It was 82 degrees–sunny with a slight breeze–when I pulled up to Shelter B in Burke Lake Park in Springfield, Virginia. Four large gold balloons–two sets of “50”–welcomed me to Lord of Life Lutheran Church’s 50th Anniversary celebration.
Cornhole is set up on the hill leading to the pavilion. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and veggie burgers are on the grill, and the smell is wafting through the air. A large banner hangs from the side of the pavilion, and the organizers have set up cardboard cutouts of the first two pastors of Lord of Life: Pastor Ron Christian and Pastor Ron Qualley.
Before the meal, Pastor Nathan Swenson-Reinhold calls everyone to attention. He welcomes everyone to the celebration, and tells us that, in church years, 50 is not that old. “We think 50 as middle aged,” he says. “But in church terms, we’re barely teenagers. Which means we can officially get a little rowdy. Can I get an amen?” the crowd laughs and replies with “amen.”
“We got another 600 years to go before we can call ourselves old. Can I get another amen?” Pastor Nathan calls.
There are multiple things happening during the meal/playtime. Pin the collar on the pastor, which is just like pin the tail on the donkey, except instead of a tail and a donkey, it’s a paper collar and the cardboard cutouts of Prs. Christian and Qualley. There’s a place to write birthday cards for Lord of Life, and smaller note cards with prompts like “what do you hope for the next 50 years of Lord of Life?” for people to fill out that will later be included in a time capsule that the congregation plans to bury for future generations. There’s even balloon artists who make wands and swords and little balloon puppies for all the children.
There is no shortage of community in this area. From adults who are keeping the shelter alive with chatter, to one girl who helped another, younger, girl get a new balloon wand after hers popped, everyone is here for everyone else. Even I, as a new face among the crowd, am invited to participate in conversation.
Lord of Life Lutheran Church has had a very busy 50 years. Under the “Serve With Us” tab on their website, there are 15 service projects. Their biggest effort–and by biggest I simply mean physical size–is Gracing Spaces, a ministry that furnishes apartments for families transitioning out of homeless shelters. According to their website:
“We “Grace” each space with furniture, beds, kitchen items, pictures, shower curtains, rugs, bedspreads and more to make an apartment a home. We load our truck with HOPE for each family and an opportunity to begin a new life together in Fairfax County.”
According to the site, the mission was started several years ago by a small group of women, and has expanded to include members of the church, volunteers from the Health Department and the Department of Family Services, and many others! You can read more about their story here. Every Wednesday, the group gathers to plan, organize, and catalog what they have and prepare for future pickups.
A little while after food is served, the games begin. Through a little clearing in the trees is a large grass field for activities the staff has prepared. The first one was tug-of-war. There’s a long rope, and various combinations of teams compete to show their strength. The first few rounds were boys vs. girls.
A few rounds of tug-of-war later, I get involved. I can’t help it–I want to be part of the fun. But I don’t participate in tug-of-war. Instead, I raise my hand and call out “When do we do the congregation vs. Pastor Nathan?”
This turned out to be an excellent idea, according to the children of the congregation, who very quickly took up their side of the rope. Nathan sighed, but climbed into the loop that was tied at the end of the rope to give himself more leverage. However, no amount of leverage would have helped against all of the children who were excited to test their strength against their pastor and, despite Pastor Nathan’s best efforts, won.
Shortly after, Pastor Julia shows up, and everyone calls her to join Pastor Nathan against the children. She takes up the rope opposite the kids, but the competition doesn’t last long.
“Oh no they’re really strong,” she said immediately after the match begins, when the kids begin pulling the rope, quickly winning over their pastors.
The evening is reserved for a makeshift “5:17 Service.” Pastor Julia holds these evening services every Sunday, and describes them as more of a creative and contemplative worship. They use the same morning liturgy, but it’s done with more interactive and unique practices. For example, Julia explains, they once wrote their confessions on rocks, and then poured water over them to signify confession and forgiveness. Usually, it is done indoors, and there is a meal afterward. But because we’ve already eaten, it’s simply the service. It’s a very short drive to the amphitheater from the picnic location, and I was eager to check it out.
The amphitheater is a simple wooden stage in front of wood benches in a small area shrouded by trees. It’s not hidden–hikers and bikers can see us as they come by–but it’s cozy. The music setup is simple. Two guitars, a cello, and the voices of a Kenny Champagne, the Director of Youth and Young Adults, Mike Horanski, the Director of Music, and a few young adults. They lead songs like Here I Am Lord, and I Need You, I Want You, I Love You. The congregation sings along, and occasionally wave at and passersby who stop to see what’s happening.
Pastor Ron Christian provides the sermon for the evening. He shares memories and anecdotes from the beginning of Lord of Life. During this, he brings up a song, Pass it On, that he says “basically became a standard, a theme song…”:
“It only takes a spark to get a fire going, and then you pass it on…”
Then he concludes with:
“We’re the sparks. You’re the sparks, I’m the spark, we’re the spark to get the fire going.”
Communion for this service is different than the usual Sunday morning communion. In the spirit of community and togetherness, the attendees provide communion to each other. Each person receives the bread and wine from the person in front of them in line.
The congregation of Lord of Life Lutheran Church is absolutely a spark. And they are only just starting to get the fire going. It’s clear, from everyone I talked to–from the member whose family has been there since its creation to a member who’s only been there for a few years–said that Lord of Life is creating a welcoming, loving community, and are always trying to expand that energy to their neighbors. Everyone’s goals for the next fifty years is expansion. Pastor Julia wants to set up a third location, one she calls a “Coffee Shop Ministry,” that would serve as a space for people to come and exchange ideas while hanging out in a more casual setting. Alex, a newer member, hopes to see the congregation evolve with the community around them, and providing stability for those who need it. John, whose family has been there almost the entire time, also hopes for expansion, and trying new forms of worship and service, and expanding the experience of church.
John also emphasized to me Pastor Nathan’s “motto,” which is a saying that he felt really defined the mission of Lord of Life Church and the community they create, and can also be found on the front page of their website:
It is clear, given the congregation’s enthusiasm, the multiple missions, and Pastor Nathan’s statement that 50 years is still very young, that Lord of Life Lutheran Church is just at the beginning of their journey. They are the sparks, and their mission is to pass it on.
I also feel the need to add this picture of Pastor Nathan in a very unique balloon hat: