Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Maryland is the result of a consolidation of three historically white Lutheran congregations. Over the years leading up to the consolidation, each congregation had struggled as the neighborhood changed from a white working-class neighborhood to a majority African American neighborhood dealing with increasing poverty, substance abuse, and violence. As these congregations decided to consolidate, and to stay in East Baltimore, the priority that emerged most clearly was that they felt a deep call to serve the neighborhood—and to be open to how that might change them. While the consolidation was formally completed in 1996, with the closing of the three congregations and the birth of a new congregation with a new name, the reality was that true consolidation of the people into this new congregation took much longer. Within the first years of the consolidation, nearly half of the former members left or did not join the new congregation. Those remaining had to figure out effective ways of living their new relationships as they faced the challenges of what it meant to be a multicultural urban Lutheran congregation—in worship, leadership, and mission.
I first began serving at Amazing Grace in 2001, when I began an internship there as part of my education and formation with the Lutheran Deaconess Conference. As people introduced themselves to me, they often identified themselves by their former congregations: “I was a member of Trinity” (or Martin Luther or Bethany). And almost every member had a story of the consolidation—the hard work that had gone into working out budgets, leadership roles, worship habits, and disposing of or saving cherished congregational mementos/objects. I heard phrases such as “this congregation had to go down into the valley of dry bones and come out together.”
Meanwhile, I was also experiencing the ongoing consolidation and transformation as I worked alongside people from Amazing Grace and the surrounding neighborhood. I learned new ways to worship as a Lutheran in this urban setting. Hymns and music from the African American tradition permeated worship; testimony of God’s work with individuals was proclaimed out loud in worship; the greeting of peace was a time of enthusiastic welcome to everyone attending worship that day; and extemporaneous prayer was the norm. Perhaps one of the most important pieces in the “education of Sister Kati” was that I deeply learned that I was not the only one with the gifts, that this was not a case of me helping “those others” who were the ones in need. This became clear to me as I heard story after story of people’s persistent faith in the face of extremely difficult life circumstances. I was invited in to hear the important stories of God’s work in people’s lives—stories of recovery from addiction, stories of the loss and death of children, stories of deep belief in the persistent presence of God in the inner city. I had been graciously invited into this community of faith that took seriously their new name, Amazing Grace.
What also became clear after I had spent a year or so at Amazing Grace was that, while the consolidation was complete on paper, this new congregation had to continue to find new ways to tell its amazing story—both of its past and its future.
Over the years, the neighborhood continued to struggle, old members died, and new members joined. Significantly, by the time Amazing Grace approached its 10th anniversary, the majority of the members were not people who could tell the story of life in the predecessor congregations. What they could tell was the current story the congregation was living in serving the surrounding neighborhood.
It became clear at this time that if the church was to continue its work in a faithful way, a new emphasis was needed to invigorate the membership into the next steps in mission. Soon the congregation began to explore what a new initiative might look in their setting. This exploration led to the creation of a three-year initiative they named, according to biblical stories, the Mary, Martha, and Lazarus Campaign.
The plan was divided into three distinct phases: the Mary year, the Martha year, and the Lazarus year. The Mary year involved “sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening,” the Martha year was centered on “serving” in new ways, and the Lazarus year was focused on being “called forth” from the tomb. This initiative permeated the congregation in such areas as worship expansion, congregational partnerships, and evangelism. Here was the opportunity for this now “rested” congregation to reflect, listen, and enact the wisdom gained during the past years as well as continue to create contextual incarnations of what this congregation understood their call to be in this place at this time.
As worship expanded, the congregation learned new multicultural songs, new members joined the choir, and new members were involved in serving in worship. Attention was paid to how such things as art, color, and liturgical paraments might communicate the congregation’s multicultural nature. A group began exploring how liturgical dance to contemporary gospel songs could enhance worship. We heard members sing such songs as “His Eye is on the Sparrow” in the days before they began chemotherapy; we heard new ways in which traditional songs might be sung; and those who took on new roles in worship found their own testimonies of God’s amazing grace giving shape to the ways in which they invited the congregation into worship.
As Amazing Grace entered into partnerships with suburban congregations, new relationships were formed and mutual benefits were discovered. These relationships began and were nurtured in the hearing of each other’s stories. Youth groups from other churches came to work in the garden behind the church and to support the congregation’s summer camp for neighborhood children. Choirs sang in each other’s church services. Pastors exchanged pulpits. And Amazing Grace’s liturgical dance team visited a suburban church. Through all of this, the glue that increasingly bound the congregations together was the relationships that occurred when people listened to each other’s stories of God’s grace—in the suburbs and in the inner city.
As this congregation approached year three of its new initiative—the Lazarus year—the story of Lazarus being called forth from the tomb was used extensively and repeatedly in preaching, meetings, and devotions. What individuals who engaged with the story of Lazarus found again and again was a dynamic framework for the work of this congregation in the present and for some time to come. Lazarus was called forth from the tomb—and he came (he didn’t decline the gift of new life). But when he got there, he had to be unwrapped before his resurrection was complete. Much reflection and discussion time was spent on such questions as, “What is it that God is calling us forth to do?” and “From what do we need to be unwrapped and unbound to be fully free to serve God in this place?” The ongoing answer was to continue to explore how Amazing Grace’s worship reflects the neighborhood, how it could find those places where God is encouraging new partnerships, and how it could communicate to those out there hungry for God’s amazing word of life that this is a congregation that is expansive and hospitable.
Perhaps the most difficult portion of the Mary, Martha, and Lazarus Campaign has been finding ways to equip the members of Amazing Grace to make the connections that offer people the opportunity to become members. In this neighborhood, many people’s experience of church is that they were welcome when they had “gotten it together.” Amazing Grace was deeply committed to the principle that this was the place one came to be healed. Given the difficult and sometimes chaotic nature of the lives of many of the neighborhood residents, this message has been hard to communicate effectively
and has not been easily heard. And so, Amazing Grace remains a small congregation—but one committed to sharing God’s hospitality, a hospitality that that many of its members have received in their own lives.
The story Amazing Grace tells today after 11 years of existence is one of power, healing, and grace. These years of living together in God’s amazing grace have taught me and this congregation that we have been called forth from the tomb and been unbound and unwrapped to serve God’s people in a changing and challenging neighborhood. When the journey began in 1994 with initial conversations about how mission might bring together these three congregations, no one could see into the future to tell the story of what would happen. These days there is much story to tell—and it goes on as Amazing Grace continues to be unbound and set free to live out the experience of new life.
Kati Kluckman-Ault is a member of the Lutheran Deaconess Conference and has served at Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baltimore, Maryland since 2001. She is rostered in the ELCA as a diaconal minister and is also a clinical instructor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.