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Musings on the History of Grace and Peace

by Phyllis Wheeler on August 12, 2019

In 1969, Grace and Peace was different. It was the hippie church to the folks in our presbytery ,  the church started by followers of Francis Schaeffer. Many members wore sandals made of pieces of rubber tire, along with colorful flowing clothing. Back then, the churches in the conservative Presbyterian presbytery had a suburban focus, and G&P’s acceptance of a call to urban ministry stood in contrast.

G&P members, convinced they should live out radical faith in ministry to those in poverty, moved en masse to the blighted Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood on the west edge of St. Louis City.  The neighborhood had experienced “white flight”—many white residents had moved away to preserve racial segregation as black residents migrated in from the South. 

According to Gordon Carlson, seventy G&P’ers moved into the neighborhood in the seventies. At the time, it was a poor, desperate, and sometimes dangerous place.  These “hippies” made it their parish—most  lived within its boundaries. They walked to church and interacted with each other often, not just on Sundays, and some became victims of crime. The experience drew them together into a close-knit community.

Schaeffer: They were following the teachings of Francis Schaeffer, Presbyterian theologian and pastor, founder of the L’Abri study center in Switzerland. He challenged individuals to find out what God’s priorities are in their lives, and to live that out--including God’s concern for the poor, which can be found just about everywhere in the Bible.

In response, Grace and Peace set up a nonprofit affordable housing entity, Cornerstone, and ran many activities and programs for the neighborhood kids, alongside a worship service designed to appeal to African-Americans in terms of music.

G&P fifty years later worships in a newer, larger building nearby. It is no longer a parish church – members live all over the city and county. The neighborhood they worked to rescue has gentrified, with many of the needy folks pushed out. But G&P still has urban outreach ministries: a women’s shelter, a food pantry/Bible study, support for Cornerstone, outreach to neighbors, and deacon support for needy members and neighbors. G&P remains a relatively small church, drawing usually no more than 200 at a worship service, and it still emphasizes community and outreach to those around the building. Its location on Delmar Blvd. puts it squarely on “the Delmar Divide,” which divides mostly-black north St. Louis from the mostly-white south. It’s an opportunity and a challenge for the present church.

Many of those attending over the years have been seminarians and grad students who have gone on to ministry and teaching around the US and the world. Grace and Peace’s pioneering leap into Presbyterian  urban ministry may actually be carried the furthest by Randy Nabors, who attended G&P while in seminary in the 1970s. He went on to found the New City Fellowship network of urban-focused churches and, in doing so, enlarged the thrust toward urban ministry in the denomination, the Presyterian Church in America (PCA). In fact, maybe now urban ministry has become mainstream.

The vibe at G&P in the beginning was intellectual, but also diverse, with people from various income levels and backgrounds welcomed. People spent a lot of time discussing ideas, and worship music in services was intentionally varied, containing a lot of classical. There was a potluck meal each Sunday, and there were eventually three services to make the best use of the tiny space in the storefront church. That storefront, at Kingsbury and Des Peres, was where G&P worshiped from 1970 to 1985.

Women’s issue. G&P had ordained female deacons when it joined the newly formed PCA in the early 1970s. But the PCA doesn’t allow female deacons. G&P refused to defrock them, declared all its deacons would be unordained from now on, and has had plenty of female deacons ever since. G&P argues that a passage in the New Testament supports the concept of female deacons, depending on how it is translated.

G&P Distinctives:

  • Our worship, carefully thought out, with plenty of congregation participation through songs and readings linked to a theme for the service.
  • Our music, varied and prepared with thoughtfulness. Music selection sometimes draws plenty of opinions!
  • Our ministry to the city and needy people who live there. This includes a substantial portion of the congregation who moved in the late seventies to another target neighborhood to plant a daughter church-- in Murphy Blair north of downtown, now called Old North. But plant members in the early 90s realized their church wasn’t growing. They decided return as a group to the mother church while still living as a large community group in Old North, enriching G&P’s outreach to blighted areas of St. Louis. This community continues today.
  • Small groups, community life together. We have weekly small groups and occasional church meals. We’re encouraged to be hospitable to each other.
  • Emphasis on Christian arts and artists, part of Schaeffer’s philosophy, through our Kingsbury Gallery shows and talks.
  • Diversity of economic status and people. G&P declared that a church should not be defined by a common culture or demographic, but by a call from the Holy Spirit.
  • Encouraging participation in decision-making by everyone.
  • De-emphasis on talking politics, because of a wide variety of affiliations among members.
  • A desire to be a multi-ethnic church, with varying degrees of success over the years.

