Shrewd pastor, determined congregation and generous donations breathe new life into a once-dying Lutheran church

THE RESURRECTION OF CHRISTUS VICTOR A

April 07, 1996|By Mike Klingaman

It's dawn on Easter Sunday, and the red-roofed church on Harford Road is coming alive. The pastor hovers over the Communion trays to be used in the three morning worship services. Music wafts from the bright new sanctuary as the organist warms his pipes. And over in the fellowship hall, a coffeepot starts perking as folks begin parking outside Christus Victor Lutheran Church.

There is much to celebrate this morning, for Christus Victor has risen from the dead.

For years, Kenneth Homer Jr. clung to that vision, playing the fantasy over and over in his head. He won't have to anymore.

The pastor's dream has come true.

Christus Victor Church now has a modern worship center, a tightknit congregation, a burgeoning Sunday school and $1 million in the bank.

It wasn't always so. Barely 15 years ago, the church was on the ropes. No regular pastor, no sense of direction. Members drifted away. Repairs went undone. Church funds dried up. At one point, Lutheran officials threatened to close church doors.

"People who come here now are shocked to find this church nearly died," Pastor Homer says. "They have no idea the nails were almost put in the coffin."

Parishioners will celebrate Easter today in the newly dedicated sanctuary. On this most holy day, three services are expected to draw 300 people or more.

That's 10 times more than attendance once was.

"What sets us apart is not what we are now, but how far we've come," Pastor Homer says.

"We truly are resurrected here."

Christus Victor Church is a low-slung brick building on a narrow slice of land in the 9800 block of Harford Road, one mile north of the Beltway in Baltimore County. In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best place to put the church. With two large, older Lutheran parishes (pop. 3,500) just five minutes away, Christus Victor has always had the appearance of a general store sandwiched between two Wal-Marts.

Nonetheless, a band of Parkville church folk organized the little parish in 1958 and bought the strip of farmland where Christus Victor now stands. It was their church, for better or worse.

Gradually, Christus Victor carved its niche in the neighborhood. A modest worship center was built in 1962. Sunday school classes met in a historic farmhouse on the premises. Newcomers trickled in during the suburban sprawl of the '70s. By 1980, membership had climbed to 250, respectable given the church's hardscrabble start.

Just when things were looking up, problems started.

A former pastor moved on and proved difficult to replace. The pulpit stood empty for more than a year. Substitute pastors preached all that time. Without regular leadership, parishioners started feuding and stopped coming. Bills mounted; buildings fell in disrepair. In 1982, the Sunday school house was condemned, then torched in a training exercise by the Baltimore County Fire Department. The blaze lit up much of Parkville.

As flames devoured the building, it seemed as if the church was going to hell.

Can Things Get Worse?

Attendance plummeted thereafter. Forty people one week, 30 the next. Some Sunday turnouts would have barely filled one pew.

"At worst, there were eight or nine of us here," says longtime member Augusta "Gussie" Wall, 82. At times, when all seemed lost, she wondered: Can things get any worse?

The parish was as poor as church mice. There were Sundays when, after the offering was collected, one could still see the bottom of the plate.

"We'd never had a lot of money, but there were times when we didn't even have enough to pay the [interim] pastor his salary," Ms. Wall says. "We were downright poor."

Recalling those times now, Ms. Wall still feels a twinge of sadness. "See how wet it is out there?" she says, nodding out a church window at the puddled parking lot. "There were times when I shed that many tears."

Grimmest of all were reports that the church's days were numbered. By 1983, it was painfully obvious to the Lutheran hierarchy that Christus Victor was dying.

"The church's future was very problematic," says George Mocko, bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Of the 189 churches in the synod, he says, Christus Victor was "very much at the bottom."

Finally, says the Rev. Mocko, Lutheran officials met with members of Christus Victor's church council and suggested they face their "dismal chances of survival."

The battered congregation stood its ground.

"We were very put out, and angry, to think something like that could happen," says Katherine Glatfelter, 65, a member of Christus Victor for more than 30 years.

So the church muddled on, one Sunday at a time.

"It was depressing," Ms. Glatfelter says. "We tried to hold things together, but nothing worked and there was no [regular] minister to talk to."

No one wanted the job.

No one but Kenneth Homer.

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