Gary Maring reflecting on what Luther Place has taught him around the importance of the Justice Ministry area and goals of the Luther Place Vision--prepared as part of the Justice Listening Team and in conversation with proposed Family and Community Engagement budget ideas. Check out the budget narrative for more information.
What Luther Place has taught me about justice
Today as I help implement the Justice goals of our Luther Place Vision through 2017, I reflect on the transformation I have personally experienced at Luther Place over the last 40 plus years. Until Margaret and I came to Luther Place as a newly married couple in 1968, I had never realized the radical nature of the gospel message. Growing up in a small rural Pa. Lutheran congregation, I was oblivious to the prophetic social justice message of the prophets from Moses down through Jesus. Pastor’s John Steinbruck’s prophetic preaching and teaching in the early 70s was an awakening to me and caused me to begin to wrestle with the gospels in a new way. It was Matthew 25 that finally struck me as my call to action. It was like being hit over the head with a 2×4; Jesus’ message in Matthew 25 is so profoundly simple and clear that I don’t know how I missed it in all my earlier years growing up in a Lutheran church. In this text Jesus says, in what is often viewed as his farewell message to the disciples: “What you do unto the least of these you do unto me”. He placed his final emphasis on the oppressed; the widows, the orphans, the poor; those excluded by the strict purity system of the church hierarchy of his day. So when Luther Place was faced with dying homeless people near our doorsteps in the cold winter of 1976, Matthew 25 became the operable text for our response as we opened the church doors to the homeless. From that event in the winter of 1976, there was no turning back. Our ministry with homeless women grew and eventually became a full continuum of services represented in what you see today as N Street Village, the premier program assisting homeless women in D.C. Last December we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of N Street Village.
Luther Place taught me that compassion and justice are at the core of our gospel calling and has inspired me to write a book on Faith, Social Justice, and Public Policy and to continue to write a regular blog on this topic often drawing on my experiences at Luther Place and N Street Village. One of the things I learned in our faith community is that we are called to care for each other but we are equally called to reach out and care for our neighbor. At times through my 40 plus years at Luther Place, we have struggled with that balance between caring for our own and caring for our neighbor in need. That balance will always be a struggle but it is clear to me where Jesus would put his emphasis. During the 1980s and 90s, Luther Place invested much of its energies in creating N Street Village (and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps) and at times neglected our own congregation’s needs to repair an aging sanctuary, internal fellowship and hospitality, and our children’s needs for a traditional and robust Sunday School experience. Although the issue was divisive at times within the congregation, I think Luther Place followed the gospel calling in first assuring a home at N Street Village for the homeless of our city before restoration of our own sanctuary. The congregation eventually was able to come back and restore our beautiful sanctuary in the late 90s after completing N Street Village. In regard to my own children’s lack of a robust Sunday School at Luther Place in those days, I think their exposure to and involvement in the justice work of the congregation forever shaped their lives beyond what would have been possible in a traditional suburban church experience near where we lived. My son Eric, who often performs for Luther Place events, continues to be amazed by the Luther Place commitment to local and international justice work (he traveled to Rwanda with a Luther Place group) and it has helped inspire his music career.
Today at Luther Place, we face some of the same challenges as we did over the past 40 years, as we sustain and build our Luther Place congregation while also responding to the vulnerable of our community. Unlike 40 years ago, when 14th Street was a burned out canyon, the corridor today is one of upscale apartments, businesses, theaters, and the arts. While improving the community for many, it has left affordable housing in scarce supply. We are organizing through Washington Interfaith Network for housing and good jobs for long-term and economically vulnerable residents including women graduating from NSV programs. In the last year we have also come to know Latino communities within our midst with whom we have formed alliances and created programs to help meet community needs. Our recent SoulFiesta on the Streets was a wonderful melding of four communities of Luther Place, N Street Village, Norwood Cooperative (primarily Latino) on N Street, and Latino families of Thompson Elementary School nearby–L and 11th Street, NW. Luther Place’s ArtSmart Summer Camp in cooperation with Thompson Elementary provided Latino kids with a summer enrichment experience they would not have otherwise received and the relationship continues to build. As Luther Place implements its Vision, the Justice Listening team (of which I am a member) is committed to help foster inward spiritual growth and community building that allows us to carry on the Luther Place history of external justice work.