Uplifting Justice during Times of Change: The Future of a Historic Church

By Naomi Meints ’25 from an interview with Pastor Anne McCall

It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

What does it mean for a church to be truly diverse? What does it mean for a ministry to focus on justice? What does it mean to be Lutheran? With an ongoing movement of racial reckoning in this country, many churches are facing an era and change and growth with these questions in mind. I recently enjoyed a conversation with Pastor Anne McCall of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Chicago. We discussed her experience as a new pastor at this incredibly historic church, and what it means to lead a diverse and ever evolving congregation today. We discussed the past, present, and future of this community and how the Nourishing Vocation Project has helped people think more deeply about their open community. 

First Immanuel Lutheran Church is a community with a fascinating history. The church was established over 170 years ago in Chicago, and served mainly new Swedish and German immigrants. As time went on, this church remained primarily white until the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, when the church opened up to the increasingly diverse neighborhood. It is an urban church, on the west side of Chicago, which is considered an economically disadvantaged area, with a mainly black population. It is an area with an important history, quite close to the location of significant civil rights protests in the 1960s. This placed First Immanuel in a place to adapt to meet the needs of the people and area it served. And so First Immanuel made the decision that it was time to adapt for the better, and was one of the first churches in Chicago to integrate. This is significant among faith communities in the area, and was even integrated before most schools were. A particular point of pride in the church’s history is in 1966, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached there, with a sermon talking about the injustices of housing discrimination in the area.

Today, the church is approximately 70% black and 30% white. Still, the church faces decisions around justice and change, especially as this historic area becomes more gentrified.

Today, the church is approximately 70% black and 30% white. Still, the church faces decisions around justice and change, especially as this historic area becomes more gentrified. Pastor Anne is one of the people who answered the call to help this church continue to thrive. A former physician, Pastor Anne is new to this position but deeply passionate and knowledgeable about the community and work done here at First Immanuel. 

The community continues to encounter shifts in our changing Christian world. One thing Pastor Anne noted was how ideas around the LGBT community have changed in the church. She stated that it was a bit of a struggle, as the church has deep roots with the Missouri Synod. After the former pastor came out as a gay man, the conversation of LGBT acceptance in the church became urgent and important in the church. This led to First Immanuel becoming an ELCA congregation, and later a Reconciling in Christ congregation as well. Pastor Anne noted that this was not always an easy process. Despite the revolutionary nature of the congregation in many ways, there are still very traditional aspects that are now being challenged. 

Pastor Anne told a touching story about some congregants that came together despite their mounting differences. An older man, who had been at this congregation for much of his life, originally clashed with changes that were happening in the church that strayed from tradition. However, he was able to find common ground and become incredibly close with a lesbian couple at the church, when they listened to each other and connected over common ground. One of the women was open with her recovery from addiction, which resonated with the man who was also recovering from addiction. Through their support of each other in their mutual struggle and healing, they became very close friends. They were able to learn from their similarities, not only in their struggles but in their lives and faith. Pastor Anne told me how they particularly bonded over Psalm 91, a favorite passage of the congregants, as they celebrated their sobriety and other life accomplishments. 

This is only one story of the connections made at First Immanuel. Pastor Anne places a lot of emphasis on the importance of communication and open listening for maintaining an honest, open, and diverse community. This is where she highlighted the ways the Nourishing Vocation Project has helped people engage in meaningful conversations, that dive deeper in values, vocations, and one’s relationships to the people and places around them. She noted how these discussion groups have led to very powerful and rich conversations, including about race in the church. She told specifically about how two older women in the church opened up about their childhood in the area, and how difficult and terrifying it was to do simple things like navigate their way home from school. These conversations have allowed for rich lived history to be shared and congregants of all different walks of life to embrace their unique congregation.

All this said, with change also comes some struggles. Like many, this church is looking forward to how to keep the church true to itself and thriving in the long run. She noted that many congregants look to nostalgia when viewing the church, missing the old triumphs of a large and prominent community. Pastor Anne spoke on how it is important to leave the rose colored glasses aside and look towards how they address current issues facing the church. One of these she discussed is falling numbers, especially with youth engagement. In the past, youth have been an integral part of the community. She stated that one of the former pastors was famous for going out into the community and encouraging the children to be involved in Sunday school. By putting them first, the parents soon followed and felt valued. Now, Pastor Anne spoke about how times are different, and we must be prepared to look towards new solutions for making young people seem seen and fully engaged in their church communities. 

We really do love each other. And we value that a lot. We value our community a lot. How to take that out beyond our walls is the challenge

Rev. Dr. Anne McCall

Pastor Anne spoke about the way that, despite the ups and downs, she is incredibly proud of the church’s unrelenting values. She noted the importance of community outreach and vocation to her church, in addition to values of justice and diversity. The church has involvement in incredibly successful programs related to community outreach, including Paws Salvation, a free pet vaccine clinic and food drive, and Crop Walk, an annual fundraiser fighting food insecurity in the city. On the topic of vocation, Pastor Anne said this: “In this context, your vocation is what you do. And one of the members of the Bible study said, my vocation is to love Jesus and I said, ‘great start, and out of that everything else will flow’. So I think that our church values community. We pride ourselves on being welcoming. I truly believe that we are, I think we’re unique in that. We really are diverse, you know, Martin Luther King, Jr. Said, 10 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America and we really do love each other. And we value that a lot. We value our community a lot. How to take that out beyond our walls is the challenge”. Finally, she discussed the importance of Lutheran values. She asked, “what does it mean to be a Lutheran?” and highlighted the ways she uses Lutheran tenets to uplift the marginalized and center values of justice and equality. She used the theologies of the cross and baptism specifically to discuss how the tradition can be used to create a space for all in Christ. No matter your background, denomination, race, gender, sexuality, or age, there is space for you in the church community. If you’re curious about hearing more about this church and other diverse congregations, sign up for the 2024 Conference for Worship, Theology, and the Arts: Nourishing Vocation happening at St. Olaf College July 29-31!