Three Lutheran churches in Bellingham are jointly celebrating their 125th anniversaries. For them, it’s a time to commemorate their longevity, as well as a time to ponder their futures in an age when fewer people feel obligated to attend service, and when the immigrant roots of the churches have faded over time.
“Celebrating 125 years in the county helps us see there’s a lot more need to work together, to wonder what the future is going to be,” said Joel Langholz, pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 1720 Harris Ave.
Numerous Lutheran churches sprang up in Bellingham in the late 1800s as people of Scandinavian, Danish and German background moved to the area, either directly from their home country or from other parts of the U.S., often the Midwest.
At St. John’s Lutheran Church, 2530 Cornwall Ave., the first building was dedicated in 1891 with services in Norwegian, English and German. By the time St. John’s marked its 40th anniversary, sermons were still delivered in English and in German, but not Norwegian.
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Central Lutheran Church, 925 N. Forest St., traces its roots to an 1890 church started by 20 Norwegian families and called Bellingham Lutherske Menighed. The church merged with other churches over the years and changed its name several times. It became American Central Lutheran Church in 1928, reflecting a move toward Americanization. The demise of church services conducted in Norwegian was another sign of that shift, as was the decision in 1945 to give female congregation members the right to vote on church matters.
Yet another sign of the fading immigrant influence is the disappearance of lutefisk from church gatherings. Lutefisk is a Scandinavian dish in which dried cod is soaked in lye, then cooked to a gelatinous consistency.
Langholz said lutefisk was available at a Minnesota church where he previously served as pastor, but he and Cara Tanis, pastor at St. John’s, said it’s no longer on the menu at their current churches.
Looking ahead, the small churches are focused on community service and attracting members.
At St. John’s, Tanis became pastor in April 2014 to help rejuvenate the small, aging congregation through what’s called “transformational ministry.” Recent changes include making the church building available for more community groups; being more involved in neighborhood activities, such as the Sunnyland Stomp; and making kitchen space available for a program that provides soup and sandwiches downtown for homeless people four evenings a week.
“We said we wanted to be more involved,” Tanis said. “It is slow, but I think it’s going well.”
She noted that a motto of the Lutheran church, translated from Latin, is “always reforming.”
“It’s about constantly being willing to adapt, adjust, change,” she said.
Similar community-minded projects are in evidence at Our Saviour’s. The church coordinates with Happy Valley Neighborhood Association to provide a monthly southside community meal, and coordinates with the Interfaith Coalition to provide transitional shelter for homeless families.
The challenge, Langholz said, is to find new church members while remaining active in the broader community.
“If people aren’t coming to your door, you have to figure out what to do,” he said. “People want the fellowship and want the community aspect, but don’t come to worship, per se.”
Joint worship service
What: Special service to celebrate the 125th anniversaries of Central Lutheran, Our Saviour’s Lutheran and St. John’s Lutheran churches. A meal will follow.
Where: Central Lutheran Church, 925 N. Forest St., Bellingham
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13.
Community service weekend
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will host its third annual day of service with community projects nationwide. Local projects Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 12-13, are:
Prepare quilts for needy people overseas: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Christ Lutheran Church, 5904 Vista Drive, Ferndale. People of all ages welcome; quilting experience not required. Details: 360-384-1422.
Glean produce for food banks: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. Maximum of 20 gleaners needed. Call 360-778-1366 for details and to reserve a spot.
Collect baby items: 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Barkley Haggen, 2900 Woburn St. St. John’s Youth Ministry will collect baby food, formula, diapers and money for baby needs for Bellingham Food Bank. To contribute, call 360-733-4190.
Help seniors write letters: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Spring Creek by Bonaventure, 223. E. Bakerview Road. Help residents write letters to loved ones. Space is limited; to sign up contact Traci Hanson, 360-739-6114, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cornwall Park work: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Cornwall Park. City parks department will provide tools, gloves and guidance. Dress for outdoor work. For details, including work site in park, contact Charis Weathers, email@example.com.