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Saturday, March 8, 1997

A congregation refuses to call it quits

By Ken Garfield

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Rev. James Bartos of Holy Trinity Lutheran wasn't underestimating the problems of his Charlotte church when he told the congregation it ought to close.

He was underestimating the power of the people to ignore him.

Said Bartos: "I have never proposed anything I've been so happy to have turned down."

Said Holy Trinity member Evelyn Stevens: "We love this church. We have enough people that we can have a congregation. We definitely have a ministry here."

Lousy restaurants close. Eighty-year-old churches like Holy Trinity last forever in a Bible Belt town where religion rules, right?

Not when a church has enough problems to make a miracle worker flinch.

Since peaking at 800 members in the early 1970s, Holy Trinity has been in steady decline. Fewer than 60 worship on Sunday mornings. It needs N.C. Synod help to pay Bartos, 58, who never expected this when he arrived four years ago from Milwaukee.

There have been bitter fights over previous pastors, surely the No. 1 wedge that drives any church apart. Some members left when the church took in the Agape Family Center for children, whose families are touched by AIDS.

Charlotte's growth bypassed the area around Holy Trinity. Bartos said some whites left because the church bordered black neighborhoods. By the time the area started making a comeback in the early '80s, it was too late. Other Lutheran churches had already begun luring members with better facilities and more programs.

There was division from within. The spiritual last straw came when a woman started speaking in tongues at a recent Advent service. Some visitors left and never returned. "When a mainline church experiences that," said Bartos, "it can become divisive."

Holy Trinity opened in 1916 with 28 members. Fearing they were closing in on 28 again, Bartos proposed that the congregation lock the doors, sell the property and pray elsewhere.

This is where the story gets inspiring. The remaining members of Holy Trinity said no way. They voted 53-1 on Feb. 16 to stay and fight. Church folks believe the lone dissenter, bless his heart, didn't know what he was voting on. The rest sure did.

"Be it further resolved," their resolution declared, "that although membership has continued to dwindle, we recognize that we provide a ministry that has not been found elsewhere; that faith will drive the hope that these ministries will bear fruit in membership."

Holy Trinity may still have to close. Or it could one day merge with one or more of the 15 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations that serve the area's 10,000 Lutherans.

But for now, at least, ministry continues and members are trying not to let their limitations keep them from serving God, the community and each other.

Making adult education and social action twin priorities, Vacation Bible Sczhool in August will include Bible study for grown-ups. A public forum on the Holocaust is planned for October. The Agape Family Center has grown to become Holy Trinity's pride and joy.

Maybe those two words best capture the conviction that sustains Holy Trinity. Pride at surviving to this day. Joy at working to survive at least one more.

(Ken Garfield is the religion editor at The Charlotte Observer. Write to him at: The Charlotte Observer, 600 S. Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28232.)

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