Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Building a house of worship

by Glenda Hill

February 20, 2014

The efforts of ordinary people cannot be underestimated. Examples of such effort are all around, whether all the details are evident or not. And such efforts deserve to be recognized.

An example of this kind of efforts was celebrated Jan. 12, with an open house marking the relocation of Immanuel Lutheran Church from 1229 Park Row in Lake Geneva to 700 N. Bloomfield Road, to a brand new church building, made possible by the efforts of ordinary people, the community they live in and the prayers of people in many places in the world.

The original congregation of the church was comprised of German-speaking residents of the Lake Geneva area who decided to become established in August 1899. One week later, they had established articles of organization and a constitution. The next week they met as a congregation and made the decision to construct a church building as soon as possible. In October, just two months later, the first formal service was held in the church at the corner of Park Row and Warren Street. It was a German language service, with the women seated on one side of the sanctuary and the men on the other, a tradition followed for many years. That building has been a day care center and now is a residence.

By the early 1960s the capacity of the wooden building could no longer meet the needs of the growing congregation and the efforts of another group of determined people made the plans to build the limestone structure on Park Row in 1962. It was expanded and rearranged to accommodate the congregation’s needs many times over the years. It had only 38 parking places of its own and that was just one limiting condition that became more evident as the flock grew.

Pastors have come and gone during the span of the history of the church and in April 1995 the Rev. Mary Ann Moller-Gunderson came in as the newest pastor. The synod had indicated the congregation needed to reevaluate, consider closing or redevelop as a thriving congregation. Prayer and hard work by the pastor and the membership helped the congregation, at that time with membership about 200 with fewer people in church most Sundays, make a slow turn and begin recovery.

One of the problems at that time was there were no children among the membership, at least not enough to conduct a Sunday school or youth program, and there had been no confirmations for two years. The church lived up to its motto, “A Heart to Care,” and new programs, involving all members in small groups, Bible studies and local mission activities reached into the community, drawing people who were looking for a church home or those who may have dropped out of active participation in the life of the congregation. Membership and attendance began to grow.

By 2006, the demands of a large, active congregation were becoming too much for one pastor and the Rev. Mark Moller-Gunderson became the second pastor of the church. The couple enjoys working together, each with their own strengths, and the congregation, its presence in the community and the programs offered by the church continued to grow.

More rearranging was done in the building to accommodate the groups and activities meeting there. An elevator was added to make all parts of the building handicapped accessible. The altar area was rearranged to make room for an orchestra and electronic sound systems.

Worship services were increased to three each Sunday with a filled sanctuary for most services. A study indicated that within a 10-block square around the building, 75 percent of the families had children and to be able to reach out to include them in the life of the church, more space was needed and not readily available in the existing building.

About five or six years ago, after much discussion and prayer about how to address the space strain on the building, listening sessions were begun, including all members who wanted to take part. Those who attended any meeting were expected to speak about their ideas, positive or negative, so all ideas could be heard.

A strategic plan was undertaken, led by the Stay or Go Team, to make the best decision possible and more and more it became evident the ideal result would be a new building, with proper electrical, plumbing and heating systems, all meeting building codes, and enough space for everyone and the many programs of the congregation. Other teams were formed to address the planning process, involving many people who worked together with the pastors and all members.

The search for a suitable building site extended over several months and 18 different properties. Viewing was done on foot, by drive-by first checks and by air. When the planning group kept coming back to the fact the property at the corner of North Bloomfield Road and the 120 bypass was the most desirable, they learned it was not for sale. It belonged to the Lake Geneva school district, and they were not interested in selling. It seemed no meant no.

Following more prayer, discussion, searching and advice from a former real estate agent, the planning group made one more plea to the school board, limited to one hour, about their desire to purchase the property. The proposal, made at a school board meeting, was successful and the sale was transacted. That launched a three-year financial appeal to pay for the property before a building could be considered. Members of the congregation pledged much of the money needed, the financial arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and friends of the congregation throughout the community came on board to help make the vision possible and plans were made for the new building, along with another capital campaign to finance it.

