store front for the youth center. None of it would have happened if it weren’t for a happy band of faithful religious. One of them was a barber businessman and member of St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church, who wove a spell over the entire community of Easton. Our own St. John’s members were extraordinary, including the choirmaster and organist who got the Northhampton County Prison singing with us, and the gentle giant “Beau” Beausang, our pastor who involved city youth in knocking out walls for the ProJeCt youth center, among other tough assignments. He along with many others kept me safe and alive in the ministry during those dicey years.
It was wonderful ministry, to which our congregation was pledged in spirit, giving funding and free use of the property. Many in the congregation participated directly. Its leaders felt it was important that the congregation move in this direction. My work as pastor was fulfilling and ProJeCt had great success and still does to this day, more than forty years later. Some were fearful of this new, inclusive, community-outreach direction. But the new direction was affirmed overwhelmingly by the attendance of black and white members at the annual congregational meeting in 1965. An opening to a new era of interfaith interaction for justice was affirmed; flowers began to bloom in the city’s asphalt.
After ten years, Erna and I felt it would be helpful if we moved on. Our greatest joy was in leaving behind a coalition of interfaith trust and good faith among a diversity of lay folk and clergy of all faith persuasions, with a strong base for interracial peace and cooperation. But, we worried, would any congregation be interested in my unorthodox track record? I felt I may not be callable anywhere, that there would be no room in the inn for me. I’d gotten a degree in economics and industrial engineering before going to seminary. I had worked in industry. We began to search for possibilities. With a young family, I thought, I might have to fall back on my slide rule and stopwatch—which I dreaded. Then, surprise, a call came from the bishop’s office: “There’s this church in Washington that’s looking for someone a little ‘different.’”
The next Sunday there was a man with a beard sitting in the Easton church with his wife. Afterward we talked. Howard and Nancy White were from Luther Place. Shortly after that, a group from Luther Place came to observe this strange creature for themselves. They invited us to come visit Luther Place, where we were given a warm, enthusiastic welcome. They recited the history of their line of great pastors, all the way back to John Butler, founding pastor of what was then named Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church in memory of the fallen and wounded of the Civil War, and Lloyd Cassel Douglas, gifted author of novels like The Robe and The Magnificent Obsession.
Ironically, just as Luther Place called me, another call came almost simultaneously from a wealthy, big-steepled congregation in Chicago. But I knew I wouldn’t last a year in that beautiful world along the lakefront. We felt something so special about Luther Place that drew us in, its optimism and hope in the face of an unpromising downtown DC environment. We say it’s the Holy Spirit!
So Erna and I, the children, and our puppy packed and drove off for Luther Place in the freezing February of 1970. Immediately we began to seek new and diverse relationships, following the same interfaith route in DC as we had in Easton. For us, interfaith and interracial collaboration has always been the way to go. There is not sufficient strength in going it alone, nor should we, but together we can do amazing, miraculous things. It’s about developing “synergy,” a key word for me in doing ministry. A new ProJeCt came into being in DC. Some initial efforts included a citywide food collection program by partnering with CEO Jack Lyon’s Parking Management Incorporated. Soon ProJeCt’s name was on PMI’s red, black, and white receptacles for collecting canned food in parking garages around the downtown parking lots. The plan worked, as did other ProJeCt inventions: the DC Hotline and Bread for the City food and clothing center, in collaboration with many different congregations. Jack Taylor’s Toyota dealership gave us two new pickup trucks, which we named our “Glean Machines.” They regularly made stops at supermarkets for breads and groceries whose expiration dates had been exceeded. We were blessed with “the breads of life.”
Over time, all of us together, congregants and church council, understood that as Christians we are seriously called to follow a “homeless messiah.” (I still wonder how that recognition did not come through in four years of seminary study.) The insight came from other Christians who were focused and serving the poorest of the poor: Catholic Workers, Mennonite volunteers, the old downtown missions. Forming coalitions is a painstaking process, working toward agreement on a mutual agenda. Too often as congregations loyal to our denominations we are distant from our neighbors. And Lutherans, along with others, were seeking more “promising” and safer locations outside DC’s beltway. Think of the location of our ELCA headquarters among tall glass and steel highrises in the corporate complex at O’Hare airport. Frankly, I suspect that if Jesus showed up tapping on the impressive electronically operated glass doors of O’Hare Plaza, he would be met by security and quietly escorted away. But then again, who counts as a “Lutheran”? I once filled out my annual report to say that we’d taken in fifteen thousand new members. A church bureaucrat wrote back to object that I was not using the proper criteria. I replied that my criteria are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—what are yours? They didn’t bother me again, even when I reported benevolences in the millions, which was literally true: gifts to build up the ministry of Luther Place.
