New Elevator, One of Many Signs Hephatha is ‘Moving Forward’

The Dedication Service of a new elevator on December 29, 2013 was the culmination of celebrations throughout 2013, observing the 100th anniversary of Hephatha Lutheran Church. With the addition of an elevator, Hephatha Church, at 18th and Locust in Milwaukee, is literally moving forward as never before. But it was also signaling that it is all about moving forward with its ministry and its message of hope for the surrounding neighborhood.

“Moving forward” is the way Kim and Ronald Harris described the church which has made sure that their daughter, Lisa Marie, who spends her days in a wheelchair as a result of cerebral palsy, can make it to church for worship, confirmation, and a host of other events that are part of the life of Hephatha. Lisa Marie is one of several who will use the elevator as their primary entrance into the church and fellowship hall. The elevator is just one of the signs that Hephatha is “moving forward.”

Ready to close the doors

Begun in 1913 with a German heritage, Hephatha Lutheran Church has had a strong history. But arriving at the 100 year marker became an accomplishment especially worth noting, considering that in 1990 it was assumed that Hephatha was a dying church. Pastor Mary Martha Kannass, who has been serving Hephatha as its pastor for the past twenty-two years, recalls that when she first arrived she was encouraged to provide pastoral support until Hephatha closed its doors. But the Spirit was at work through Pastor Kannass and others who saw the blessing of Hephatha Lutheran Church for the community and for the Greater Milwaukee Synod.

Outreach for Hope is part of the story

One of several dynamics that helped to change the direction of Hephatha was the Greater Milwaukee Synod’s creation of outreach for Hope in 1995, designed to share in the support of churches like Hephatha. Hephatha received its first grant from Outreach for Hope in 1997, which added to the financial stability of the congregation. Funds from Outreach for Hope, and many partners, developed over the past 20 years, have allowed Hephatha to think creatively of how it can be the presence of Christ to many in the surrounding neighborhood who are struggling with the devastating effects of poverty.

The children felt the welcome

“I used to play in the gym here when I was a kid,” said congregation president Larry Harris, who has served as a leader in many capacities, but especially as an energetic and joyful ambassador for Hephatha Church. “My sister and brother and I all came here, and then eventually our parents.” Both Pastor Kannass and Larry Harris were quick to point out that inviting kids to enter into the love and welcome of Hephatha is not a church-growth strategy but a commitment to Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as the children. (Luke 18:16) Many of today’s adult leaders at Hephatha first came to the church as children, often without their parents.

Diva, now twenty and with a heart for children and elderly people with health and mobility issues, said, “I started coming here when I was nine, and I am still growing here in my faith and relationship with Jesus Christ.” Diva reflects the attitude of many young people at Hephatha. When it’s time for the “Children’s Message” on Sunday morning, the chancel is filled. Many of the ‘children’ sitting on the steps are already in high school, but they are not quite ready to give up the special children’s time.

Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated feel the welcome as well

Hephatha sits in the middle of Zip Code 53206, which has the highest per capita population of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals in the state of Wisconsin. Nearly every family in the congregation of 399 is touched in some way by the devastating effects of incarceration, especially as it disproportionately impacts African American males, a statistic far greater in Wisconsin than any other of the 50 states.

Second, Hephatha has made a commitment to confront the issues of incarceration in two ways. first for a number of years – Hephatha has put a personal touch on the issue by sponsoring and transporting up to four prisoners each Sunday from the Chaney Correctional Center, just 13 blocks from the church, to come and be part of the worship, Sunday morning Bible Study and lunch. The men have found love, acceptance, and spiritual strength in the midst of the Hephatha worshipping community.

Hephatha also has made a commitment to the state-wide campaign “11 x 15”,which is seeking to reduce the state prison population to 11,000 by the year 2015, a number much closer to comparable states than the 22,000 currently incarcerated in Wisconsin.

In following the Greater Milwaukee Synod’s guideline to tithe church fund-raising efforts to ministries outside the church’s walls, Hephatha Church responded. They tithed their anniversary offering and grant request efforts for the elevator and sanctuary repainting by giving alms of $5,016 to the Malaria Campaign of the ELCA and $5,016 to the “11 x 15” campaign.

Grateful to so many

“We can’t exist by ourselves,” observed Hephatha’s Parish nurse, Louise Meyer, whose healing work serving through Hephatha is partially supported by partner church connections. “We are all partners together. That’s what God’s Church is.”

Each of the people who gathered to talk about Hephatha and the 100thanniversary expressed a deep gratitude to God for all the people, churches and organizations who partner with Hephatha. And they expressed a special thanks to those who contributed money, time, and effort to provide the elevator and the repainting of the sanctuary.

“We’ve already started the next 100 years,” Pastor Kannass declared enthusiastically. “We are honored to be of use to God and neighbor.”