Restoring Grace to Heal the Broken Hearts of Hamburg

November 27, 2017 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Editor’s Note:

To celebrate the announcement of the 2017 Kaleidoscope Fund grant recipients, we are sharing the 2016 recipient’s stories over the next two months. See all 2016 stories here as they are published.

-LCEF Editorial Team

Since 2009, Rev. Nathan Hartke has been the lead pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y.

Hartke loves the Lord, loves people and has a camp background, which means he likes the informal approach. He likes to be genuine and take off the masks. One event could sum up Hartke’s approach to ministry: the annual men’s retreat.

The group meets at a nearby Lutheran camp and on Saturday they feast, relax and worship. It’s during those small moments together that lifetime bonds are born.

“It’s impossible to spend that much time with each other,” Hartke said, “in a unique setting and not get connected. When they get back, it’s so wonderful to see the relationships forged and deepened.”

Right now his church is in the middle of a four-year, $3.5 million expansion. The congregation received commitments for over $2.4 million and a Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) construction bridge loan will cover the gap while they raise the rest.

Once the dust settles, St. John’s will have a new lobby, classrooms, child care rooms, sidewalks, additional parking and offices. While they are growing, however, things are a bit tight.

That’s when the opportunity of a lifetime landed at Hartke’s feet.

Nobody saw this coming

A friend of Hartke’s, who is a current member at St. John’s, told him that his former church, Grace Hamburg (just six miles down the road), was in bad shape.

Hartke was familiar with Grace. Ten to twenty years ago it was a thriving Lutheran church in the area. These days it was a tiny congregation in a building in need of significant repairs. It was also deeply in debt.

The friend suggested to Hartke that their congregation go to the remaining members at Grace and inquire about assuming the property, absorbing the debt and adding Grace as an extension of St. John’s ministry.

Hartke was stunned.

“Are you serious? Add another site at this time? Our board and congregation will never approve.”

His friend encouraged him to think about it. Grace was in a good location. It would give St. John’s the ability to extend their ministry to Hamburg, a town of 57,000 people. Almost half the homes in the community were single-parent households. Grace could be the center of healing to the hurting families of Hamburg.

That appealed to Hartke, so he presented the idea to the board.

The thinking went like this: while Grace had $250,000 in debt the property itself was worth $750,000. In five years, if their efforts to minister to the town came to nothing, St. John’s could sell the building and recover their losses. So, St. John’s went ahead and acquired it.

This is more than just personal

Former Grace members who are now at St. John’s are thrilled about the rehabilitation of their church home of Hamburg. They have a heart for that place.

Todd Pohlman, the treasurer for St. John’s board of trustees, grew up at Grace. He was baptized and confirmed there. So were his brothers and father.

“If you look on the wall,” Pohlman said, “they are still there: Dad’s black and white confirmation photo. And then me and my brothers’ photos in color still hanging on the wall.”

Pohlman’s grandfather was one of the original founding members of Grace. Pohlman’s daughter was also baptized at Grace. Mel Pingel, the great uncle of Laura Hartke (Hartke’s wife), was one of the founding pastors of Grace Hamburg.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “That property is dear to a lot of people. When we brought it up to the congregation … to see 40 to 50 people get emotional was a very stirring moment.”

But it’s not just for sentimental reasons; everyone loves the idea of restoring Grace.

“There is something to not allowing this church to go to a business,” he said. “We didn’t want to see it go secular.”

Amazing ministry opportunities for Grace

It was the Kaleidoscope Fund grant that provided St. John’s necessary funding for expenses associated with starting up the second ministry site.

Because Hartke wants this space to be multi-dimensional, one of the first things they did at Grace was to remove the pews (and donate them to a church a few towns away). The intention was to add tables and chairs to make the space more relational and lower the threshold from “curb to sanctuary.”

On Tuesday nights, for example, a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) group meets at Grace. According to one member (who wished to remain anonymous), a core group of 45 people has been meeting for several years at Grace. At times 80 to 100 people might show up.

“We are one of the more successful groups in this region,” said the member. “Some people drive from Niagra or Lockport. That’s more than an hour away on the north side of Buffalo.”

Hartke promised the NA group that no matter what happens at the Hamburg site, they will hold that night open for them as long as they want.

“That’s organic ministry,” he said. “Think of the lives being changed and the relationships being built through that meeting. And we get to be a part of that.”

In addition, the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group that meets at St. John’s has been asking for a second night. In the past, St. John’s Orchard Park couldn’t accommodate that request. With the purchase of Grace, St. John’s can now offer the group a second night at Hamburg.

A safe entry point into the church

Hartke’s wife hosts an annual event called Advent by Candlelight during the Christmas season. It is a women’s tea event to celebrate the birth of Christ. About 100 to 150 women show up each year—“and a lot of these women are not even our church folk!” Mrs. Hartke said.

She points out that it’s crazy that she holds these many people in the Orchard Park hall. But this year they will be able to host that event in Hamburg.

“A lot of people in this area are disenfranchised with religion and feel spiritually isolated,” Mrs. Hartke said. “However, they seem to feel comfortable coming to our Advent event, which then becomes a safe entry point into our church.”

One more ministry opportunity they are considering is hosting Live Tree Café discussions. These are one-hour host led discussions with a short, but intriguing story on film. A new topic is introduced every week ranging from the serious to the fun to the quirky. But more importantly, Hartke says, these discussions allow people to be real. To share their hurts, their praises, their doubts and their love.

“Again, it could be a place and time where people can provide help and support for each other.”

Offering the love, forgiveness, hope and new life found in Christ to a broken community is exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was intended to support. Congratulations pastor Hartke and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Orchard Park for loving well!

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.