A cloud of red balloons drifted skyward from the corner of North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue last Sunday morning, marking the centennial of an unusual Washington institution.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer set aside the past week to celebrate its first 100 years as the oldest black Lutheran congregation in America. Visits by the bishop, special services, pot luck suppers, community gatherings and choir concerts marked the event.
"It only happens every 100 years," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Vivian S. Roberts, "so we're trying to make the most of it."
For a black congregation to have thrived for a century in a denomination whose very name calls up images of the German and Scandinavian immigrants who established it in this country is "nothing short of a miracle," said the Rev. Massie L. Kennard, director for minority concerns at the denomination's New York headquarters.
Of the 3 million LCA members, he noted, there are only 53,000 blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. "Except for the grace of God and the tenacity and resolve of the black people of that early church," the congregation here would not have survived, said Kennard.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer was founded Aug. 9, 1885. Its founding pastor was the Rev. Daniel E. Wiseman. A native of St. Thomas and an 1884 graduate of Howard University's School of Religion, he was licensed to preach by the (Lutheran) Synod of Maryland. He was ordained in 1886 by Luther Place Memorial Church, which members of Our Redeemer still refer to as "our mother church."
Wiseman served the church, originally located on Eighth Street NW near Barry Place, for 57 years, until his death in 1942. His vision of ministry extended beyond the church walls into the community. The church started a day nursery for poor families and boys clubs to channel the energies of youths.
The tradition of community service continues today, with a food cupboard, a daily program of food and activities for senior citizens, a Saturday program for children of single-parent households, which abound in the neighborhood, among other activities.
By mid-century, the character of the church's original neighborhood had become more commercial and residential, and in 1954, the congregation moved to its present site.
Wiseman had been succeeded by the Rev. James Somersille, who served until his death in 1980.
"I'm the first white pastor the church has had, and I'm the first woman," said Roberts.
There was a three-year hiatus between Somersille's death and her call to Our Redeemer. Understandably, perhaps, for a congregation that keeps its pastors for decades, "they had a very strong image of what they wanted in their next pastor," Roberts said.
"I understand they were looking for a strong black man . . . . " She added with a laugh, "And they found it in me."
What problems there have been, she said, have come "from gender more than race. After all, the Lutheran Church has only been ordaining women for 15 years. There really aren't that many of us yet."
"When you bring a women in, you're going to have a few problems," was the way Gloria Ricks, who proudly identifies herself as "a third-generation Lutheran," put it. And while there were "a few problems" over calling a white pastor, "it was the majority ruling," she added.
Now, almost two years into Roberts' pastorate, said Ricks, "Some of those people who did not want it are working in the church. There has been no division of the church."
And others who drifted away in the three years between pastors have come back for the centennial events, she said, "And they say, 'Oh, you all are very active now. I'm coming back more often.' "
For Roberts, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania attending a Lutheran church built on land deeded by William Penn, one of the hardest adjustments in serving the black church was learning "a new cultural language."
One of her conditions in coming to Our Redeemer, she said, was locating housing in the neighborhood for herself, her husband Eric and son Christopher.
Once again Our Redeemer, which has about 200 members, is facing a changing neighborhood. Single-family homes are being replaced by small apartments occupied by the elderly and single-parent families. Can Our Saviour survive?
"We plan to," said their first white, woman pastor.