Saturday, November 26, 2016

Deja vu all over again. . . or maybe not

We all recall with great sadness what happened in Minnesota with University Lutheran Chapel and it is understandable that we would view another dramatic change in a very visible and historic Lutheran Campus Ministry with fear.  The more I find out, the more I am convinced the situation in West Lafayette, IN, is not the same. 

The University Lutheran Church in West Lafayette was built in 1951 and is several blocks from the edge of campus.  It stands on a hill overlooking State Street, the main thoroughfare through campus.  As you can see from the video,  the building is English Tudor in style and has beautiful stained-glass windows, as well as a snarly Schlicker pipe organ in the balcony.  It's a student congregation that has 125-150 young people joined by some "townies" from the city who meet in prayer and and song on Sunday mornings as they hear the Word and receive the Lord's Supper.  Now the building has been sold and the campus ministry is moving -- with only formal approvals awaiting this change begun over the summer.

I received a number of communications from concerned Purdue alums about the situation and it appears that many are understandably sorry to see this happen.  While some have charged that this is a change with a profound negative impact, others have suggested there is another side to the story.  In order to be fair to the Indiana District, I have added some responses to the issues raised -- information that may not have been known to those who feared for the Lutheran Campus Ministry and its Chapel.  [The responses are in brown and bracketed.]

During a recent capital campaign, the congregation raised close to 2 million dollars from alumni and others to make renovations and build an addition to the current building.  There was a ground breaking last November, but no actual construction began.  [The need for this addition was created by the limitations of the current building and the need for handicap access as well as more square footage.]  After the groundbreaking, a developer contacted the Indiana District and made a multi-million dollar offer for the property on which the church sits. [The District did not seek out the move and appears to have turned down possible offers until it became clear that the Lutheran presence at Purdue required them to consider these offers.  The current facility was also threatened by new construction on three sides of the current building, by the city acquiring some of the property for road construction, and by Purdue's own seeming insatiable appetite for space.]  The new building is a three story office building which currently houses the Exponent, Purdue's student newspaper.    The District has decided that a meeting room on the third floor of the building will become the congregation's new "worship space".  The Exponent property is only one-eight of an acre and is landlocked by apartment buildings and a parking garage, so there's no possibility of ever building a proper sanctuary at the site. [While all of these are true, they are not the whole truth and the District is convinced that this move will expand both the physical presence of the Lutheran campus ministry as well as the space available for that ministry, all the while locating it much closer to the center of the burgeoning Purdue campus.]

The issue then becomes whether the District's decision holds up when it's examined through the lens of faith.  

Let me say that I found Pres. May to be forthcoming on the issues and to be most supportive of the Lutheran presence on Purdue's campus.  He was pastor at St. James in Lafayette for some 25 years and has a personal investment in this ministry.  He and the whole Indiana District Board of Directors are convinced that they did not have much choice about retaining the current location and have acted in good faith to see that the Campus Ministry continues to fulfill its directives of serving the Lutheran population on campus, encouraging church vocations, and spreading the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus.   While it is certainly true that those who feared for the future have both an investment in that ministry and some cause (due to recent events elsewhere) to be concerned, Pres. May believes that the next couple of months will allow the full scope of decisions and plans to be known in such way that the legitimate and understandable concern for the loss of a wonderful chapel and church home will give way to hope for the expansion both of the presence and scope of the Lutheran campus ministry at Purdue for a long time to come.  He does encourage all those with concerns to contact him directly and he has promised to listen to their concerns and answer them as best he can.

So what do we say?  The Districts and Synod as a whole are often asset rich and cash poor and through the short sighted lens of the moment it appears to be a quick and easy decision to sell an asset (remember the Synod's Classical radio station and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis).  What can I say?  But the goal of everyone concerned here ought to lie with the campus ministry and at this point I am not convinced that the decisions made for its future will do anything but make the best of the situation thrust upon them.  My suggestion for those who think otherwise?  Email Pres. Dan May and the folks at University Lutheran and, at least for the University Lutheran folks, it would not hurt to include a check!

UPDATE. . . 

Another side to this story?  I am told by another source that there are some nuances of difference here worth reviewing.  It now appears this IS NOT the same situation as ULC in Minneapolis.  There may be other loyalties at work here, including those who love the building and have a different investment in the property.  True, the new property will not have the sanctuary that so many have come to know and love but there will be a place for worship; the new property will be more accessible to students, next to the busiest classrooms and there will be places for the pastor to have kids study, meet, Bible study, socialize. All renovations are paid for by the sale of the property and the district is not making money on this deal but investing it all back into the ministry. More importantly, I am told that all of the IN campus pastors are all for the move.  It's a really great deal that insures a LCMS presence ON Purdue's campus for a long time. They'll have totally unique access to students no other church will have. And it will be a confessional and liturgical presence. 

So. . . what to believe?  Undoubtedly there are folks on both sides who will not be satisfied no matter what the decision. Undoubtedly there legitimate reasons why some information has not been fully shared (negotiations?) and this has been viewed more out the experience of the past that leans toward the undervaluing of ministry over the value of physical assets. Given the reduction of Lutheran presence on campuses throughout the nation, this story cried out for more to be known.  I will admit with some sadness that buildings and property create more concern and strong feelings than our attachment to orthodox doctrine and practice!  Some say it is easier to change what it is we believe than what we do with the offering plates Grandma Shickenberg gave in memory of her grandparents in 1938! So we must wait and see and pray that this decision will allow a new chapter to be written for the confessional Lutheran presence on the Purdue Campus even as it seems an old chapter comes to a close.

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