Lutheran synod finally speaks out about Bethlehem church battle

The congregation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church at 490 Pacific St. in Boerum Hill is now homeless, thanks to a bizarre dispute.
The Brooklyn Paper / Kate Emerson

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.”

Pastor in exile Norman David held another of his sidewalk services outside the Bethlehem Lutheren Church on Pacific Street on Saturday to pray and protest the church leadership’s decision to shut down the building.
The Brooklyn Paper / Tom Callan

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