Story Magazine

Second Quarter, 2007

Congregation Worships Without Borders

by Andrew Behrendt, M.Div. Jr.

If Sean Whelan and his parishioners at North Emanuel Lutheran Church had stuck to their comfortable Sunday routine, they would have all spent the morning of March 25 in their sanctuary in northern St. Paul, Minn. Instead, they found themselves standing in the street outside a nearby home--a crime scene where three people had been killed two mornings earlier--and worshiping with members of the victims' families.

"I watched a congregation that essentially is comprised of very custom-oriented people gathering around these strangers and sharing the peace with them, supporting them and telling them that they would pray for them," recalled Whelan, a Master of Divinity intern, who had organized the service. "I'm watching stoic, very emotionally unexpressive, proud Scandinavian Lutherans crack in this tremendous outpouring of support for the family."

That morning, North Emanuel congregation members embraced God's calling despite their own nature and routines. Whelan, 38, originally from northwestern Wisconsin, already knew something about that.Were he not struck by a round of layoffs in early 2003, he said, he would have preferred 20 more years as an airline mechanic to the life of a pastor. Accepting God's call amid the turbulence, he attended Luther Seminary for three years before being stationed last fall at North Emanuel, an urban, aging congregation that otherwise has no pastor.

It was the morning of Friday, March 23, that a 32-year-old woman, her 31-year-old fiancच and her 15-year-old daughter were fatally shot inside their St. Paul home. The woman's other two children, ages 7 and 10, said gunmen had broken into the home and demanded money before killing the three. A motive remains unclear, and authorities have made no arrests.

Upon learning that relatives of the victims once attended North Emanuel and that just the morning before, they had observed the burial of the slain woman's grandmother, Whelan considered how the congregation might process to the site of the murders. He sought simply a showing of solidarity rather than a publicity stunt. "It just didn't seem right to me to participate in the regular routine on Sunday when something so tragic had happened so close to where we were gathering to worship," he said.

St. Paul Area Synod Bishop Peter Rogness agreed on short notice to join the effort, and on Sunday morning, Whelan explained to his parishioners what he hoped for them to do. Without any of the grumbling he almost expected, roughly 40 of the congregation's more able-bodied members got up just before the gospel acclamation and silently walked single-file for three blocks to the cordoned-off home. Members of the victims' families, having seen the procession, had gathered there. When Whelan explained the church's intent, the male victim's mother broke down in tears.

"It was sort of a surreal experience up until I looked into the face of a mother whose son had just been murdered in cold blood, crying because she was happy that a church showed up to worship in front of the house," said Whelan, noting that the 7- and 10-year-old children who had lost their mother and sister were also there. Standing on the curb and clinging to a processional cross to keep his emotions in check, Whalen led the service of Scripture-reading, song, creed and prayers as others from the neighborhood gathered with them. After about 30 minutes, the congregation processed back to conclude the service with those remaining in the sanctuary. Whelan then phoned the slain woman's mother, who had until recently been an active member at North Emanuel. They arranged for a private family service at North Emanuel later that day. The woman and her family, numbering about 20 people, have worshiped regularly with the small congregation ever since. Some have been baptized, and a wedding is coming soon.

Whelan, due to graduate in 2008, will serve North Emanuel for another year as a resident pastor. He notes great pride in his parishioners for their actions that morning, as well as great inspiration from the family that has joined them. Above all, he hopes the experience will flower into greater willingness for mission.

"People aren't going to get murdered every week in this neighborhood, but there are families in dire need of an intervention by a community of faith making a statement publicly that says, 'We stand with you, regardless of how you think of yourself in light of the church,'" said Whelan. "It's a wonderful transition into what God is really calling this congregation into now."