By Jo Ann Dollard

Four years ago, when Sue Hand was called to serve as pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Saginaw, Mich., the first thing she noticed were the highly polished beige tile floors.

“I called it, ‘The Church of the Shiny Floors,’” Sue said, explaining, “Our custodian was so used to being on a schedule to wax the floors that he didn’t even realize that nothing was happening in the church to make them dull.” 

At her first call out of seminary, Sue, a bi-vocational pastor who also serves as a hospice chaplain, faced an enormous challenge. Her bishop told her he was sending her to an unhealthy congregation and to do what she could.

Zion, a 125-year-old congregation, had become a divided congregation, closed to the community around it. As the racial composition of the community changed from primarily White to include Latinos and African Americans, the congregation’s membership dwindled.

“When I got here, there were no people of color,” said Sue, adding, “[The church’s dictum] was ‘We lock all the doors and we’re afraid of the neighborhood.’” Some members were reluctant – even hostile – to the idea of accepting non-Whites into their congregation.

Mike Nagel, a member for 67 years who has also served as the congregation’s president three times, said there were a few people at the church who adamantly wanted to preserve the status quo. “[It was] ‘their church.’ Sue had to stand up to them.”

Some of the members told Sue she might be killed if she went into the community to meet the neighbors. She ignored them.

“I took my chances and went out to meet some new friends,” she said, laughing. “They started coming to church soon after I became a ‘street walker.’”

With hope comes change

It turns out Zion didn’t have to be closed. “What we did was change the culture,” said Sue. “I love getting people excited about change.”

“You have to have a plan. Change doesn’t happen naturally because of the resistance to [it],” she explained. “You have to create an atmosphere of hope so you can create a culture of change.”

At every opportunity – in a sermon, a council meeting or Bible study – “I spoke about loving your neighbors.”

It took two years of intentionally changing the culture and convincing the council to try new things to get different results, including everything from changing from a bank to a credit union to avoid fees, to trying a different style of worship every other week.

Zion also formed a Dream Team to brainstorm about how to get the congregation out into the community. They came up with the idea of an ice-cream cart. The city of Saginaw donated a dilapidated cart, which Zion cleaned up and decorated with the handprints of children in their day camp. They filled the cart with ice-cream sandwiches, bars and cones and went out into the neighborhood. 

At first, “people didn’t trust our free ice cream,” Sue admitted. Two years later, the community knows Zion by its ice-cream cart, which goes with them everywhere.

Zion helped organize an interfaith prayer vigil on July 26 at Grace Lutheran Church in Vassar, Mich., for children fleeing Central America. “We handed out ice cream to all the people,” said Sue. “Nothing brings smiles to people’s faces like sharing ice cream and the love of God.”

‘You feel welcome’

Sophia and Diane Fuentes, mother and daughter, have been members of Zion for seven months. They first found out about the congregation at a Mexican-American Council event. Of course, Zion was there with its ice-cream cart.

One Sunday, they came to Zion to worship and liked it so much they kept coming back. Their Catholic parish was closing and they were looking for a new church home.

“It was the pastor and community that made us want to be a part of it,” said Diane. “From the time you step in the door, the people are greeting you and making you feel welcome.”

David Sprang, director of evangelical mission for the North/West Lower Michigan Synod, preached at Zion on Palm Sunday this year. At the time he thought, “Here’s this German congregation from the 1880s and here in 2014 we’re baptizing two babies named Pedro and Rudy Juarez.”

On a typical Sunday, 65 people come to worship. The congregation is now about 90 percent White and 10 percent Latino, African American and Asian.

This fall, the congregation will apply for a grant from the ELCA to help fund Sue’s position at a full-time level so she can continue to build the congregation’s membership and do more outreach into the Latino community.

“A lot of people are able to deal with change if they see there’s hope,” said David. “I think one of the things Zion is doing is giving neighborhoods hope.”

Jo Ann Dollard is a writer, editor and communications consultant living in Chicago who believes stories are the most powerful way to communicate mission.

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