A Church for the Neighborhood
Frigid air blew through his worn overcoat. The St. Louis street-dweller curled inward, crossed his arms to hug his shoulders and tucked in his legs to keep warm as he huddled on the sidewalk. He hoped for a little shut eye before the soup kitchen opened the next day at Historic Trinity Lutheran Church. He never woke up.
Homeless men and women die from freezing temperatures every year, but in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis, this shook the close-knit faith community. Members at Trinity help alleviate hunger at the daily soup kitchen and were devastated that one of their own passed away from something so basic as a lack of warm shelter.
“What began as something our volunteers could do (serve food) in order to be discipled to follow in the way of Christ, became a lot more urgent at that point,” said Josh Hatcher, senior pastor of Trinity.
Trinity partnered with other local churches, including St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church (VPCC) and Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church (PPCC) to launch a shelter and social services in the basement of Sts. Peter and Paul. “They handle the logistics of helping the homeless beyond what we can do,” said Hatcher.
Yet Trinity continues to expand their services. In addition to the daily food service, the church holds seasonal drives for items the homeless need to survive the elements: blankets, coats, underwear and hygiene kits. They also hand out groceries once a week, provide utility subsidies to keep people safe in their homes and help former convicts through their transition back into the community. But all these do not fully express the impact of the ministry—they also share God’s love and the message of the Gospel.
“A hungry stomach has a really hard time internalizing the Gospel of peace,” said Hatcher. “All these things [physical help] remove the barriers for people to come into a relationship with Jesus. When they know we treasure them, value them and see the reflection of Christ within them—then it makes it easier for them to see the hope of the Gospel of Jesus.”
Ministering to the poor and homeless in the community is part of Trinity’s legacy. During the Great Depression, the hungry and displaced in their neighborhood tapped on the kitchen window in the back of the church and were offered whatever food they had on hand, mostly soup. The tapping of the window quickly turned into a bell—and now the locals know to come to Soup Alley every weekday from 9:30-10:30 a.m. to receive a brown bag with a sandwich, chips and fruit.
“We believe we are serving God by serving those around us,” said Bob Kurtz, overseer of the Community Care Ministry at Trinity.
The church also hosts a monthly hot meal. Russ Bettlach and his crew of volunteers show up to the church’s large stainless-steel kitchen once a month and spend hours chopping fresh ingredients. They cook a hot meal with chicken or beef and serve it restaurant-style to whomever comes through their doors.
“We always serve fresh fruit salad because they don’t eat fresh fruit often,” Bettlach said with a smile.
The meals end with something sweet for dessert—a brownie, cookie or pie. “I try to be creative and make the food tasty. . . we’re doing it because of the people we serve,” Bettlach said.
The journey of serving the poor in the community is rooted in a church born out of adversity. In the 1830s, their faith ancestors left Saxony because of religious oppression—taking a golden ornate chalice for communion service from a Duke on their way out—and settled in the St. Louis area of Soulard, the first neighborhood established in St. Louis. The founding pastor, Rev. C.F.W. Walther, also started Concordia Publishing House, Concordia Seminary and the The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. His leadership pioneered the way for Trinity to thrive, and they sustained a strong presence in the neighborhood for more than 100 years. But in the 1960s, poverty blighted the area, and church leaders considered closing their doors.
But the neighbors opened their hearts to sustain the oldest Lutheran church west of the Mississippi River and reimagined it as a center for neighborhood revitalization. “We see ourselves as a 40-year-old mission plant that started in 1839,” Hatcher said.
Their history reaches back, but their vision always points forward. The original pulpit design of the gothic-inspired worship space included the Saxon ship masthead as a reminder to always move ahead instead of focusing on the past.
“For us, our history is a trajectory. From the very beginning, our eyes have fixed forward on where God is sending us out into the world and into our neighborhood,” Hatcher said.
Their next wave of ministry includes reworking building space into a community center. Hatcher called upon Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) for help.
“LCEF takes away the financial pressure you would normally feel moving forward in ministry,” Hatcher said.
LCEF consolidated a few loans for them to make the ministry more manageable from a fiscal point of view and are partnering with them to make the community center a viable opportunity.
Hatcher said, “They [LCEF] see the value of not just holding the debt of churches, but in partnering with them for the vision going forward.”
The vision ahead for Trinity will expand their ability to serve the cold and hungry in their neighborhood. Scripture reminds us that God is in the business of making beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3). People should never die from the cold or lack of food. Yet the homeless man’s death years ago sprung forth compassion, vision and a God-ward calling for Trinity. Hope is expanding in Soulard.
Pray with us: Dear Lord, bless those in every land who baptize and teach in your name. Strengthen Rev. Hatcher, the Soup Alley ministry, Trinity Lutheran Church and the Soulard community. Open doors for the Gospel and empower, by your Holy Spirit, those who hear it to believe it and be saved. Amen.