Jesus was a poor, hungry, excluded messiah, characterized by commensality—eating together at the same table with all comers, sinners and tax collectors and women and Pharisees and persons of questionable repute. In Jerusalem as in DC, Jesus is most visible at the street level, on the city’s sidewalks with and among those extending styrofoam cups, those who are broken, those who are the outcasts, the “losers” and the marginalized, those with no power, often mentally stricken, people crying out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” The poor are Jesus’ people. This is still a hard concept for most of our settled and established middle class congregations and people. But at Luther Place we began to “get it” with the homeless confronting us and teaching us every day right inside our church walls. We realized, finally, that we are all homeless until we are finally at home in Christ Jesus.
To be honest, we were not unmindful that Luther Place was at great disadvantage to suburban congregations that were springing up all around the outer beltway “Great Wall of China.” They were building attractive new facilities with great organs and ample antiseptic grounds for parking and steeples even taller than ours. But we were given the precious opportunity to do what the gospel calls us to do when Jesus’ own people were right outside our doors, knocking, begging to enter our shelter church, to be given refuge. Churches want to grow—and OK, why not? But you don’t need special classes in church growth to know that the appropriate gospel response is, “Open the damn doors!”
On a bitter cold Monday night in January 1976, we welcomed the strangers—and discovered that there is an efficient communications network on the streets! In came the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, people infested with lice and scabies, paranoid schizophrenics, tubercular, unbathed for weeks or months, crowded onto our floors, carrying the few things they owned in bags or carts. The church literally reeked of homelessness. Metropolitan Washington was stunned by what Luther Place and its coworkers from many backgrounds had done. Hallways, stairwells, the chapel, the social hall, and classrooms became a refuge.
And then, suddenly, we experienced the very clear biblical miracle that it was not us saving the homeless. The homeless saved Luther Place! Christ in their midst embraced us. It was the gospel that we so creatively avoid inside our stained glass enclaves. On Christmas Eves we would hear the sobs coming from our chapel as we processed into the nave singing carols, bringing to these people memories of Christmas past with home and family before mental illness possessed them; and we knew then that we were glorifying the real presence in a way that the denominational headquarters just couldn’t hear.
Soon we got to thinking about our property. Three of our seven houses on N Street were occupied by questionable residents engaged in questionable activity. We were also leasing to a Chinese laundry, a beauty parlor, and a fortuneteller who subsequently died (in moving his stuff out, I inherited his crystal ball, which I forwarded to our denominational headquarters in Chicago). Our “surrogate landlord,” named Coker Sturgeon, had been collecting the “rents,” more like blood money. Eventually the residents of questionable repute were moved out as the houses were transformed into a rent-free menu of Matthew 25 ministries, a welcoming N Street Village offering biblical hospitality. Over time we added more comfortable shelter space, showers, a kitchen, shelter office space, Luther Place staff space, a first-floor welcoming area, chapel, library lounge, reception room, and, with the addition of an elevator, we made the parish building and sanctuary handicap accessible. To move things along in those early years, I as a Naval Reserve Officer requested my unit, a Navy SeaBee Construction Battalion, to do their monthly drilling on these buildings. While I was vigilant, I was also proud that not one sailor ever stepped out of line, though the hundreds of prostitutes that also maintained a 24/7 presence on our block looked on with interest.
The prostitutes held out well into the 1990s. Sometimes they were aggressive, but our congregants weren’t fazed by it. One very straightlaced fellow who purchased the N Street properties to hold for future use by Luther Place was propositioned one Easter morning. An older gentleman from the Midwest, he turned and without missing a beat said, “Ma’am, I want to thank you. That’s the nicest compliment I’ve been paid in years.” He preserved his virtue and the lady’s dignity. Over the same period, not a few congressmen and VIPs were busted when propositioning the wrong person on our block. Yet we were often blessed by the watchfulness of street women over our church, reporting anything and anyone who threatened. We were able to assist a few women in escaping their enslaved and drugged entrapment. I recall a young woman who sought refuge and sat down to a meal during a congregational meeting before we put her on a bus to Mississippi. I called to tell her grandmother that she was coming and hoped she would be welcomed home; the grandmother responded, “Praise the Lord, thank you Jesus!”
Luther Place had the help of countless good people, but it should be noted that, inevitably, trends toward downtown gentrification gave rise to opposition to Luther Place and its N Street Village. The neighborhood association not only didn’t want us to build, they didn’t even want us to exist and did everything they could to stop us. At one point the court ordered fines of $500 a day on every building on our block used for “feeding, clothing, sheltering, and healing people—all as inappropriate activities of a church.” When we showed up in court, we had a Jewish judge who said, “Near as I can remember, we were instructed to do all of these things—feed the hungry, care for the homeless. For the last five thousand years that’s been our moral code.” He threw the case out.
Still, if it hadn’t been for Hogan and Hartson, one of DC’s finest law firms, taking us under their wings pro bono, I’m not sure we could have won the battle. The neighborhood association had some people in it who were truly cruel. During our renovation of the parish building, they pressured the Historic Preservation Review Board to prevent us from replacing the big steel-frame windows that were an environmental disaster. Our plea to replace them was opposed on the grounds of the building being historical. “Historical?” I replied. “This wing of the church was built in 1948. I’m more historical than these windows.” On one side the moneyed speculators were buying five to eight houses at a time, renovating them, and selling them for a hefty profit. On the other side was Luther Place, with its mission to provide refuge for the homeless, portrayed as standing in the way of gentrification. The ensuing legalities lasted for six years until we finally achieved a building permit for construction of the current Eden House and Promise Place—just hours before the deadline imposed by the Low Income Housing Tax Credits!
We learned early on that when you have opposition like that, you need to be resourceful. One way was to use the media—and we used it shamelessly. The media loved us and turned to Luther Place on a dead news day since they always knew they could be assured of a sound bite. We used the exposure to shape people’s imaginations in a way that is nearly impossible for churches in homogeneous suburban neighborhoods.
At times, even the White House neighborhood could become the stage for confrontation. One day we processed from Luther Place to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as beggars, seeking the leftovers from the White House state banquets to feed the homeless and hungry. They sent a representative out to us to announce, “We can’t do that. It’s a disgusting idea.” “Disgusting?” I said. “You eat well down here.” I wasn’t talking about food they scrape off plates and throw in the garbage. I was talking about the banquet foods that never got served. A reporter overheard the entire exchange, which ended up making the wire services and TV news at Christmas time. The White House representative got the Scrooge of the Year award! Better still, it raised people’s awareness of hunger and resulted in widespread support for the N Street Village.
Though I’m the one telling this story, my wife Erna is really at the heart of it. She did most of the grungy grunt work, not to mention administration and fundraising and enlisting volunteers of all persuasions. She’s the one who insisted on the concept of “homelessness to independence” long before the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development thought of it and coined the word “continum” that the same HUD eventually came to use. We did it together, “Steinbruck and Erna” as we were known. Somebody has to be society’s pain in the arse. One percent of the population, maybe, is called to hold the feet of the bishops and secular powers to the fire. Our intent was for Luther Place to be a metaphor for God’s vision for the city and the world, a holy place that would allow all of us humans to make the journey through life and arrive at last in the arms of our graceful creator in reasonable health and dignity, well-being and shalom.
The gospels call for advocacy for and with the oppressed. To live out the resurrection motif and liturgy in the city about us, visibly so in the Capital Square. This is where so many churches fall short. At some point, somebody has to go to City Hall or Capitol Hill or to King Herod at the White house and ask: whence come these homeless people and why? Then you have to keep asking the question. You have to be like a pit bull, dig your teeth into the ankle of a congressman or senator or corporate CEO. And not let go until they come through with solutions in the form of legislation or programs. Our answer is that homelessness in this country is the result of our selfish, biased policies that unfairly favor the rich and the powerful, mega-corporations and the trillion-dollar military budgets. These policies need to be changed; bleeding the poor has be stopped. Churches need to be advocates for those who are the weakest and poorest among us. Another good strategy is public protests involving civil disobedience in confrontation with government powers, while urging the faithful to maintain contact with their government representatives, educating them and exposing the lies that have deceived us into interminable wars, needless deaths, and countless millions driven into homelessness and refugee status in foreign lands and even here at home. And always working together: it would be impossible to mention here the huge cloud of witnesses who gave selflessly in ministering to the city, people from all different churches and religions and organizations and government offices.
