Strangers in a New Land: Old First E-pistle 05.17.12

Strangers in a New Land: Old First E-pistle 05.17.12

My great, great-grandfather, the Rev. Edward Grieb served his first church in the U.S., Ebenezer Congregational in Portland, Oregon, an immigrant church of ethnic Germans from the Volga region of Russia.

Grieb was dismissed from that pastorate in 1895, after only serving two years. The more conservative members of that congregation “accused him of not being a real Christian whenever he suggested that they do anything different from what had been customary in Russia.” Ah, the familiar, short-sighted, disaster-courting church claim: “We’ve always done it that way before.”

In “The German-Russians on the Volga and in the United States,” Emma Schwabenland Haynes explains tensions not unknown to most (immigrant!) congregations. “One of the outstanding characteristics in the religious life of German-Russian Americans is the extreme quarrelsomeness prevailing in most of their churches. This is partly due to the fact that the more progressive members desire to introduce innovations of various kinds to the church services, while the more conservative members insist on the retention of old customs.”

Not wanting to follow too closely, i.e. “get fired,” I am proud to be walking in his footsteps. Central to my calling also is introducing innovations, pushing to do things differently… even when, or because the church would rather not change. Moving forward demands a creative tension 1) with the world the church is called to serve, and 2) as well as within the church!

A generation after the Germans from the Palatinate who founded Old First in 1727 arrived in Philadelphia, other Germans from the same region, and also from Hesse, began settling in the lower Volga valley at the 1762 invitation of Catherine the Great. This relocation offered respite from the religious wars and economic hardship tearing at central Europe. Catherine also promised freedom of religion, exemption from military service, and a thirty year exemption from paying taxes. In return, Catherine got stability along the lower Volga frontier — a line of defense before the nomadic Kirghiz and Kalmyks.

In an interesting foreshadowing of traditions that come together later in the founding of the UCC, the congregations of German Reformed settlers in Volga were supported by Congregational missionaries. Most of the churches Volga German Reformed immigrants founded in the U.S. were Congregational.

I don’t know if my great-great grandfather was born and raised in Germany or Russia (I’ve asked my Uncle Steve to see if the family bible includes this information), but his seminary training was in Frankfurt. Then the American Missionary Association — the Congregational mission board founded to minister to freed slaves in the South, but that next also took up the ministry among Native Americans and immigrants — brought him to the U.S. to minister to Volga German congregations. He spent a year at Chicago Theological Seminary, learning about American society (perhaps too much!), before traveling to the Northwest.

After Ebenezer, he served three congregations in Washington state (only one of which I can find; the German United Church of Christ still exists in Seattle) before finishing his career with a very long run at another Volga German congregation in Beatrice, Nebraska. He survived, maybe even learned something from, his rebuff from the conservatives!

What were Grieb’s interests in innovation? Did he hope to help members of Ebenezer put down North American roots, find their place in the broader society of their new homeland? Or was he just impressed with new insights, moved by different ways he encountered in the broader ecumenical environment of North America?

I suspect a difference between him and me is the horizon of the churches we serve. Immigrant congregations are often inward looking, a sanctuary or an anchor of “home” in a new country, the familiarity of the sights, sounds and people from the old country. Whatever he hoped his innovations might bring, they would have been primarily meant to minister to those already gathered in the church.

The challenge Old First has recognized in our revitalization is to make sure we are outward looking. My hope in innovation is that it makes a positive difference both in and outside of the current congregation: 1) helping church make more sense to people beyond our current community and 2) helping us already here welcome and minister alongside new and different people.

Volga Germans may have benefited from assimilating, forging commonalities with new neighbors, the larger American populace. But, Lord, congregations like Old First, we are already assimilated enough into the world views and ways of the dominant society. Our task, in our post-Christendom setting, may well be to better define how we are different from the world around us. But we need to do that at the same time as we are creating new connections with our secular neighbors, the larger American populace. It’s sort of a dance, wherein we need to be moving in two different directions at the same time!

See you in church,


P.S. I like news of my ancestor for another reason as well: often feeling out of step with my mostly conservative, midwestern family, I am happy to find a fellow traveler, even four generations earlier, on the pro-change side of the aisle!)

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