After 115 years, St. John’s continues to serve its community
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church is more than the measure of its masonry.
"I think it's pretty Lutheran to recognize that ... the building is not the church. The church is something alive in the world, because that's where the Holy Spirit works," Pastor Lisa Lewton said. "We try to be clear with people that ... faith is really lived everywhere they go, in their home and in their work and in their neighborhood."
There has been a St. John's Lutheran Church in Dickinson for about 115 years, starting first in the homes of a few faithful and soon growing into a wooden building and then, with the first cornerstone laid in 1948, into the stone sanctuary that currently stands on Sixth Ave. Over its history the church has quietly provided the Dickinson community spiritual and at times physical sustenance, through the creation of the Amen Food Pantry and the Dickinson backpack program which provides food to local children who suffer from hunger.
"We are seeing kids come to school on Monday and they haven't had a meal since Friday," Lewton said. "So quite a few people came together and gathered a lot of energy in the community and now every week about 300 backpacks are filled by people who come to this congregation to do that who may not be affiliated with the congregation, but they come here."
This work is done with little fanfare—from basement to backpack, there's no real indication that it is St. John's doing the work. For the congregation itself, Lewton said, the act is its own reward.
"What people are excited and proud of is that people have been the hands and feet of Christ in Dickinson," Lewton said. "We understand our faith to be the love of God for you, for the sake of your neighbor. The gift of God's grace is never to stop with you but to impact your neighbor."
Pastor Joe Natwick explained that it is a core tenet of the Lutheran faith to go out into the world and do good—grace is not something to be hoarded.
"It sort of flies in the faith of what we think gets people to do things. If there's no reward system, if you don't earn a merit badge for doing something, why do it? Lutheran theology at its core is a radically free gift," Natwick said. "God comes to us totally and completely apart from anything we've done to earn and deserve anything, God comes to us and gives us all of God's benefits: grace, love, forgiveness, mercy—that is a free radical gift that God does through Jesus Christ. Everything we do in the world is a response to that gift."
The church's sanctuary stands overseen by stained glass, overlooking what seems at first to be a relatively Catholic-looking sanctuary space: a raised space for the altar and baptismal font, rows of pews. There is a great emphasis on the world outside of the church itself. Both Lewton and Natwick found their callings to priesthood in outdoor ministries.
"My passion for ministry grew out of outdoor ministry as a Bible Camp counselor," Lewton recalled. "I felt called in that experience, teaching and singing about Jesus with kids all day long was something I realized I want to do all the time."
Natwick found his outdoors as well, not in Bible Camp, but with the help of a "guru".
"I had this remarkable youth director who was basically an outdoor guru," Natwick said. "He took us on all of these amazing adventures, things like building canoes and then canoeing them in the boundary waters, climbing Devil's Tower, long backpacking trips—that's where my faith sort of grew."
Natwick said that the aid of a religious leader to help recognize the divine powers that manifest in the natural world are what helped him come to grow in his faith, but a defining moment came at his high school graduation.
"There was one defining moment for me when I was graduating from Fargo South High School. I was invited to be a speaker at the graduation ... it was a huge crowd, it was the first time I spoke in public ever," Natwick said. "I don't remember much about the speech, but I do remember feeling that there was this new thing happening in my life. I was talking, but it felt like my words were bigger than just words."
Both Natwick and Lewton have served on the board for Badlands Ministries and the church has a "strong" relationship with Lutheran camps—both pastors posited that a majority of the people in their seminary have had a defining part of their faith journey come through outdoor ministry.
"If you are just in nature, nature is a pretty terrifying experience. Nature is full of death, if you look beyond just beautiful forests and you look into the nature of the cosmos, the cosmos is very terrifying," Natwick said. "What Luther would say ... is that you need a preacher, you need somebody in that space who can clarify for you that this sort of unbelievable experience that you are having ... is a form of cosmic, divine love that is directed towards you. It's not just generally available, it's available for you."
There are programs at the church for both youth and adults, with Wednesday nights showcasing a communal meal, open to anyone, followed by a youth education program and then worship services—the traditional Sunday school experience but on Wednesday evenings, a time which Natwick said seemed to work better for everyone.
Additionally, for about a year the church has been organizing an event called 'Theology on Tap' which seeks to promote discourse on topics of faith in settings beyond the church building.
"Research finds that a lot of people are uncomfortable coming to church," Natwick said. "It has been really interesting and exciting, in this Theology on Tap program people who would be uncomfortable coming to Church are connecting with these real nights of conversation and faith confirmation."
After over a century of existence, what does the future hold for St. John's?
"Although I can't imagine exactly what St. John might look like in the future, I do imagine the congregation will continue the same faithful work," Lewton said. "The congregation might not have imagined decades ago it would be housing homeless men in the basement with area congregations, or packing food for kids. But even years ago, the congregation would not have been surprised by that prediction. St. John has consistently put ministry to the community of Dickinson first, and I suspect it will persist in that work for all of its life."