Trinity Lutheran celebrates 175 years on L.E.S.

From left, Alex Lawrence, Trinity Lower East Side administrative director; Borough President Gale Brewer; Pastor Ann Tiemeyer; and Congressmember Carolyn Maloney at Trinity’s recent 175th anniversary celebration, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue B. Photo by Thomas Taylor

BY ELIZABETH RUF MALDONADO | On the last Sunday in May, Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish celebrated its 175th anniversary. Festoons of flame- and sky-colored ribbons, inscribed with key moments from the church’s history and arrayed along its garden fence — opposite the eastern edge of Tompkins Square Park — by Trinity Interim Pastor Ann Tiemeyer and congregation volunteers, welcomed celebrants.

The Reverend Donald J. McCoid, interim bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, presided at the service. Former Trinity Pastor Bob Wollenburg, who in 1986 established Trinity’s SAFH program (Services and Food for the Homeless), preached.

In his sermon, Wollenburg recalled details of Trinity’s history through vivid stories of the members, staff and volunteers he had known, like a leading soup-kitchen coordinator, Willy, who carried a machete; noted musician and dancer Thomas McNally, who continued to serve as Trinity’s organist and pianist (at least occasionally) almost until his death at age 103; and James and Evelyn Wragg, two pillars of the neighborhood who sometimes fed the homeless out of Trinity on their own dime in the 1970s and who were present at Sunday’s service. Music was provided by the Trinity choir, under the direction of Alex Lawrence (also the current director of Trinity’s SAFH program), and by jazz musicians led by Trinity pianist Paul Staroba, associate conductor of the revival of “My Fair Lady” on Broadway.

Local politicians came out in force to celebrate and honor Trinity’s 175-year history of innovative service. Congressmember Carolyn Maloney presented Tiemeyer and Trinity Council President Cody Andrus with a framed copy of a document entering Maloney’s recognition of Trinity’s anniversary into the Congressional Record.

A spirited request from Maloney concludes the congressional document: “Mr. Speaker, I ask my colleagues to join me in recognizing the 175th anniversary of the Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish and its commitment to realizing Jesus’s message to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer attended the service and, at the catered jazz reception overlooking the church’s garden, praised Trinity’s historic collaborations with immigrants and the working poor, all of which helped build a Lower East Side community instrumental in shaping Manhattan’s progressive identity.

Newly elected Assemblymember Harvey Epstein sent one of his staffers, SaMi Chester, who raised his arms and his voice in an expansive gesture and proclaimed: “175 years? You’re so young!”

State Senator Brad Hoylman sent a framed copy of his proclamation declaring May 27, 2018, to be Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Parish Appreciation Day in New York State’s 27th Senate District.

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera arrived with her mother, María Ortiz, to offer her congratulations. Carolyn Ratcliffe of Community Board 3 also attended.

That morning, Trinity children Frederick Pochapsky and Isaac Carlos had set the tone for the service with the ringing of hand bells. As the congregation sang “The Church of God in Every Age,” Isaac (now acting as crucifer) and Sahvanni Cruz  (Bible bearer) led a line of visiting ministers, worship assistants and Bishop McCoid toward the floor-to-ceiling windows on the western side of the church, which look out on the twining stand of ancient elms and the dog run across Avenue B in Tompkins Park.

Reverend Becca Seely, executive director of Lutheran Ministries in Higher Education, gave the prayer of the day. Acting as a lector, Reverend Nancy Neal, interim director for church relationships at Bread for the World, represented that organization, which was founded by former Trinity Pastor Art Simon in the early 1970s. Renée Wicklund, former Trinity L.E.S. Church Council secretary and recently elected vice president of the Metropolitan New York Synod, was present, as was Nilda Rivera, the sister of former Trinity Deacon Lillian Rivera, who served at Trinity for many years.

Reverend Mieke Vandersall, pastor of Not So Churchy, read a letter of greetings from Pastor Phil Tryznka, who started at Trinity in 2000 and left in 2017 to answer a new calling at Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Elgin, Illinois.

“From its inception, Trinity has been queer!” Tryznka’s letter began. “By that, I mean that Trinity has always found a way to be within the church of Jesus but also push the limit of its embrace and to be the church that celebrates all the character, uniqueness and funkiness of the East Village and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Trinity has been a model throughout the years of a church that does more than just welcome the outcast — Trinity celebrates the lives of those who have been outcast.”

Pastor Wollenburg’s sermon centered on the day’s gospel reading from John, part of a discussion between Jesus and the wealthy Pharisee Nicodemus: “Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In his sermon, Wollenburg emphasized Trinity’s steadfast service to struggling and artistic souls existing on the margins of big capital in Manhattan’s L.E.S. by interspersing his account of major challenges and setbacks to the L.E.S. community with the watchwords, “Guess who stayed.”

“Guess who stayed,” in the mid-1800s when wealthy German Lutherans from New York City left “to the promised land of Missouri” and when the Civil War riots on the L.E.S. further alienated the rich from the poor; when the General Slocum ferryboat disaster of 1904 claimed the lives of 1,000 people, mostly German Lutheran women and children on a pleasure trip on the East River, and the bulk of their devastated community moved to Yorkville in Upper Manhattan and to Brooklyn; when Latinos from Puerto Rico and African Americans from the U.S. South arrived in the migrations of the 1950s, and many Lower East Siders chose to leave rather than share the territory with newcomers of color; when drug addiction and homelessness gripped the L.E.S. in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, guess who stayed. What congregation now notably sees itself reflected in the struggle for gender justice and equality?

With grace and humor, Wollenburg acknowledged the changing demographic of the L.E.S. in the new millennium with a reference to the gospel reading: “Jesus wasn’t afraid to meet anyone, in any condition, at any time of the day or night. He even welcomed a conversation with the wealthy, a person like Nicodemus. And maybe that is the next frontier for Trinity. That would be a radical and surprising change in a place where the only constant is that everything is always changing.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *