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Lutheran synod finally speaks out about Bethlehem church battle

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The governing body of local Lutheran churches has finally fired back — albeit in the form of a press release — against charges that it illegally locked out the congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

But the previously silent Metropolitan New York Synod did little to put the dispute behind it, calling the parishioners “a former congregation of the Synod” and the battle with the congregation-in-exile a simple civil matter between “one member of the congregation” and the sect’s leadership.

In his statement, Synod leader Bishop Robert Rimbo painted a different picture of the three-year-old dispute than the one offered by the members of the congregation, who meet in exile at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Heights or set up a table in front of the scaffolding-covered Pacific Street church on Saturdays.

“Since 2004, the congregation of Bethlehem was in decline,” Rimbo said. “At a congregational meeting (with a quorum present) in 2007, the congregation voted to close, therefore turning the church property over to the Synod.”

He said that the unnamed member then sued, “without the consent of the congregation or the Synod” to “take ownership of the property.”

A civil court ruled in favor of the Synod.

But the banished congregation’s de facto leader, Rev. Norman David, is still fighting. After Rimbo issued his statement, David fired back — also in a press release — that the Synod bullied the congregation into voting to hand over the property at that meeting in January, 2007. David claims that the Synod called an emergency meeting at the end of a service one night and hurriedly called for a vote that Bethlehem be shut down due to budget shortfalls.

That vote passed amid threats and “confusion,” David said, essentially handing over the deed to the Synod and de-sanctifying Bethlehem Lutheran as a church.

Now David holds weekly services outside the shuttered church in protest, using an overturned trash can as a pulpit while others in his congregation hold signs calling for the reclamation of the church.

“We’re demanding that the building be returned,” said David, who has raised one-quarter of the $200,000 he said he’ll need to continue his civil suit. “The suit’s just one small part of the big picture, though, because Bethlehem is the latest installment of a pattern where the Synod is preying on small congregations.”

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Reader Feedback

Ed from Bklyn says:
This Rev. comes in from another state (said previous stories), to a declining church w/budget problems, and wants to launch an expensive lawsuit to "demand" a church that isn't the congregation's private property to begin with?
Something smells bad.
Dec. 9, 2009, 3:44 am
Emily from Brooklyn from Boerum Hill says:
This is a beautiful building, a lovely church, gives character and historic resonance to this part of Brooklyn, and is in the AIA Guide to New York City. I hope that whatever happens the church will not be knocked down and will continue to be used as a place for gathering and community, and if necessary, should be landmarked.
Dec. 14, 2009, 1:10 am
Debra from Coldwater, MI says:
I seem to recall that the church does belong to the congregation - there was a mortgage burning celebration in the 1970's - shortly after the church's 130th anniversary. Rev. Paul Jaunzemis was the pastor at the time, and Mabel Lundahl was the church secretary.

It certainly is a beautiful church, most worthy of being designated as a landmark. The building has served its congregations and the community at large very well over the years despite a declining enrollment. It needs to be returned to the congregation so that it can once again be used for what it was designed - a place of worship and fellowship. After all, a place of worship is where two or more are gathered in His name. I wish Pastor David all the best in his efforts to return Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church to its original status as a house of worship.
Jan. 9, 2010, 2:45 am

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