As actual plans for the building were being considered, all members were requested to add their input about design, not just decorative, but practical ideas to help the new building meet the needs of everyone. Long-standing members, youth members, young families, young children and newcomers shared ideas about what the building should include and they thereby became more invested in the actual results. Very shortly after the final vote of approval was taken, building plans were put into place.

Ground was broken in a family-friendly ceremony on May 3, 2013. Pastor Mary Ann had been having some medical challenges and was hospitalized that day but got to see it all electronically from the hospital bed where she began her recovery.

Team effort was involved at every level of the building process. Volunteers from the congregation helped wherever possible, including cleaning up at the building site almost every day, making progress flow more easily. They helped paint and set up classrooms as they were completed and the furnishing arrived. A large kitchen had to be arranged with places for all the new professional cooking equipment and appliances. Things were packed at the old building and made ready for movement to the new building, all carried out by volunteers.

On Sunday, Dec. 26, the congregation held its last worship service on Park Row and the final packing was completed. Following the last service of the morning, a “camel” caravan left the driveway, consisting of 88 cars filled with people and packages. The Lake Geneva police helped the caravan move smoothly along the route marked by camel cut-outs and everyone in the cars carried a paper camel.

The symbolism of early Christian moves by camel was very apparent. The caravan was led by an antique fire truck, owned and loaned by the Derrick family. The pastors rode in the back, accompanied by a large wooden cross that was imprinted with the thumbprints of almost everyone who belongs to the congregation and a representation of a camel. Upon arrival at the new building, the cross was installed in the large, welcoming narthex so everyone felt at home.

The first worship service in the new sanctuary was held Sunday, Jan. 5.

Eight of the stained glass windows from the Park Row building are in place in the sanctuary and two more will be installed on each side of the entry doors. Portions of windows from the first church on Warren Street are installed in the building. Outside, the church bell given to the congregation when Lake Geneva’s First Baptist Church closed awaits a tower that will be connected to the main building with a covered walkway, welcoming worshipers each Sunday. All of the beauty and promise of the new building was opened to the public for a welcoming service on Sunday, Jan. 12, attended by many members of the church and the wider community.

From the arrival of Mary Ann to the present day, the main desire of the congregation was to create a safe place for those who were seeking a closer relationship with God to be welcomed and given that opportunity. In addition, those who had no idea about that need would be welcome to come and be among people who lived and shared in such a way they were comfortable to ask questions, express their ideas and find their place. The congregation has grown to about 1,200 members and many new families have been visiting the new building each week.

The mission work of the church is one thing that keeps everyone involved. It is carried out locally, domestically and internationally. Youth members are encouraged to be involved in the mission work, such as serving meals at a soup kitchen in Milwaukee, helping with worship services at home and traveling to distant areas to help in many ways.

Most recently, they have helped with reconstruction in disaster areas in the United States, but plans are underway for a mission trip to Puerto Rico in June. The congregation is very involved with mission churches and schools in Kenya , sending work crews and finances throughout the years. One of their members is in full-time mission work in Prague.

The pastors are excited about what the congregation can do with the new facilities. Pastor Mark said he feels the congregation is on the cusp of new excitement for God’s work. After some of the struggling that was necessary to make the move and make it work well, Pastor Mary Ann said the caravan represented to her the parting of the Red Sea, representing the way being made possible by the work of God in their midst.

They see the promise and opportunity the building represents and are seeing people who want to be a part of it. And they both spoke about the effort not being possible without the encouragement and support of the members of the congregation and the community of which it is a part.

Expansion of existing programs provided by the congregation is under way, reaching into the community with concepts such as child care on early release and late start days in the school system. An exciting plan is under way to offer after school care programming to the students within walking distance of the building, bringing in junior and senior high school students in addition to the younger students already in the existing programs.

All in all, hundreds of members in large and small study groups, a cookie ministry, quilters, scout groups and various community support groups are able to share the facilities of the new building, all due to the efforts of ordinary people.

The Lake Geneva Symphony will be using the building for rehearsals, one of the first additions of possibilities for its use. The doors are open, there is “A Heart to Care” and the determination and efforts of its members and pastors are apparent for all to see and appreciate.