OUR SAVIORâS LUTHERAN CHURCH: SMALL BUT STRONG
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
As Our Savior’s Lutheran Church prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary this coming Sunday, Oct. 10, Theresa Jacobson thinks back on her 10 years of pastoral service and care to the tiny congregation 6 miles south of Menno with warm regard and profound perspective. After all, the Stone Church, as it is commonly called, wears the armor of “small but mighty,” and wears it well.
“I get emotional because it’s extremely humbling to witness it,” Jacobson says of the community outreach sparked by a congregation that has seen attendance fluctuate between just eight and 14 since she began serving as pastor in February of 2012. “If it wasn’t for the work of the church members and also the non-members who are willing to volunteer and help out with these efforts, we couldn’t do any of it.”
From an annual Christmas program to a Bible school curriculum that has drawn upwards of 40 kids to a spring soup kitchen, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church continues to make an impact in the Menno community.
“There is so much community outreach for such a small church,” says the 38-year-old pastor who was born and raised in Bellevue, Neb. “It has been amazing to be part of this.
“As small as we are, we’ve been hanging in there.”
Our Savior’s Lutheran Church was organized one day after Christmas, 1871, and the people of the congregation have worshipped in their distinctive stone structure in the James River Valley since the second half of the 20th century. It was in February of 1948 that men from the congregation began gathering rocks from a 20-mile radius; actual construction began the following month and the cornerstone was laid on Sunday, Oct. 10 of that same year. The church was dedicated in July of 1950.
There is some poetry in the stone edifice as it relates to what will be the theme of Sunday morning’s worship service taken from Matthew 16, where Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
“I keep coming back to that,” Jacobson says. “He didn’t say it was going to be a big church. He didn’t say it was going to be magnificent or adorned with jewels. He just says, ‘On this rock I will build my church.’”
The people of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church represent that “rock,” the pastor says.
“We’re not any sort of big show down there, yet the church serves a purpose,” Jacobson says. “God must have some pretty spectacular plans for this congregation and the mission that is being done with this little church.
“A rock is steady,” she continues. “It’s firm. It’s not easily pushed over, and I’ve seen that in so many figurative ways throughout the last 10 years.”
Perhaps the most dramatic came in the fall of 2019 when excessive rains and runoff from the north pushed the Jim River out of its banks and threatened to damage the structure. It was similar to 2011, Jacobson notes, which was the year she was considering moving with her husband, Tom, from the Twin Cities and taking a pastorate at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and, by proxy, the Grace Lutheran Church in Menno.
“They had dealt with flooding just before we got here,” she recalls. “When we visited the church for the first time, I said, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s on a lake.’ They said, ‘No, that’s actually our council president’s field right there that should have crops in it. That’s when I learned that’s where the water should not be.”
The flooding two years ago was worse. Only a frantic and dramatic sandbagging effort from the larger community kept the river waters at bay to protect the building. Jacobson said that, in the moment of fear, it was a low point because there was a legitimate question of whether the effort would be enough. The waters may not have destroyed the church, she says now, looking back, but there would have been significant damage.
As it turned out, not only did the tag-team effort work, “it actually brought attention to our building again,” says Jacobson, who notes that in the two years since, attendance has actually climbed from the eight to 10 they had been seeing to between 12 and 14 today.
“And now, here we are, getting ready to celebrate 150 years,” she says. “Knowing that that Lutheran heritage has always been there, whether it was 100 members or 12, that legacy lives on.”
Jacobson and others affiliated with the church know that Sunday’s celebration will most likely be the final big one for a congregation whose future is unknown. The fact is, there are no youth actively involved in the week-to-week life of the congregation and everybody is getting older, making the chance of a 175th anniversary slim at best.
“Do the math,” she says. “A lot of our members will be past the point of being able to do something like that, so it makes Sunday that much more special.”
And she ends on this note.
“Ten years ago when I got here, I can’t tell you the number of people who came up to me and said, ‘I hear that Our Savior’s is closing its doors.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, that’s news to me because I keep going down there to lead worship. As long as I’ve got at least two people sitting in the pews, we’re going to do this. And we have.”