Characterizing G&P through the decades

1969-1980: An era of experimentation. After a group of seminarians and others decided to found a church in the home of Ted and Gladys Smith, ideas abounded. Soon the church outgrew the home and moved to a storefront at Kingsbury and Des Peres, in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. The church’s nonprofit housing corporation, Cornerstone, got off the ground and grew on sweat equity as abandoned buildings were purchased and rehabbed. These became low-income apartments intended to stabilize the lives of people who had found themselves moving constantly.

An era of growth: G&P planted several churches, but most did not ultimately thrive. However, Old Orchard Church in Webster Groves has daughter churches of its own.

1980-1990: An era of change. Church members realized that  G&P needed a different building. The storefront building wasn’t suitable for kids, and kids were beginning to be born. After a lot of discussion , the church decided to look for a sizeable church building not far away. They found one at 5574 Delmar, and the church moved in 1985.

The new building wasn’t inside the old parish boundaries,  so the church decided to abandon the parish model. Members gradually found other areas of the city to live.  Now, G&P members come from all over.

Urban outreach changed; the kids’ outreach programs fell away in favor of a winter shelter for homeless women and a food pantry.  Cornerstone moved its focus to Etzel Street, half a mile north of Skinker-Debaliviere, to find housing it could afford to rehab. The multi-ethnic –music worship service that had been “the neighborhood service” was lost, and so were many African-American worshippers. Our pastoral team, Egon Middelmann and Jim Kern, turned into a solo pastorate with just Egon when Jim moved to Boston.

1990-2000

An era of heartbreak. G&P was happy to welcome back the people from the Old North church plant.  Families and the church seemed to be thriving. But secretly, our pastor Egon was suffering, and in 1994 he took his own life.

Congregants felt sad, angry, and abandoned. The next couple of years saw many people leave. Some hoped that the church would take a liberal stance on the homosexual issue and leave the PCA. When that didn’t happen, many left. Others were heartbroken about the loss of our charismatic leader. They left. And so on, until a faithful remnant stood with each other and called another pastor: Kurt Lutjens. This was a strong bonding time for the baby boomers at G&P.

2000-2019

River church. There had been few seminarians at Grace and Peace for a long time, but in the early 2000s students started to return. Grace and Peace became a “river church,” where long-term members anchored the church and a large stream of students moved through it. Cornerstone floundered and was re-started.  Kurt cast a vision of outreach to prisoners and the needy, and an increasing desire for racial reconciliation, seeking out African-Americans to be on staff.

Kurt, who had belonged to G&P as a seminarian earlier, served faithfully and well for 22 years. We are still grieving for him; he died of cancer in 2019, a year after retiring. Meanwhile G&P’s partnership with an African-American church, begun in 2013 or so, continues. This is New Perfect Peace Missionary Baptist Church, whose pastor, Robert Loyd, was a protégé of Kurt’s.

And, don’t forget! We participated in planting Midtown Church in 2012, together with two other area PCA churches.

Since January 2019 we have a pastor who came from outside Grace and Peace, Timothy LeCroy. Alongside him is his interim assistant pastor /music director, Mike Brandenstein.

Though Grace and Peace is unique in some ways, our experience has been similar to that of the church throughout the ages. We have known times of joy and sorrow, times of clear purpose and direction, and times of fear and uncertainty. We’ve known times of the prospering of our work and times of ineffectiveness. The Lord has been with us in all of these things, has protected and led us, and has used all of it. And He is still with us. We can move forward with confidence.

--by Phyllis Wheeler and Steve Wheeler

Tags: history, anniversary, francis schaeffer, st louis, l'abri, 50th, grace and peace fellowship, fiftieth