Maintaining gospel integrity is always the first priority for any congregation. My task was to offer and share biblical imagination that could drawn from many in-Spiriting sources. We learned from the Bible not just to make a cheap white bread baloney sandwich but to make a serious feast, like in Genesis 18 where Abraham selected a choice lamb in a banquet for his uncertain and possibly dangerous guests. And the widow of Zarephath sharing bread with Elijah on the run from pursuers; because of her hospitality, Elijah pleads and argues with God to bring her only son and protection back to life. And the powerful eucharistic story of breaking of bread, and then breaking it again in the Emmaus story of “he was made known to them.” And the menu of Matthew 25: I was hungry, naked, sick, homeless, in prison, and you welcomed me. This is Jesus’ agenda for life, and always the blessing of life is mutual: gifts are exchanged, as the host becomes the guest and vice versa. John Koenig’s New Testament Hospitality helped us to see the vision.
When will we, the church, ever learn to open our zillions of square feet of floor space to those who come knocking? We’re good at maintaining impeccable empty rooms and halls, useable but empty floor space. We have great theologians writing and teaching their theologies, releasing books to one another, volume after volume. Yet at one seminary I witnessed a homeless person stand begging outside a fast food deli directly across the street from a seminary chapel as the community gathered for noon worship, then headed to their refectory to eat! Amazing how we can duck the obvious and simple gospel in front of us, even as we read and study Scripture. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if sick, heal them; if ragged, clothe them; if homeless, embrace and welcome them. The gospel calls us to practice “pentecostal economics” (Acts 2) in sharing the bounty of the earth, sufficient for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, the distributive justice that is echoed across all of Scripture.
As the years passed, most everyone in the congregation was deeply transformed in body, mind, soul, and spirit. The congregation always bestowed gracious words of encouragement; along with polite, understandable, and kindly questions. I think it was more difficult for the older members in the congregation, but we received virtually no serious complaints. None! Think about it: we were preparing daily meals for the homeless in the kitchen of the church, which is the real litmus test. It doesn’t trouble people too much when you get into the worship area, but the kitchen is often considered the real “holy ground.” If you’re authorized to go in there, you’re home free! The older members were more than tolerant; they participated and helped in countless ways.
When Erna and I observed our tenth anniversary at Luther Place, we wanted to show our appreciation. My family—mainly Erna—prepared a meal and served it to the congregation. The council president, Dale McDaniel, asked, “John, what can we do for you?” As if they hadn’t done enough, I answered, “I would really be grateful if you would make it possible for me to no longer be unfaithful to this beloved and deserving congregation.” “What do you mean?” he asked. I responded, “It’s time we restored to the heart of the church and its ministry, the eucharist—the presence of Christ in the worship.” From that point on, holy communion was the Lord’s day worship. As pastor, I now felt we were centered exactly where we should be: not in the clergy, because they may fail us, but in Christ, the Lord of the church. The eucharist, after all, is the ultimate hospitality meal. It’s the meal we presume to serve as surrogate hosts in the name of the Host of Hosts.
Erna and I retired from Luther Place in Easter 1997. I had felt for several years that I was tiring and of questionable value to the congregation. I was not being as creative. You reach a point when you realize that it’s time to make room for someone else to come in with new energy and passion. We stayed as long as we did because the construction of the Eden House-Promise Place building was not yet completed and we were still involved in legalities and fundraising. We moved a hundred miles away, to clear the path for a new beginning. It cannot be stressed enough that it was the Luther Place congregation that allowed the Holy Spirit to work. The laity, the faithful servants remain—as pastors move on.
We love what is happening at Luther Place now. There’s excitement; there’s passion! The current pastor, Karen Brau, is at once faithful, gifted, and energizing, continuing the ministry but with a new vision. Her presence and the staff give us peace, knowing their extraordinary service continues day and night. When we visited last year for the thirtieth anniversary worship event of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps—which was started by the congregation at Luther Place despite resistance at the denominational level—I was excited to see so many young people and children. The congregation is more alive than ever and continuing its faithful journey into the future. That’s exactly as it should be. I think the next thirty years are going to be very, very fascinating, and even more challenging than the previous three decades, in Luther Place’s call to be a light to the city. Praise the Lord! We are never alone.
John Steinbruck served as a pastor as well as a U.S. Navy Captain and Chaplain for many years before he retired to Lewes, Delaware. He joined the saints in glory on March 1, 2015.
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