175 years rooted in community, service and faithJune 9, 2017
By LEANN BURKE
HUNTINGBURG — At 175 years old, Salem United Church of Christ in Huntingburg is almost as old as the town it calls home.
Founded in 1842 as the Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed Protestant Congregation, Salem United Church of Christ began as a German immigrant church built on land donated to the congregation by Col. Jacob Geiger, the man who built the first house in Dubois County in 1837 and is known as the founder of Huntingburg. Today, the church stands in its third building — built in 1889 for $99.95 — on the same property Geiger donated in 1843 on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets. The congregants pride themselves on being “doers of the Word,” that is people who engage in worship, study, sharing, service and prayer. Their myriad ministries show the congregants’ dedication the community and their commitment to creating “a church that works.”
Possibly the church’s most well-known ministry is the medical equipment service. The church has a collection of home-use medical equipment such as crutches, lift chairs and hospital beds, that people can borrow to help them return home from hospitals or rehabilitation centers sooner. Community members and Salem congregants alike have access to the equipment.
“It has become well enough known throughout the area that a lot of times people who aren’t members of our church, when one of their loved one passes away and they have that kind of equipment, they will bring it here,” said Pam Grewe, 175th committee chairman. “They know it will be shared with the community.”
Salem drew quite a crowd for the Get Out and Serve Day in September. Of the 500 participants in the community service day, 100 were from Salem. Salem’s pastors and congregants also played a role in starting both the annual ecumenical Thanksgiving dinner that brings parishioners from all the county churches together and Shared Abundance, the local food bank. Salem still donates to Shared Abundance, particularly to the backpack program that gives kids a backpack full of school supplies during the back-to-school season. The church also takes an annual mission trip to either Belize or a city in the U.S. This year, missionaries will be serving in the Emmaus House in St. Louis, a non-profit that provides round-the-clock services to adults with special needs.
Salem also works to bring worship services to those who can’t attend church through television and radio broadcasts. Once a month, members also hold a service at The Waters of Huntingburg.
Although the current congregants at Salem are focused on the community, the church wasn’t always so community-focused. It really wasn’t until about the 1960s that the congregation decided to take on a more outward focus, Pastor Mark West said. Prior to that, the church was a tightly-knit German immigrant church focused on taking care of its congregants and holding services in German until World War II.
“This church was originally, in a lot of ways, comprised of large families, like the Peters family of which (Grewe) is a part,” West said. “And those families sat in particular parts of the church.”
“Still do,” Grewe added.
But Salem is getting a lot of younger families, too. On any given Sunday, West said, he can look out at his congregation and see six or seven younger families in the pews. At a time when church attendance and participation are on a decline across the country — the Pew Research Center showed modest decline in church attendance in 2015 — seeing younger families on Sundays is encouraging for Salem’s future.
“The foundation is there,” West said. “We have the young families in this church, and it’s how it is that you get them involved and how it is that you deal with the challenges and the gifts that they bring is what we have to figure out. But Salem has a lot going for it.”
The large collection of ministries are a major part of what Salem has going for it. Salem has a healthy youth ministry, and youth of all ages take advantage of the programs. Wednesday Night Connection attracts people of all ages and is open to non-members. During Wednesday Night Connection, people come together for dinner and a class of some sort. Past classes have included CPR and yoga. Salem has a robust card ministry that sends cards to congregants for birthdays, anniversaries, baptisms, you name it. Salem’s prayer shawl ministry has reached almost every member of the church and some community members. For a lot of people, West said, the prayer shawls are important to their healing, helping them feel connected to the church and reminding them that there are people praying for them. He recalled visiting a congregant who recently passed away. He went to visit her one day, and sure enough, her prayer shawl was right next to her.
“It’s simple idea that’s really very powerful,” he said.
Salem also has an extensive internal prayer network that a lot of members credit with saving their lives or a loved one’s life. Church Board President Jan Renner recalled when her daughter, Natalie, had cancer, and the congregants prayed over her and laid their hands on her. After that, Natalie’s health took a turn for the better. Other members have similar stories of asking for prayer during a church service and seeing their loved ones improve.
“The power of prayer here is amazing,” Renner said.
The people of Salem pride themselves on their long musical history, and they love to show off their Casavant organ and Schimmel grand piano. The musical highlight for the year comes on Christmas Eve when family members who have moved away come back and former choir members join the current choirs in the choir loft to sing “O Holy Night” by candlelight. For a lot of people, Grewe said, it isn’t Christmas until they’ve been to Salem and heard “O Holy Night.”
Salem has been celebrating its 175th anniversary since January with guest preachers offering a sermon once a month, including former member Angie Menke-Ballou who currently works as a pastor in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The big celebration, however, happens this Sunday with a confirmation reunion and a big meal. Memorabilia from the church’s history, including photos of all the confirmation classes, will be on display. The 175th committee is expecting about 250 people.
While Salem’s congregants have spent much of the last few months looking back through their church’s history, they’re also looking to the future. West says Salem is in a transition period where many of the members are older, and it’ll be up to the younger families to determine what Salem will become. One thing is for sure: The welcoming atmosphere of Salem will be preserved.
“You’ll see a lot people from different backgrounds (here),” Renner said. “It’s very welcoming to people who are looking for a church even if they weren’t raised in a UCC church.”
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