Marmaduke Carter’s Children
In eighteen years as head of national missions a few experiences stand out. One of these I wish I could erase.
Once a year our national church’s Board for Missions would deepen its understanding of the challenges and joys of mission work by traveling to a mission field. That year it was a trip to Los Angeles to visit urban churches.
One of the churches was in an area that at one time had been a middle class African American neighborhood but the neighborhood was changing . Spanish speaking immigrants were moving in. Store signs were in Spanish. African Americans were moving out. As we approached the church we saw a haggard building covered with graffiti – a sue sign the church was disconnected from its community.
Inside we spoke with the long time president of the congregation, an older man who had left the neighborhood to find a nicer home in the suburbs, as had most of the African American members. It was my assignment to conduct a conversation to help our board understand ministry in one of the most diverse cities in America. But when I asked “What is your vision for the church for ten years from now?” the president responded, “To have church where our older members can be taken care of and from which they can be buried.” The members of our board could see my jaw drop.
I heard a remarkably different and more wonderful account when I spoke with Rev. Elstner Lewis, pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church in the Woodlawn and Hyde park neighborhoods of Chicago. St. Philip, the first African American LCMS Church in Chicago was committed to reach the people in their changing neighborhood. Their passion can be traced back to the missionary who founded St. Philip in 1937. Rev. Marmaduke Carter. Dr. Carter was a missionary for the old Synodical Conference. The name “Marmaduke” has an Irish background. The Irish Marmaduke was a missionary in the sixth and seventh centuries. Recognized as a saint he founded more than thirty churches in Ireland.
The American Marmaduke came out of Virginia. After graduating from Concordia Seminary, Springfield Illinois in 1921 Carter was ordained a missionary and sent to Lutheran farmers in Nebraska and Minnesota- an African American bringing Christ to White Europeans. He learned to speak, write and preach in German.
In 1924 he came to Chicago to begin St. Philip Church. At that time the neighborhood was becoming African American, working class folks who were rising into middle class. He stayed as Pastor of St. Philip for forty years, and saw the church grow to more than five hundred members – middle and upper middle class African Americans. In time the church was complemented by a parochial school. However, as all communities, the neighborhood would change again.
A while after Pastor Lewis arrived the middle class members had begun moving to larger homes in the suburbs. Listening to the new people moving into the now older and less expensive homes Elstner Lewis adjusted worship. Gone was the cassock and surplice, no alb and stole – in came the academic gown, the more traditional African American hymns and a little more free wheeling worship. St. Philip thrived. Then, another change.
The community is not far from the University of Chicago and the nascent Obama Library. The neighborhood is becoming gentrified. American Korean and American European professors and students from nearby colleges have begun attending St. Philip Lutheran. Elstner Lewis response? Listen to the people.
Rev. Lewis knows his community. The issue is always how to make the love of Christ real in word and in deed to the people of the community. That is a reasonable response. Reason can be used in a ministerial or magisterial way in this world. If a strategy is used in a ministerial way, in service to the Word of God, it can be a blessing.
Pr. Lewis told us, “We are going to have to develop a mission strategy to reach out to the community. As we become a more diverse church we will have to change. Right now we are talking about what that means. One thing is things will not be the same.” Right now it appears there is a need for a more formal worship and more traditional Lutheran forms and hymns. This came from listening to the community.
Pr. Elstner says the older African American members at St. Philip refer to the younger more diverse members as “our children.” And they are the children of Marmaduke Carter.
I think Dr. Carter would be amazed and thankful that the mission he began still reaches people in the community – like the ones He preached to on Midwest farms and the more diverse neighborhood in the city where he served.