A new way forward

Together in one building, three urban churches envision a brighter future

On Oct. 29, 2006 — Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church — the Rev. Jen Nagel led the last service in the old Salem English Lutheran Church at 28th and Lyndale. It would be more than five years before her congregation returned.

What they’ve returned to is not the old Salem, but a bold new experiment that has brought together three small, urban churches of three different Christian denominations under one roof. Renamed SpringHouse Ministry Center, the remodeled Salem building is now home to Salem, Lyndale United Church of Christ and First Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation with a long history in Whittier.

If not unique — and it may be — it’s at least very rare to find three churches who are equal partners in one building. As the Rev. Bob Brite of First Christian explained, co-located churches are relatively common, but far more often in a landlord-tenant relationship.

These three churches, each founded in Minneapolis in the late 1800s, each decades beyond its peak membership, were all struggling with buildings that were too large and too costly to maintain just a few years ago. Now, they share three new sanctuaries carved out of the 1904 Salem building, rotating their worship spaces three times a year, or so, according to the seasons of the liturgical calendar.

Said Brite: “There are a lot [of urban churches] that have closed — a lot of them — and this was a different way.”

It’s a partnership built not just on need but on shared values.

“All three churches are fairly open-minded and progressive, and I think that’s what made for a good mix, as well,” Brite said.

Five years in the making
Brite’s First Christian congregation was the last of the three partners to get on board with SpringHouse Ministry, officially joining the other two when they signed onto a ministry covenant with Salem and Lyndale in 2010, four years after Salem moved in with Lyndale and more than a year after Lyndale sold its 31st and Aldrich building to New Wine Church, a Pentecostal congregation from St. Paul. That fall, the three held a joint service in Intermedia Arts, home base for Salem and Lyndale while they awaited completion of the SpringHouse project.

Each congregation contributed $1.39 million to the renovation project, made possible in part by the redevelopment of a portion of Salem’s property into affordable housing and retail. A deal completed during the financial turmoil of the Great Recession, it was just one of the many steps along the way where the entire project could have so easily fallen apart — but didn’t.

Michael Vanderford, a longtime member and leader within the Lyndale church, avoided using the word “miracle” when recalled the SpringHouse story.

“I don’t use traditional language very much, but I do have a sense that God had a … hands-on [role] in making this happen,” Vanderford said. “Those doors kept getting opened.”

For members of the three congregations, the past few years have brought a complex mix of emotions. There was the grief of leaving behind familiar places — the churches where generations celebrated weddings, funerals and baptisms — mingling with hope for what SpringHouse could bring.

“The experience was one of, maybe, watching a beloved parent die and watching a new child be born,” said Paul Wharton, a longtime Salem member.

If SpringHouse is a child, it’s one from a family with three similar but distinct faith traditions, although Wharton said the differences are “usually in the fine print.” They are small enough differences that children from all three congregations attend the same Sunday school.

In SpringHouse’s main meeting hall, located in between two of the three sanctuaries, a place where members of all three congregations mingle after Sunday services, is the baptistery that Salem, Lyndale and First Christian all share. There’s both a small pool for the Disciples of Christ, who practice full-immersion baptism, and a smaller font for the others.

The symbolism was not lost on First Christian member Deb Murphy, who also helps out in the Sunday school.

“We’re sharing the same baptismal waters,” Murphy said. “You can’t get any more ecumenical than that.”

In an area long known for progressive politics and hip sensibilities, that ecumenical spirit and willingness to give this experiment a try may be SpringHouse’s greatest asset.

“People, I think they’ve seen the churches as having courage, and that’s something we as human beings want to have, too,” Nagel said. “So, when you can be a part of a community that has courage — wow.”

Special Service

A special worship service to formally dedicate SpringHouse Ministry Center will be held 2 p.m. March 25 at the center, 610 W. 28th St. The event is open to the public. whittierministrycenter.org